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The Kurtágs, Now Elderly, Play Játékok

19th of December, 2020

The piece was first left as a review on the website RateYourMusic. I was reviewing Játékok, the recording by Márta and György Kurtág of György's piece.

From Wikipedia: Játékok (Hungarian: Games) is an ongoing collection of "pedagogical performance pieces" by György Kurtág. He has been writing them since 1973. How did he make Bach sound this sad? From Kurtág: The idea of composing Játékok was suggested by children playing spontaneously, children for whom the piano still means a toy. They experiment with it, caress it, attack it and run their fingers over it. They pile up seemingly disconnected sounds, and if this happens to arouse their musical instinct they look consciously for some of the harmonies found by chance and keep repeating them. And yet here we have a recording of two people, aged 69 and 70, whose play routinely leads them back into the old order of their rote learning. No child, experimenting and letting notes pile up, plays Bach. It's the method that is childish, not the playing itself. I babysat for some kids, very bright kids, and I couldn't convince them to draw any pirate treasure maps without any treasure. There needed to be some doubloons hidden in there somewhere, or else the invented geography (which to me was obviously the point of the exercise) was pointless—the sea and the islands were red herrings, so many possible hiding places for the thing which really interested them. Children at the piano, for Kurtág, experiment up the point of happening upon some harmony, and then they repeat. In Játékok, the Bach stands in for the moment when searching ends.

Márta and György Kurtág here play Bach for four hands, and they are a completely symbiotic unit. Now both in their late 80s, their arms are tangled up in a way that I can believe makes sense to them. The upright piano produces a resonant buzz which introduces the tiniest whispering dissonance, but the two performers are perfectly rhythmically synchronised. I don't think my babysitting anecdote maps onto this scene: there's no way for me to look at what's happening here and see it in terms of a dimension of pure possibility rendered superfluous except where it can support the existence of value. Márta Kurtág died last year, and here we have this recording of her playing Játékok with her husband. We can't see their arms, which makes it hard to know what to think about the scene.