BARTÓK Solo Violin Sonata KURTÁG Signs, Games and Messages
If dozens of recordings of Bartók’s Solo Sonata are available, scarcely a handful of violinists have recorded the solo pieces of György Kurtág. Born 45 years after Bartók, Kurtág grew up some 85 miles from the elder composer’s birthplace (both locations now in Romania). Kurtág has said, quite sincerely, that his ‘mother tongue is Bartók’. Both pianist-composers assiduously cultivated an understanding of the violin. These factors combined make Simon Smith’s release, combining canonic Bartók with Kurtág pieces from the past 30 or so years, apt and welcome.
Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages is a sort of ongoing compositional notebook similar to the eight volumes of Games, though the latter are pieces for piano and piano duet, while the former are designated for both string and wind instruments. The 18 Smith has selected for this disc, the longest of which is a little over three minutes, are characteristically terse and musically rich. His thoughtful, sympathetic performances discern the unique qualities of each.
Three perpetuum mobiles take the same arpeggiation as a starting point for arrivals in three very different places. Kurtág has written many memorial tributes for friends and colleagues, and two of those included here – to László Mensáros, one of the most beloved Hungarian actors of the 20th century, and to the conductor Tamás Blum – are deeply affecting in their understatement. The questing, fragmentary ‘Hommage à John Cage’ seems a perfect likeness of the composer.
Naturally, in the Bartók Sonata, Smith faces some stiff competition. His interpretation may not have the earthiness of Viktoria Mullova, the intellectual compass of Christian Tetzlaff or the idiomatic implacability of Barnabás Kelemen. That said, it is a compelling reading with a firm point of view.
Smith’s strong, clear sound is superbly captured in a space that accentuates the disc’s existential aura of one human alone with little but his own consciousness for company.