György Kurtág plays, amazes and wins | Culture

György Kurtág I was in Paris, studying with Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud, when he performed there for the first time, in April 1957, End of partie, by Samuel Beckett. Directed and starred Roger Blin, who had performed the same roles four years earlier at the premiere of In attendant Godot. Kurtág went to see the work on the advice of his intimate friend György Ligeti, who had also fled in terror of Hungary the previous year after the outbreak of Soviet tanks in Budapest. Then he would buy and scrutinize slowly and microscopically the already published texts of both works, which he has come to refer to as "my Bible". More than 60 years later, nonagenarian, that distant youthful experience has resurfaced, after cooking on a very, very slow fire for almost a decade, in the form of its first and, predictably, last opera, premiered yesterday, Thursday, in one of the temples sacred of the genre, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, where they also unveiled for the first time their dramatic creations last century their master Darius Milhaud and fellow generation and avant-garde as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luciano Berio. Of all those transgressive musicians born in the twenties, there is only he, a survivor.

Kurtág has built his career slowly, without haste, without ever betraying his aesthetic creed, with the support and permanent advice of his wife Márta, with whom he married in 1947 and who remains at his side, becoming an inseparable part of his I, for and with which he composes - musa and counselor - and next to whom, glued to each other in front of the keyboard, he plays the piano with four hands, in private and in public. The composer found his own voice very late, thanks to the psychologist Marianne Stein, who helped him find his way encouraging him to distill the greatest simplicity. It is significant that his opus 1 was not born until 1959, at 33, shortly after that Beckettian revelation, and it is no less true that the first movement of this string quartet describes, in the words of the composer himself, "the path of a cockroach towards the light ". His dozens of disciples (Kurtág, unlike Ligeti, decided to return to Hungary and have taught there for decades) speak of him with veneration, dazzled as they were by the depth of his teaching and his unwavering honesty. Composing was always a parallel, complementary activity for him, and his world fame came to him very late, like a whispered secret by word of mouth, and with enthusiastic and unconditional supporters like Claudio Abbado, who would have been the happiest man in Milan if he had I could attend this premiere. Few can refute that, step by step, inadvertently, seconded by a long and fertile life, Kurtág has ended up becoming the greatest living composer, in which he has best understood the poets (Ajmátova, Hölderlin, Daloš, Kafka, Rilke) and, without a doubt, in the most generous with his colleagues and friends, always present in his music, in praesentia or, more frequently, in memoriam.

Samuel Beckett: End of partie

Music by György Kurtág. With Frode Olsen, Leigh Melrose, Hilary Summers and Leonardo Cortellacci. Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala. Musical direction: Markus Stenz. Stage direction: Pierre Audi. Teatro alla Scala, November 15.

Kurtág had previously used texts by Samuel Beckett (especially in What is the Word), another cultivator of an essential art in which there is no place for the accessory. Hungarian and Irish share the desire to breathe intensity into their message, emphasizing simplicity, maximizing the conciseness of the means used. Both also enthrone the silence as an element as significant as the words themselves or the musical notes. And this opera Samuel Beckett: End of partie (that the Irish playwright is an explicit part of the title is not a trivial matter) is going to leave their names together forever, because if disturbing is the experience of attending a play of Beckett's play, with those four characters devastated and / or physically and mentally crippled, it is even more so to see and hear his transformation into an opera, or a succession of "scenes and monologues," as Kurtág himself defines it with his characteristic modesty as an explanatory subtitle.

Beckett's texts are already, in fact, pure music - angular, sharp, incisive, precise - and, fearing that it was misunderstood, it seems that he even consulted Stravinsky how to accurately record rhythms and silences in his works. Another master of extreme distillation, suffered greatly in his self-translating from French to English, as the result used to leave him very dissatisfied. But in Kurtág he has found a soul mate, a musician who has made the aphorism almost his main teaching and who has allowed himself very few licenses here: in essence, reduce to a quarter the already compressed original text, avoiding with this, to prolong his operatic treatment excessively, and to precede the action of a poem in English by Beckett himself, Roundelay, some deeply musical verses of 1976 that Kurtág makes sing to Nell, the only female character, after a very brief instrumental prologue and that helps both to situate next to the sea the house in which (badly) the four characters live and to prepare an environment of desolation that will advance relentlessly in crescendo throughout the entire work.

If someone was expecting a different Kurtág in his first opera and in his score, by far, more extensive and ambitious, reality has been responsible for disproving him after beat. The Hungarian is shown, if possible, more radical than ever in the exercise of renunciation: if Beckett never used two words to express something that could be said with one, he professes exactly the same creed. He uses his orchestra with a monastic parsimony, favoring an intimate instrumentation, always emphasizing the timbres on the dynamics, clearly hearing the voice of individual instruments (two accordions, almost always associated with Clov, a cymbal, a vertical piano, isolated idiophones to the that entrusts a handful of notes) with a constant chamber-like fondness. Their sparse, concise harmonies abound even more if possible in this generalized asceticism, which makes it possible to hear every word of the singers with all clarity. It is hard to believe that Beckett, a musician himself, would have disagreed with such an approach.

Hilary Summers (Nell), Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nagg) and Frode Olsen (Hamm), immobilized by their fate, in a scene from the opera.
Hilary Summers (Nell), Leonardo Cortellazzi (Nagg) and Frode Olsen (Hamm), immobilized by their fate, in a scene from the opera.

And for the vocal quartet only praise fits: first, for learning a score so complex, with a song parliament riquísimo in inflections and nuances, and, fundamentally, to do justice with so much precision to the musical style of Kurtág and to the desasosegante oppressive climate of Beckett. Frode Olsen, like Hamm, carries a large part of the work's weight. Prostrate in his wheelchair, with his blind glasses, his whistle to claim the immediate presence of Clov, his sadistic personality and his tyrannical outbursts, the Norwegian does not possess an imposing voice nor especially resonant or powerful in the grave record (what he would blacken the character even more), but he sings and acts with such conviction that he has the public awaiting each one of his gestures or his gloomy occurrences. If he does not get out of his wheelchair, Clov does not sit down for a single moment and Leigh Melrose, well known in Madrid for his recent appearances at the Teatro Real (Death in Venice, Das Liebesverbot, Gloriana Y Die Soldaten), composes a servant trapped in that relationship of dependence and mutual destruction with his master that is absolutely credible in the scenic and that wraps his acting display with a very high technical quality in the musical and a flexible and resounding voice. Kurtág reserves two monologues, although he has fewer opportunities than Hamm to define his personality. Melrose takes every note and every silence to outline this poor pariah who can not get rid of that poisonous bond with Hamm that condemns him to self-destruction.

Nell has reserved the most lyrical music of the opera, including the Roundelay initial, and Hilary Summers sings her brief part (she dies soon, although no one notices it) as the great artist she is, although she has once again revealed (as in the Bomarzo of the Royal Theater) that his voice is very punished with respect to the splendor of yesteryear. And the best surprise has been the Nagg (all the characters have monosyllabic names and, except for Clov, with double consonants) by Leonardo Cortellazzi, splendid actor with the sole resource of his face, since his body is hidden at all times, as that of Summers, inside a garbage can (those Beckettian characters buried in life, and for life, as Winnie's Happy Days). The Italian tenor is also a very confident singer, with splendid French diction, and with amazing ease to climb to the high register in which Kurtág almost always places his vocal part. His story of that perfect trouser made by a tailor in three months was masterful, as was his dialogue with Nell in which both remember laughing as they lost their legs while riding a bicycle, both leading examples of how tragedy and comedy, in Beckett , they become indistinguishable.

The main architect of the triumph of the premiere has been Markus Stenz, great specialist in the contemporary repertoire, a master of the gestural precision that has made the Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala sound, far from his natural repertoire, as a ductile ensemble capable of producing all a rainbow of different timbres. And it must be recorded that, after the fright of Christoph von Dohnányi after the premiere of Elektra the last day 4 (in the historical production of Patrice Chéreau), is taking charge of all the subsequent functions, which now have to alternate with those of the Kurtág opera, a double effort that gives an idea of ​​the magnitude of its capabilities. The whole orchestra applauded him from the pit at the end of the second of the programmed functions of Elektra and it is evident that he feels very comfortable playing under his direction. This harmony has undoubtedly contributed to the fact that the instrumental performance has been at the height of what a specialized group in contemporary music could have offered. The strictly operatic epilogue of the opera, 50 bars with round, silent and light harmonic modulations like all musical material, brilliantly riveted the very high interpretative level of what was done in the pit during the little more than two hours of the premiere of what was Kurtág has called the "Milan version" of his opera, which invites us to think, perhaps, in future revisions or additions.

In the staging of Pierre Audi nothing squeaks, but nothing fascinates either. The Lebanese, as it is characteristic in him, builds a good framework, but he has a hard time filling it with his own ideas (it was exactly what happened to him last summer in its Parsifal of Munich). It is true that in this apotheosis of inaction, which is End of partie there is no room for many expenses, but we know from the productions that Beckett himself directed that there is plenty of room to make many decisions that will decisively affect the perception of the work by the public. Audi opts as any set design for a simple blackish house in the middle of nowhere, almost an abstract drawing in three dimensions, slightly changing perspective after the brief pauses that dot the representation (and that the most conservative viewers took the opportunity to leave the room) . With two characters submerged in two garbage cans and another blind and prostrate in a wheelchair, do not fit large frills, but it is certain that the work will benefit in the future more creative approaches, personal and investigative than the Lebanese director.

Sadly, the great absentee of the premiere has been György Kurtág himself, who has remained in Budapest for his delicate state of health and mobility problems (singers and director have moved there to work their part with the composer). Markus Stenz, in the long final round of applause, raised the score in the air as a symbolic gesture so that Kurtág, who deserved the most of them all, also shared the acclamations, but how much better it would have been to see the old master on stage of the Scala. Yes, the theater's mayor, Alexander Pereira, was present, thanks to whose perseverance -orough opposition-, after the successive fiascos of trying to premiere the opera - even a nasciturus- in Zurich and Salzburg, his dream of unveiling the world has come true Samuel Beckett: End of partie before it was too late. The Teatro alla Scala writes one more chapter in its glorious history as a sanctuary not only vocal, but also creative. For György Kurtág, and so Márta has admitted, his wife, this opus unicum It is your authentic "end of game". For the world of opera, however, this historic Milanese premiere is the opening, to continue with the chess terms, of one, hopefully, very long trajectory of this almost ferociously antisentimental antiopera.

Kurtág and Beckett reign in Milan

Milan has thrown the house out the window and has sought to frame the historic premiere of Samuel Beckett: End of partie in a display of activities dedicated to delving into the personality and work of the Irish playwright and the Hungarian composer. A simple but didactic exhibition in the Teatro alla Scala, entitled Signs, games, messages (three nouns closely linked to his catalog of works) and consisting of several explanatory panels and various audiovisual recordings in which Kurtág explains his way of composing sitting at the piano, is complemented by lectures and, above all, by a constant presence of his works at the Milano Musica festival, which under the slogan György Kurtág. Ascoltando Beckett dedicates thirteen concerts until November 26 to review part of its catalog, with such outstanding performers as Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Bruno Canino and Heinz Holliger. And at the Piccolo Teatro he has also been performing until a few days ago Finale di partita, the Italian version of Beckett's work, directed by Andrea Baracco.


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