KURTÁG: Scenes from a Novel. 8 Duos for Violin and Cimbalom.+ 7 Songs.* In Memory of a Winter Evening. Several Movements from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s “Scrapbooks.” Games, Book 7: Hommage à Berényi Ferenc / Viktoriia Vitrenko, sop; David Grimal, vln; Luigi Gaggero, cimb; Niek de Groot, bs / Audite 97.762
György Kurtág, who celebrated his 93rd birthday this year, was a close friend of György Ligeti in Hungary during the late 1940s, studied with Max Deutsch, Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud, but also claims that “my mother-tongue is Bartók, and Bartók’s mother-tongue was Beethoven.” Partly due to the Soviet occupation of Hungary he was a late bloomer, coming to prominence in 1981 with his Messages of the Late Miss R.V. Troussova for soprano and chamber ensemble.
The opening Scenes from a Novel for soprano, violin and bass clearly show his eclectic approach. At different moments the music sounds like Ligeti, Bartók (particularly the folk influence in the second piece) Messiaen and Milhaud, yet it is all in a very personal style that is clearly modern Hungarian and not really too close to that of the French composers. Sadly, the booklet provides no texts or translations for any of the songs, and for once not even The Lieder Net Archive provides much help, so we just have to guess at the content of the lyrics. The booklet provides only a small hint as to their meaning: “The main theme of these songs seems to be that of fading (sinking and losing consciousness; a threadless labyrinth without maze nor Ariadne; the scent of a hyacinth …) contrasted with the final image, ‘in crescendo,’ of a snail climbing … the Mount Fuji.” But Viktoriia Vitrenko is clearly a top-drawer soprano with a clear, pure voice under perfect control with crisp, clear diction and great expression. We Westerners must, however, judge these songs solely by their musical content, and they are, as I say, varied and interesting. The seventh song, titled “Rondo,” includes some extraordinary vocal effects in which Vitrenko repeats a four-syllable motif on rapidly paced notes that leap upward and down again into her upper register, and in the ninth, “Hurdy-gurdy waltz,” she is required to sing off-key against the repetitive accompaniment of violin and bass. A real tour-de-force!
The 8 Duos for Violin and Cimbalom are very impressionistic music, using microtones and violin portamento to create a unique atmosphere. Kurtág uses the cimbalom as a tuned percussion instrument, almost as if it were a marimba, while much of the violin’s music is placed very high up in its top register. Next up are the 7 Songs, in a similar vein to the first set (and again without texts) except here with the cimbalom accompanying the singer instead of violin and bass. In Memory of a Winter Evening (also listed as Winter Sunset) combines the soprano, violin and cimbalom. Several Movements from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s “Scrapbooks” is for soprano and bass, and here Kurtág again pushes the singer’s voice into different modes and shapes not normal for a regular “opera singer.” (No conventional high operatic soprano I know of would ever get through this music without musical and vocal mishaps.) The only real difference here is that the text is in German (again untranslated) instead of Hungarian.
The finale on this CD, the Hommage à Berényi Ferenc from Book 7 of his suite Games, is here transcribed for the cimbalom which in this case plays much like a piano. It’s slow, atmospheric music, not terribly far from late Bartók or early Ligeti, and is fascinating to hear.
This disc is utterly riveting from start to finish. Great job!
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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