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American Songbook and Kurtág: Past Becomes Now

Music Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sun Mar 10th, 2019

Gábor Csalog and Tony Arnold

Under the radar of publicity that surrounds big concerts, a small concert of extraordinary quality was held at the Lászlo Z. Bitó Conservatory Building this past Sunday afternoon with famed soprano Tony Arnold and international star pianist Gábor Csalog noted for his recordings of Chopin, Liszt, and György Kurtág. as well as Beethoven. The first half of the program featured classical songs from the Great American Songbook, while the second half was devoted to György Kurtág. The concert was dedicated to the memory of baritone Sanford Sylvan, noted for his recorded renditions of Charles Ives’ work as well as his work as a Bard College and Cornell University teacher.  

Arnold opened with Hart Crane’s poem “Voyage” arranged by Elliot Carter which brought forth from the near-capacity audience a thunderous applause. She followed with four Charles Ives settings: “At the River”; “The Housatonic at Stockbridge”; “Down East”; “Serenity.”  I was especially impressed by her phrasing and emotion she brought to “Down East.” Arnold caught the force and concision of Emily Dickinson’s poem “The World Feels Dusty,” handling effortlessly the sonority of the sharp single syllables and svelte subtlety of Dickinson’s near-rhymes. Arnold closed the first half with a translation of an anonymous ninth century Irish monastic text translated by the short story writer Seán Proinsias O’ Faolain, “The Desire for Hermitage,” reflections on the last days of an elderly monk who comes to terms with death; Arnold ably caught and highlighted the gorgeous web of assonance in the lyric. The audience demanded a second bow.

In the wake of the failed Hungarian uprising in 1956, György Kurtág spent some time in Paris during 1957 and 1958; his compositions changed as he came under the influence of Anton Weber and the spell of Samuel Beckett’s bleak minimalist style. The shadow of Hungary’s humiliation and the echoes of the Second World War informed his aesthetic. Alex Ross describes Kurtág’s style as “compressed but not dense, lyrical but not sweet, dark but not dismal, quiet but not calm.” Bard Professor Peter Laki introduced Kurtág by emphasizing the synthesis of the modern and the traditional in ways that broke free from the obsession with folklore and folk music yet re-introducing the importance of intense emotional resonance to the audience.

The Sayings of Peter Bornemisza, Op. 7: A 'Concerto' for Soprano and Piano, which marked an artistic break-through by Kurtág. (I confess I became a Kurtág fan after hearing and delighting in a Kurtág concert by violist Kim Kashkashian.) Kurtág had culled this dense, remarkable text from a 16th century Calvinist preacher, editing it with compact and fluid lyricism, internal rhymes, and a plethora of alliteration. This haunting and mysterious meditation on death is by turns shocking, frightening, and dramatic; it is simultaneously Medieval, Renaissance, and Modernistic. Arnold’s vocal line sang in bursts, sudden halts, breathless runs, and ornamented syllables, as the Csalog's piano supported its own solo digressions in varied tempos with a deep raw lyricism that remains fresh, unpredictable, and marvelously exciting.

Although this work presents a stunning meditation on death, it concludes with an epic meditation on Spring which delivered a lush sound from both pianist and singer as it concludes with the words “given life anew.” The clotted immediacy of the Hungarian language shimmered with a supernatural grace that was transfiguring.  Kurtág is that rare composer who exploits the sound between notes, investing the silence between clear notes with a startling lyricism of their own. Singer and pianist took three long bows. There is only one recording of this astonishing masterpiece and one new copy of it is available at Amazon for $99, and other sellers have used copies of it for the same price. This free concert was priceless.

This is but the opening concert in a series of concerts at Bard dedicated to the work of György Kurtág that is supported with funding by the Lászlo Z. Bitó and Olivia Cariño Foundation. Check our Calendar section for upcoming concerts in this eagerly-anticipated series.