While in another universe the Super Bowl was under way, in the precincts of Zankel Hall a great Hungarian composer and his wife toddled onstage and, after a slightly mortified bow, as if they weren’t really expecting so many people to show up for their little concert, turned their rear ends to the audience. The lean, 82-year-old György Kurtág and his wife, Márta, sat at a single upright piano, wiggling together, hip to hip and elbow to rib, like Jack and Mrs. Sprat sharing a too-small park bench. Then they began to play, conjuring an atmosphere that was at once sacramental and almost embarrassingly intimate. He stretched an arm across her chest to finger a high note; she reached past him in a half-embrace, as her left hand followed its line down into the piano’s bass register. Some pianists labor to produce four hands’ worth of sound with only the one pair; the Kurtágs’ pooled digits yielded a spare, magical quiet, filled with silence and empty space.
The music came from Játékok (Games) , Kurtág’s ever-expanding collection of miniatures, musical tributes, confessions, and transcriptions for four-hands piano. To hear a selection of these tiny explosions is to listen in on a naked life. They are jottings, at once spontaneous and hyperrefined. They sound as if they had been created backwards, beginning with a detailed expanse and gradually getting whittled down to a single thought, uttered only once. Many of the pieces last 30 seconds or so.
The vividness of the performance was a reminder of just how weakly the intense colors of some music can reproduce on a recording. When I listened to Játékok on CD, I had the impression of a suite of dissonant little plunketudes. In concert, the Kúrtags perform on an upright piano with what they call a supersordino (hypermute)—that is, the middle pedal permanently depressed and the reverberant, muted sound gently amplified. The result is a disorienting mixture of resonance and hush, like a mass emanating from a seashell.
Kúrtag, whose first appearance in New York formed the frail backbone of Carnegie Hall’s two-week festival of Hungarian music, is a monkish, mystical figure in the classical-music world. While his more extroverted contemporary György Ligeti fled Communist Hungary for Austria, Kúrtag returned from Paris to Budapest, and pursued his strange, low-volume imagination while he taught piano. He achieved the most that an unorthodox composer in the Soviet bloc could hope for in those years: He was ignored.
The years of isolation left him with a penchant for short pieces and small ensembles. But in 1981, a half-hour collection of songs for soprano and chamber ensemble—a Cecil B. De Mille extravaganza by Kúrtag’s standards—received its premiere in Paris, and he very quickly acquired a coterie of enraptured Western musicians. On another night at Zankel Hall, the Russian soprano Natalia Zagorinskaya and Budapest’s UMZE Ensemble performed that work, Messages of the Late R.V. Troussova, with urgency and searing clarity. The performance made it movingly clear that, though Kúrtag moved to France after the fall of Communism, his deeply private, shockingly expressive music has now become part of Hungary’s national idiom.