The music of György Kurtág, who celebrated his 90th birthday in February, is enjoying a richly deserved if belated groundswell of recordings. It forms the linchpin of CDs by two duo piano teams, Antoine Françoise and Robin Green and the siblings Hans-Peter and Volker Stenzl.
Françoise-Green are intelligent and sensitive musicians with a genuine flair for imaginative programming. They satisfyingly intersperse seven of Kurtág’s Bach transcriptions with 10 of his original works. Near the end, they roll out Schubert’s F minor Fantasie, a work that could easily swamp a less gifted composer than Kurtág. Françoise-Green’s interpretations of the Hungarian composer are so engaging and fresh, however, that it’s Schubert who risks being the also ran.
Three Kurtág waltzes epitomise the variety of these interpretations. Twin pieces, titled Prelude and Waltz, hilariously satirise the classic Viennese waltz. Gathering momentum through an extended ‘Intrada’, they fall to the floor exhausted at just the moment the first waltz should commence. The third waltz, evoking the expatriate Hungarian poet János Pilinszky, creates an atmosphere of barren loneliness over an unrecognisable metre.
Françoise-Green largely succeed in bringing fresh eyes and ears to the Fantasie. If I prefer a more personally invested approach, their objective reading of the score is powerful and persuasive. Admirably abstemious with the right pedal, they prefer to make legato with fingers rather than feet so that, overall, we hear more varieties of attack and release than usual. Big guns are reserved for the fugue, a choice highlighting the formal perfection of Schubert’s last essays.
In a final programming inspiration, after the Fantasie Françoise-Green return to Kurtág with a piece called One more voice from far away, which requires one (or both?) pianists to sing as well as play. Apart from its own intrinsic, existential beauty, the piece underscores the gaping chasm of 188 years that separate us from Schubert. This was all captured with striking fidelity at St John’s Smith Square in London last autumn.
Kurtág plays a smaller role on Klavierduo Stenzl’s disc and the performances fall short of the empathetic atmosphere of Françoise-Green. Their clipped, arid delivery of seven original pieces and a Bach transcription seem more appropriate to Webern who, while undeniably an influence on Kurtág, is a composer of another age and circumstance. Their relief upon arrival at the extended Busoni improvisation on a Bach chorale prelude seems almost palpable. If on occasion the Reger Beethoven Variations strike one as rather cloyingly sentimentalised, Duo Stenzl’s performance of Ligeti’s terse and witty 1950 Sonatina is a dead-centre bull’s eye. Cologne Radio is responsible for the true-to-life sound.