It was many, many years ago (at the 1993 Meltdown Festival, in fact) that i first encountered the music of Hungarian composer György Kurtág and became instantly entranced by it. Like Webern, Kurtág is drawn to expressing himself in tiny, fleeting musical acts for modestly-sized instrumental groupings, but unlike Webern there’s usually a powerful emotional current obviously flowing through them (that’s not to suggest Webern’s music isn’t emotional; Kurtág’s is simply more demonstrative). During the 1980s, he was commissioned to write a work for large forces for the Berlin Festival, which caused Kurtág difficulties that were only surmounted when he explored the Philharmonie’s chamber music hall, at the time still being built. This led to a realisation that he could preserve his outlook and approach by writing for a number of small groups spatially arranged around the hall; the result, premièred in October 1988, was …quasi una fantasia…, a small-scale concerto for piano and “instruments dispersed in space”.
As one might have expected, Kurtág compresses his four-movement concerto into barely 10 minutes. The piano is surrounded, at a distance, by five instrumental groups, two containing metallic percussion with the rest made up of wind, brass and strings respectively. These groups make their physical distance musically tangible in the first movement, ‘Introduzione’, with only the barest whiff of tinkling percussive dust falling on the pianist, who is intensely occupied with a slow descending scale. A strange, faint harmonica chord acts as trigger for the whirlwind second movement, marked “threatening and lamenting” along with a clarifying parenthesis that echoes another piano work, Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, ‘wie ein Traumeswirren’—”like the confusions of a dream”. Kurtág responds to that idea with rapid-fire shifts of colour and timbre, rushing past so quickly that it’s difficult to latch onto anything, before slowing and subsiding into the third movement, ‘Recitativo’, to be played “desperately grave”. This takes the form—rather shockingly in the wake of such transient ephemera—of a huge, heavyweight processional, all drums and heavy brass. Kurtág pushes the solemnity so that it tips over into a kind of brute force despair; a pensive aside from the winds, suggesting vulnerability, is brusquely swept aside by the pianist, ushering in a dull restatement from brass and drums. The work closes at the opposite expressive pole, a tiny lyrical movement titled ‘Aria’, where recorders delicately articulate a melody with oblique harmony, very beautiful but contextually not entirely settling, even though it ultimately refocusses the music back to something resembling its opening idea.
…quasi una fantasia…, like much of Kurtág’s output, belies its size, to my mind even seeming somewhat symphonic in scope; it certainly testifies to how much ground can be covered in a relatively short amount of time. This fine performance, which took place at a gala concert in 2013 celebrating 50 years of the Berlin Philharmonie, was given by Mitsuko Uchida with members of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Orchestra Academy, conducted by Simon Rattle.