FROM NEAR AND FAR
BY VÍKINGUR ÓLAFSSON
From afar is dedicated to György Kurtág
“You are writing a letter to a friend,” was the advice that one of Muriel Spark’s memorable fictional characters, Nancy Hawkins from A Far Cry from Kensington, would offer to nervous aspirant novelists. The privacy and focus that come with trying to delight and interest only one person allows for a sense of safety, authenticity and playfulness. This advice, I feel, is no less useful for those putting together a programme of music for a recital or an album. And with this album, I am writing a letter to a friend, an old friend or a new friend depending on which way you look at it, following an unforgettable first meeting.
It was September 2021. I had arrived at Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport on a seemingly endless flight from Los Angeles, having boarded the plane straight after a matinée performance and not slept a wink. I knew little of what to expect from the meeting ahead, though my excitement was even stronger than the jetlag. The invitation, delivered through assistants and managers, had arrived unexpectedly and the briefing was somewhat mysterious: “György Kurtág would love to meet you while you are in Budapest for your upcoming concert.”
I had not expected this giant of contemporary music to be aware of my existence, but I had known and admired his music for decades. “Listen,” my father said to me one night in the late ’90s, as he handed me a recording of Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, a song cycle for soprano and violin. “This is the Winterreise of the 20th century.” I knew that when my father got so enthusiastic about a piece of music or a composer, it could really pay off to start listening on repeat. What opened up to me was a world of intense, ultra-specific expression – part music, part poetry, part primordial gesture. More than 20 years on, I believe my father was absolutely correct about this exquisite collection of emotionally rattling musical moments.
One of the marvels of Kurtág’s music is how he manages to convey in only a few seconds of music what most other composers could only dream of conveying in an hour, or a few hours. Or a lifetime. Our meeting in Budapest was to feature in a documentary which was being made about Kurtág, and was intended to last 10 to 15 minutes. I imagined that 15 minutes with Kurtág would feel like a full evening. As I entered the hall in the Budapest Music Centre, I was somewhat apprehensive at the prospect of playing for this fiercely intellectual musical thinker and formidable teacher. These feelings evaporated as soon as I was in the delightful company of the 95-year-old man, whose deep wisdom is of the warm and generous kind. There were two grand pianos in the middle of the large room and Kurtág told me that the older one, a beautifully dark-hued Steinway, was the instrument of Márta – his late wife and musical collaborator. We exchanged some words and smiles and I soon began playing the music that came to mind: Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Bartók, Icelandic folk songs. Kurtág would comment, make a suggestion, tell a story – always full of insight and inspiration. In what felt like 15 minutes, two hours had gone by.
We said goodbye, and I returned to my schedule of practising, rehearsals and concerts, as well as airport transfers, emails and online meetings; all the extramusical, superfluous stuff that characterizes the life of a modern musician. But the evening in Budapest stayed with me. I felt like I had been reacquainted with some musical essence, and it gave me a feeling of lightness and joy. Wanting to write him a letter to thank him, I found myself at the piano instead, drawing up a map of works with Kurtág’s own music as a compass. The result is this album.
As in my previous albums, different threads connect various pieces. Many of the works come from my own musical past and indeed my childhood: Bach, Mozart, Schumann and Bartók, the love for whom my parents instilled in me from a very young age, and whose music I played extensively as a child. There are Icelandic and Hungarian folk songs, which often feel related, perhaps because of how both languages place the main emphasis on the first syllable of words and sentences, affecting the phrasing of the melodies. There are two Brahms Intermezzi I recorded once before, as a young and unknown pianist, and released on my own label. Throughout the album, there are intimate conversations and messages from afar – closely knit canons, transcriptions and dedications, as well as distant echoes of nearly forgotten, ancient melodies.
And like a trail of shiny little stones in a moonlit forest, there are the works of Kurtág; his transcriptions of Bach and his own ever-growing selection of piano works, Játékok, or Games. In these works it is clear that Kurtág’s primary method of inquiry in the world of musical ideas is the same as that of the child: play. Written specifically to prompt spontaneous, intuitive musicality from the performer, these works are never austere in their brevity, but rich and full of possibilities. Their intricate structures open up a vast space for the imagination – like a small seashell brought to the ear to hear the great ocean roaring.
The Grand and the Upright
Speaking of childhood and experiments: as far back as I can remember, the piano was for me a favourite toy as well as an instrument for serious practice. My parents had bought the beautiful Steinway grand that sat in the living room with my father’s inheritance, long before they could even afford a downpayment on a flat (a sense of priority for which I will always be thankful). But it was often occupied – my mother taught piano at home, and my father would compose in the evenings after returning from his work as an architect. When we finally moved into a larger apartment and I stopped sharing a room with my two sisters, I was happy to acquire a new roommate: an old upright piano which had been in the extended family. A little wornout and not entirely in tune, it had a most tender tone, and I soon grew very fond of the warm, dreamy sound of my bedroom piano.
This album contains two recordings of the same music, one made on a Steinway concert grand and the other made on an upright with a layer of felt covering the strings, a permanent soft pedal. I have experimented with recording on an upright before, but this album seemed the perfect opportunity to make two entire versions. György and Márta Kurtág recorded many of the four-hand Bach transcriptions and pieces from Játékok on a felt-softened upright piano with marvellous results. For me as an artist, nothing will ever replace the large, resplendent canvas and unlimited colours of the grand piano, but the familial sincerity of the upright should not be underestimated. There is a confidentiality, a whispering intimacy to the sound of the upright piano that I love to experiment with. In this recording, the microphones are so close you can hear the keys depressed and released, the pedals creak, even the pianist breathing. I want the sound to reach the listener very much as if sitting on the piano bench with me – a very different experience from sitting in a spacious concert hall listening to a shiny, black Steinway D. The upright piano calls for different interpretation as well. Its percussive materiality and the absence of forgiving overtones demand new timings and textures, a different attention to structure. Its imperfections become acoustic opportunities. And let us not forget that it is through this medium that most students and music-lovers get to know the repertoire, and have done so for more than a hundred years.
The Works on the Album
The album opens with György Kurtág’s mysterious, prophetic transcription of Christe, du Lamm Gottes, from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. Bach’s original possesses the same essentialism that characterizes Kurtág’s own works: descending scales fall slowly in a canon, a choral melody of merely a few notes rises gracefully against the tide. Kurtág’s rendition for two pianos adds a spatial dimension and creates a cathedral of sound. The canon, as a contrapuntal device, is so simple and yet so versatile, one moment creating divine unity and order, the other eliciting playful mischief (as in Bach’s Trio Sonata later in the album). Marvelling at its possibilities, Robert Schumann wrote his Six Canonic Etudes op. 56 in Dresden in 1845, while teaching Clara, his pianist and composer wife, counterpoint. The pieces were written for the so-called pedal piano – a grand piano with a pedal board attachment underneath, mimicking the workings of the organ. I have made slight alterations to make the piece playable on an ordinary modern instrument. The Schumann we hear further on is the more typically lyrical, alluringly descriptive one – but even in this Bachian study his distinct colours are discernible in the harmonies.
Making a piano transcription of the Adagio from Bach’s Sonata for Solo Violin No. 3 may seem sacrilegious, but I am certain Bach would not have minded. After all, he himself freely transported music from one medium to another and wrote works without specifying the instrumentation. This transcription of mine is dedicated to Márta Kurtág. It ends on the dominant G, and the next work picks up seamlessly, taking us back to the tonic C but in a different world entirely. In this piece, too, the sound of one instrument is rendered in another – György Kurtág’s Harmonica is a playful game, a poem in sound, carried through with Mozartian sensitivity.
Three Hungarian Folk Songs from Csík, written down by Bartók but preserved in the oral tradition for God knows how long, feel like intimate messages from the distant past. This small treasure came to me through serendipity as I browsed through heaps of sheet music on sale at reduced prices at the wonderful Blackwell’s Music Shop in Oxford in 2009. Playing this music for the first time felt like coming home. It brought back childhood memories of playing Bartók and reminded me of the wise words of György Sándor, with whom I had a memorable piano lesson at Juilliard in 2003. Bartók, he stressed, was not the heavy, percussive composer many take him to be, but rather “all lightness, all song”. Around the same time as I came across the songs from Csík, I recorded Brahms’s Intermezzi for my independently released debut album, including op. 116 no. 4. “Notturno” was the title Brahms had initially planned to give this piece, which to me is the very finest of his late piano works. It is indeed nocturnal, perhaps even Chopinesque; the slowness of the harmonic progression almost stops time. As it dies out, another voice emerges from afar: Kurtág’s A Voice in the Distance is a very short musical utterance that contains a vastness of human experience.
For all their expressive specificity, folk songs often deal with the universal constants of the human condition: toil and children, seasons and nature, life and death. One such melody is Where Life and Death May Dwell, beautifully recomposed by Snorri Sigfús Birgisson. The four-line poem is serenely unsentimental – the speaker is attentively sowing seeds in the ground, thinking that soon his own flesh will rest under that very turf.
The playful polyphony of Bach’s Trio Sonata No. 1 BWV 525, composed in his early days as Kantor in Leipzig, is perfectly defined in György Kurtág’s transcription for three hands on one piano, one of the works he and Márta used to perform. Kurtág recently dedicated this transcription to me, and I am more than happy to continue the husband–wife performing tradition by playing it with my wife Halla on this recording.
Sigvaldi Kaldalóns was one of Iceland’s first composers writing in the Western tradition. A practising medical doctor in the sparsely populated west fjords of Iceland, he exercised his astounding melodic gift between seeing patients and going on house calls. His Ave María is now often heard at weddings and funerals in Iceland, but was written for the theatre – a play based on an old Icelandic folk tale in which a church full of dancing and drinking parishioners literally sinks into the ground. Before the curtain falls, this song is sung in an attempt to redeem their souls. This was the first work I ever transcribed, in 2007, and is dedicated to Halla. It is followed by two other works with religious undertones: Kurtág’s Little Chorale – godly in its simplicity – and my own new transcription of Mozart’s Laudate Dominum – dedicated to György Kurtág, following our conversations on Mozart during our meeting in Budapest.
In the latter part of the album, Kurtág and Schumann lead us into nature with works that conjure up forest scenes with birds chirping, a place where dreams and wakefulness blend in a child-like state of wonder. Kurtág’s yawning glissandi in Sleepily lead to Schumann’s Träumerei from Kinderszenen and back to Kurtág’s Flowers We Are with its dream-like structure of descending motifs. The Branch by Thomas Adès is a wondrous, slow waltz – a fascinating reverie that feels like watching the light shine in through the forest leaves. Adès, who is a friend of Kurtág’s, wrote it specifically for this album and based it on a poem of the same name (Az Ág, in the original Hungarian) by the great Sándor Weöres (1913–1989). On this perch, two birds appear. Kurtág’s Twittering is a meditation for four hands where Halla plays the bird and I play the forest. A different bird, Schumann’s Vogel als Prophet, responds in his oracular way.
The interplay of light and shadows is continued in Brahms’s Intermezzo op. 116 no. 5 – its workings like those of a painting whose beauty rests in the unseen. It is arguably the most modern work Brahms ever wrote, the dissonant and painful nostalgia paving the way to Webern, and from there to Kurtág. The final work on the album is Kurtág’s Scraps of a Colinda Melody – Faintly Recollected – a memory of a memory, beautiful and ephemeral, heard for a fleeting moment before fading into oblivion.