The centerpiece of violinist Movses Pogossian's Hommage à Kurtág is his recording of Kurtág's Signs, Games, and Messages for violin (there are others in the series for different instruments). Pogossian has developed a close working relationship with Kurtág, and his interpretations reflect his reverent stance towards the eminent composer as well as the input received from him. Echoing the importance of the concept of homage within Signs, Games, and Messages, Pogossian commissioned several composers to write works in honor of Kurtág — Aida Shirazi, Gabriela Lena Frank, Kay Rhie, and Jungyoon Wie contribute new works to the project, alongside “Melodia” from Bartók's Sonata for Solo Violin and Kodály’s famous Duo for Violin and Cello (an archival live recording heard only on the digital version), providing repertoire context.
Signs, Games, and MessagesGyörgy Kurtág
|Movses Pogossian, violin
|Hommage à J.S.B.
Hommage à J.S.B.
|Hommage à John Cage
Hommage à John Cage
|The Carenza Jig
The Carenza Jig
|Mensáros László emlékére
Mensáros László emlékére
|In memoriam Blum Tamás
In memoriam Blum Tamás
|...für den, der heimlich lauschet...
...für den, der heimlich lauschet...
|Népdalféle – Im Volkston
Népdalféle – Im Volkston
|Movses Pogossian, violin
|Movses Pogossian, violin
|Movses Pogossian, violin
|Melodia para Movses
Melodia para Movses
|Movses Pogossian, violin
|Melodia, from Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz 117
Melodia, from Sonata for Solo Violin, Sz 117
|Movses Pogossian, violin
|Signs, Games and Messages: In Nomine – all’ongharese
Signs, Games and Messages: In Nomine – all’ongharese
|Movses Pogossian, violin
Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7Zoltán Kodály
|Movses Pogossian, violin, Rohan de Saram, cello
|I. Allegro serioso, non troppo
I. Allegro serioso, non troppo
|II. Adagio - Andante - Tempo I
II. Adagio - Andante - Tempo I
|III. Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento - Presto
III. Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento - Presto
Movses Pogossian’s Hommage à Kurtág honors the special place that the eminent composer holds in Pogossian’s musical life. As a coach, mentor, and spiritual guru through music, Kurtág has had a profound impact on so many musicians that he has interacted with. This album features Kurtág’s Signs, Games, and Messages for Solo Violin, a sixteen movement masterpiece of subtlety, brevity, and densely packed expressive meaning. Pogossian extends his homage by commissioning four new response works to Signs, Games, and Messages by Aida Shirazi, Kay Rhie, Jungyoon Wie, and Gabriela Lena Frank. To close the circle of Hungarian lineage, the “Melodia” from Bartok’s solo Sonata is included, as well as Kodály’s well known Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7 on the digital only version of the recording, in an archival live performance with eminent cellist Rohan de Saram.
Kurtág’s economy of material can be seen in a post-Webern context — we hear epic novels of meaning in pieces that last no longer than two minutes. Yet, Kurtág’s attention is focused less on a systematic approach to pitch (which is not to say the pitch choices are any less rigorous), and more on zeroing in on the perfect compositional choices that serve a finely specific expression. There is never a sense in his music that any note could have been different — each one had to be as it is. And so we hear the somber descending minor second sighs in “Doloroso” that perfectly encapsulate an inward melancholy, or the folksong inflected “Népdalféle – Im Volkston.” Homage plays an important and central role in Signs, Games, and Messages, and in fact in many of Kurtág’s works. In “Hommage à J.S. Bach” we hear implied counterpoint that evokes that core component of Bach’s solo string works. His “Hommage à John Cage” comes with an inscription in the score, “faltering words” — we hear awkward pauses and hesitation in the truncated phrases. “In Memoriam Blum Tamas,” written for Kurtág’s close conductor friend, features closely spaced dyads which eventually sear with quarter-tone intensity. The work has its light moments as well, like the the foot stomping impetuosity of a child in “Kromatikus feleselős,” or the off-kilter dance of a little girl in “Anziksz Kellerannának.” The longest piece in the set, “In Nomine – all’ongharese,” is presented later in the album program, and shares a poignant quality of pathos and vibrato laden expressivity with the Bartók movement that it immediately follows in the program.Read More
Aida Shirazi’s brief Sign takes the slippery microtones in the third piece of Kurtág’s set, ”Panaszos notá,” as a point of departure. A fragile sustained high E string is subtly doubled with adjusted unisons that push against slight pitch discrepancies. Kay Rhie’s Game addresses Kurtág’s use of irony. A forceful descending two note motive is immediately answered by a distant sustained tone. The conversation between the two ideas frames the short piece, as jocular glissandi figures provide sardonic commentary. Eventually the game between opposing forces dissolves into languorous double stops in the lower register, and finally a short, conciliatory final high harmonic surrenders. Jungyoon Wie’s Message examines the ambiguity inherent in communication. A message is sent and the recipient receives it and interprets it from their individual vantage point. It is so with a piece of music too, conceived with intention and then traveling to the listener as a constellation of possibilities. Wie embeds this ambiguity into the expressive quality of the score, relying heavily on vibrato which obscures the center of the pitch, and slithering lines that lend the work a sense of elusive mystery. Gabriela Lena Frank’s Melodia responds to the iconic Bartók sonata movement. Tremolos ornament the connective tissue of long lines that subtly merge echoes of Frank’s Peruvian background with nods to the styles of Bartók and Kurtág. Taken together, these four response pieces form a shadow suite to the Kurtág and Bartók works that frame them, an opportunity for contemporary composers to pull on a short thread that is prompted by consideration of the precedent laid out before them.
Pogossian’s decision to include the movement from Bartók’s solo sonata and Kodály’s well known duo place the newer works on the program in a context of a lineage of repertoire from Hungary. Written for Yehudi Menuhin while Bartók was undergoing treatment for leukemia in the healing mountain air of Asheville, North Carolina, the solo sonata is a landmark work in the unaccompanied solo violin repertoire, connecting Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas and Eugène Ysaÿe’s sonatas to later iconic works by Berio and Sciarrino. The “Melodia” movement is mournfully lyrical, and this interpretation showcases Pogossian’s deeply felt and thoughtful phrasing. Like Bartók, Zoltan Kodály devoted much of his creative energy to crafting concert music that grew out of the folk music of Hungary. His Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7 (included only on the digital version of this release) reflects this in the galloping rhythms, influence of folkloric dance styles, and unbridled energy heard through the piece’s three iconic movements.
– Dan Lippel
Producers: Andrew McIntosh and Movses Pogossian
Recording and Mastering: Sergey Parfenov
Recorded at Ostin Music Center, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music January 8-9, 2022 and May 1, 2022
Tracks 22-24 (Kodály)
Benjamin Maas, recording engineer
Images: Elizabeth and Justus Schlichting
Design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Armenian-born violinist Movses Pogossian made his American debut with the Boston Pops in 1990, about which Boston Globe wrote: “There is freedom in his playing, but also taste and discipline. It was a fiery, centered, and highly musical performance…”. Winner of several international competitions, he has performed worldwide. As a chamber musician, Pogossian has performed with members of the Tokyo, Kronos, and Brentano string quartets, and with such artists as Kim Kashkashian, Jeremy Denk, Lynn Harrell, Ani and Ida Kavafian, and Rohan de Saram. Movses Pogossian was the Founding Artistic Director of the critically acclaimed Dilijan Chamber Music Series since 2005 for 15 seasons. A committed champion of new music, Pogossian has premiered over 100 works, and works closely with composers such as G. Kurtág, K. Saariaho, T. Mansurian, Gabriela Lena Frank, Artur Avanesov, and Vache Sharafyan. Pogossian's discography includes the Complete Sonatas and Partitas by J. S. Bach, albums "Inspired by Bach", "Blooming Sounds", "In Nomine”, and “Hommage à Kurtág”. The Bridge Records CD of Complete Violin Works of Stefan Wolpe made the 2015 Top Ten list in Sunday Times (UK), and the 2020 releases of Armenian contemporary music: “Modulation Necklace” (New Focus Recordings) and “Con Anima” (ECM) have garnered critical acclaim. He is a Distinguished Professor of Violin at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and also Founder and Advisor of the UCLA Armenian Music Program.https://schoolofmusic.ucla.edu/people/movses-pogossian/
Nonagenarian György Kurtág is ranked among today’s foremost composers by many. Despite its often enigmatic qualities, his music falls squarely in the European classical music lineage, particularly the branch represented by his illustrious 20th-century Hungarian composer-predecessors Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály.
Kurtág’s individual movements are typically quite brief, yet despite compression, expressively complex. His style is gestural and at the same time lyrical. Though his music is never overtly sentimental, he systematically indulges in homages in his titles.
On Hommage à Kurtág, American violin virtuoso Movses Pogossian, a Kurtág specialist, presents a brilliantly played recital featuring the composer’s Signs, Games and Messages for solo violin. The substantial 16-movement work is a masterwork of exuberance and subtlety, displaying the enigmatic qualities that distinguish the composer’s unique voice. As music critic Alex Ross once insightfully observed, it is “dark but not dismal, quiet but not calm.”
Honouring the concept of homage in Kurtág’s music, Pogossian commissioned Californian women composers Aida Shirazi, Gabriela Lena Frank, Kay Rhie and Jungyoon Wie. They contributed terse works of considerable poise to the album, proving that Kurtág’s aesthetic spirit is alive and well among younger composers.
Bringing his program back to Kurtág’s deep Hungarian roots, Pogossian gives a committed reading of the Melodia movement of Bartók’s autumnal Sonata for Solo Violin. He concludes with a very satisfying, passionate, live rendering of Kodály’s expansive Duo for Violin and Cello with cellist Rohan de Saram.
— Andrew Timar, 12.13.2022
The esteemed violin player Movses Pogossian centers this recording around György Kurtág’s “Signs, Games and Messenges”, and his interpretation comes with direct influence from Kurtág, and new works from several composers only add much more intrigue to this solo violin listen.
The first 15 tracks belong to Kurtág’s “Signs, Games and Messenges”, where the precisely played violin can be bare and pretty, as well as firm and jarring, and even touches on stirring, poetic qualities, too.
Deeper into the tracks, Aida Shirazi’s “Sign” moves with much sublime atmosphere, where mood is key, while Jungyoon Wie’s “Message” emits much grace and warmth in its emotive presence that’s focused on pitch and mystery.
Further still, “Melodia, from Sonata for Solo Violin”, by Béla Bartók, is often mournful, and unfolds with absorbing gestures, and Kurtág’s work returns with the meticulous playing of “In Nomine- all’ongharese”.
Pogossian made his debut in America back in 1990, and he’s picked up many accolades along the way. His work has excelled in both solo and chamber situations, and this endeavor certainly ranks up there with his best yet, where diverse movements illustrate an adaptive nature and unbounded creativity.
— Tom Haugen, 4.11.2023
It was 2004 and Movses Pogossian was preparing the legendary Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s famously intricate Kafka Fragments with soprano Tony Arnold. On a whim, they contacted the composer to see if he might consider rehearsing with them. To their surprise, Kurtág invited them to Budapest to participate in a four-day masterclass.
“We knew he had a reputation for being exacting and demanding,” said Arnold. “So we prepared ourselves to be as flexible as possible. But we were still anxious.” Kurtág lived up to his reputation, at times exasperating the two musicians and even driving one of them to tears. (More on that later.) But their time with the famous composer was rapturous.
The bond formed between the musicians and composer was lasting. Pogossian’s most recent recording, Hommage à Kurtág, will be released with New Focus Recordings on October 21, 2022. On Monday, October 24 at 7:30 p.m. in Schoenberg Hall, Pogossian will perform a recital featuring music from the new CD, including what promises to be the definitive recording of Kurtag’s Signs, Games and Messages for violin.
Kurtág is considered by many to be the world’s foremost living composer, if such a title could be claimed. His music is notoriously difficult to pin down. He writes in a short, gestural style. Whole compositions might only be a few minutes long. But brevity is no bar to complexity, and Kurtág packs more expression into fewer notes than any other working composer. New Yorker music critic Alex Ross may have put it best when he said of Kurtág’s music that it is “compressed but not dense, lyrical but not sweet, dark but not dismal, quiet but not calm.”
Kurtág’s balance of opposing forces carries special resonance for Pogossian, who remarked “there is never a sense in his music that any note could have been different.” Kurtág’s laser precision, however, is anything but chilly. “His music is deeply of the heart,” explained Pogossian. “There is real warmth in his music. He is not obscure or distant.”
Pogossian’s CD and recital include four new works for solo violin, commissioned by Pogossian as response pieces to Kurtág. The composers—Aida Shirazi, Kay Rhie, Jungyoon Wie, Gabriela Lena Frank, female composers all—discuss their pieces in the CD’s liner notes.
The recital will also include a Kodaly Duo for cello and violin, featuring celebrated Scottish cellist Niall Brown. A selection of Bela Bartók’s duos also graces the program, featuring music education violin students Kayla Phan, Yidan Sun, Yoosung Lee, Emily Taylor, Raina Markham, Kayla Lee, and alumnus Sam Lorenzini.
“Bartók, Kodaly, and Kurtág all wrote music for children, music for pedagogical purposes,” said Pogossian. “They understood that music was for everyone. They didn’t draw false distinctions between highbrow and lowbrow music, and I want to pay homage to that too. It is a real pleasure to bring our very fine music education students up on stage to perform this wonderful music.” It is also noteworthy that Pogossian will donate all proceeds from the concert and CD sales to a cause that he—and his students—work for and hold dear: Music for Food. A musician-led initiative, Music for Food has helped provide close to 2 million meals for people in America who suffer from food insecurity.
The recital’s ambitious program—new commissions, challenging solo violin work, and multiple performers—is held together conceptually by the figure of György Kurtág, who idolized Bartók and Kodaly and has inspired so many young composers and musicians.
It takes Pogossian back to that defining moment in 2004, when he and Arnold worked for four days with Kurtág on his Kafka Fragments.
“You are really like Sherlock Holmes when you begin playing his music,” Pogossian explained. “First you have to understand the notes, you have to see it with your eyes and understand it. But then you have to develop your approach. You internalize it. It becomes you, you become it. After working intensively with him and realizing how much importance he gives to a single moment of his music, it is thrilling. And exhausting.”
Certainly it was. Arnold spent one hour during that masterclass with Kurtág working on a single bar of music. After it had finally been performed to Kurtág’s satisfaction, he applauded joyfully and said “very good.”
As Kurtág turned his attention to Pogossian, Arnold settled into a chair on the stage, relieved for the break. Within a few seconds, the relief turned into a flood of emotion and tears. Marta Kurtág, György’s wife, spotted it from the audience and alerted her husband. He sprang into action. Still agile at 78, he leapt onto the stage, took Arnold by the shoulders, and kissed each of her cheeks twice.
“You must know,” Kurtág told the musicians, “you are like my larger family.” Then he struggled for words, English being one of a half dozen languages that he speaks. “It is… it is for better, it is good.”
“Kurtág is not just a great composer, he is a great human being,” said Pogossian, recalling the event. “His humanity inflects his music. It was humbling to embark on this recording, and to be able to plan this recital with my students, especially since the concert will benefit another cause I am passionate about, Music for Food.”
As of this writing the acclaimed Hungarian composer György Kurtág is 97 and no doubt used to the honors he has received. More unusual for a Postmodernist, he seems to inspire reverence as well. Violinist Movses Pogossian isn’t the first performer I’ve encountered who speaks with awe of working personally with Kurtág and coming away feeling “forever changed as musicians and humans.” Out of this personal connection emerged a program for solo violin (with one exception) centered on Kurtág’s major work for violin, Signs, Games, and Messages, composed piecemeal between 1989 and 2004. Pogossian plays 17 of the 29 separately titled pieces in the complete score. Each is a miniature lasting between 33 seconds (“Mensáros László emlékére”) and 4:48 minutes (“In Nomine – all’ongharese”), although the great majority hover around one and two minutes.
When Pogossian speaks reverently in his booklet note of entering the “wondrous world of his music,” there is also the extra-musical experience of being welcomed into Kurtág’s extended family. All this warm feeling can strike a listener as incongruous, because it doesn’t chime with the density and difficulty of Kurtág’s music, which gives no quarter from its avant-garde stance. To grasp his oeuvre, as Pogossian aptly puts it, is to confront a “unique world of naked nerves, symphonies that last one to two minutes, but also—and always—the ever-present heart.”
The naked nerves part is what immediately strikes the ear. Although melody isn’t rejected (the first piece, Doloroso, is close to a conventional elegy), the norm is knotty and raw, as well as cryptic (the naked-nerve music begins with the second piece, “Kromatikus feleselős”). To some extent a general listener can gain entry by noting stylistic traits that echo, however obscurely, elements of Bartók or native Hungarian rhythms. But there’s no getting around the fact that, like Webern and John Cage, Kurtág defines his own idiom—I kept thinking of the literary critic Harold Bloom, who proposed a sui generis category of “strong poets,” meaning writers who recognize the genius of their predecessors but make every effort to break free of the past.
I think Kurtág also calls for strong performers who immerse themselves in his creations with intensity, confidence, and commitment, as Pogossian does here. This isn’t music for the cautious on either side of the footlights. As for the element of heart in these pieces, Pogossian certainly gives heartfelt readings, but you can’t take heart to mean sentiment. Rather, Kurtág creates an intimate mood that draws the listener in, often through whispered dynamics but more deeply through a sense of poetry. This, of course, is an ineffable quality, along with the spiritual aura that commentators point out quite often.
Somewhere between the private, the recondite, and the communicative, Kurtág takes a stand. It is significant that he word “sign” appears 11 times in his listed compositions, the word “game” 16 times, and “message” 22 times. They imply a gaze toward inspiration from a transcendent region, whether or not one calls it spiritual. Like Hindemith and Berio before him, who set out to write for many solo instruments, Kurtág has assembled a set of Signs, Games, and Messages for all the string instruments in the orchestra as well as for flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon.
Musical homages imply new pieces commissioned for the purpose, and Pogossian has called upon four contemporary composers, three of whom use a key term (a Kurtág tag?) in the title: Sign by Aida Shirazi (b. 1987), Game by Kay Rhie (b. 1971), and Message by Jungyoon Wie (b. 1990). All three pieces follow Kurtág’s lead by being miniatures for solo violin in resolutely contemporary language, sometimes referring to techniques heard in the main work on the program. In a pinch I seriously doubt that I could distinguish their pieces from his.
The remainder of the program imaginatively draws us into the Hungarian musical culture that nurtured Kurtág. We get the tender “Melodia” movement from Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, and an homage to it by Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972). Her Melodia para Movses is indeed an actual melody, but it gains added interest by merging techniques reminiscent of both Bartók and Kurtág. I found myself admiring the adroitness and skill of all four new composers. Finally, Pogossian is joined by cellist Rohan de Saram in a seminal work by Kodály, the Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7.
Their performance is as beautiful and skillful as Pogossian’s on his own, and by coming last, the Kodály can be heard with your ears attuned to contemporary sounds as rather a shock. The experience is like wandering through a maze and discovering that it ends in a Budapest coffee shop, all mellow and warm. New Focus’s recorded sound is impeccable throughout, and Pogossian’s detailed notes on the music prove to be a valuable guide. A strong recommendation is easy to offer, not only for general listeners who want to explore Kurtág’s music but also as a special adjunct to his Kafka Fragments for soprano and violin from 1985–87. They closely resemble the style and sound of Signs, Games, and Messages. As the homage it intends to be, this release achieves its aims ideally.
— Huntley Dent, 2.14.2023