First published in 2007 ‘The Rest Is Noise’ by Alex Ross, music critic of the ‘New Yorker’, charts twentieth century Western classical music from the dying embers of “fin de siecle” Europe and the years prior to the devastation of the First World War to the present day. In many ways, the book is less a history of classical music than a history of the twentieth century as told through its remarkable, often shocking and epoch-making music.

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It’s unusual to enter the auditorium of the QEH and see a small unassuming upright piano on the stage instead of the usual swaggering concert Steinway. In front of the piano, near the edge of the stage, flimsy sheets of  music were arranged on eight spindly stands. Overlooking the whole scene, a plaster bust of Beethoven, frowning down upon the proceedings.

A recital featuring the music of Hungarian composer and pedagogue George Kürtag is always going to be quirky, unusual and playful – and this concert was no exception.

Kurtag’s Hipartita for solo violin, a work composed for violinist Hiromi Kikuchi, who performed it at this concert. Combining the soloist’s name with the Baroque partita, a collection of pieces related to each other, the Hipartita contains movements dedicated to figures from Hungarian musical life, ancient Greece, Hungarian folk dances, including the Czardas, and even J S Bach himself. A curious work full of wails and squawks, skittish scurryings and glissandi, it was strangely haunting and witty all at once, and was presented with intense concentration and an aching beauty by Hiromi Kikuchi. At the end of the performance, Hiromi gestured into the audience, and after a pause György Kurtág himself, frail but smiling broadly, tottered onto the stage to receive applause alongside the soloist.

After the interval the piano had been shifted to centre stage, a duet bench set before it and another selection of flimsy pages on the music stand. Kurtág and his wife Márta walked slowly onto the stage, gently supporting one another. They were going to perform and selection of short pieces from Kurtág’s Játékok (Games), a series of works for children and beginner pianists, for which the model was Bartok’s Mikrokosmos. In Játékok, the focus is on movement and gestures rather than accuracy, thus drawing on the educational philosophy of Rudolph Steiner. These charming and idiosyncratic miniatures were interspersed with Kurtág’s own transcriptions of works by Bach, for four hands, and all played with great delicacy of tone and touch.

Here is the scene: Gyõrgy seated at the piano, Márta at his side quietly removing the pages, and joining him in duets of his own music and his Bach transcriptions, the practice pedal permanently depressed so that the sounds emerging from the piano are soft, gentle and intimate. Enhanced only slightly by amplification, the sound of the piano is domestic, homely. The Kurtágs lean towards one another as they play or mirror one another’s gestures, reaching across each other at the keyboard; sometimes they look tenderly at each other. It is as if we are peeping in on an afternoon of private music-making in their home.

This all-too brief yet exquisite and unassuming recital was met with a standing ovation, people rising to their feet not to applaud greatness but rather to share in the emotional spell this miniature music and its frail and deeply sensitive performers had cast upon us all. Many people were in tears, overcome with an emotion that was impossible to describe.

John Gilhooly took to the stage to present Maestro Kurtág with the RPS Gold Medal, in the presence of Beethoven (who himself was awarded the gold medal). In response to Gilhooly’s eulogy, Gyorgy Kurtág, as quietly-spoken as his music, said “I am not a man of words”, and then returned to the piano to play Mozart’s G major Variations with Márta.

An extraordinary and rare afternoon of music, curiously subversive by dint of the fact that it went against the grain of the traditional concert, and one many of us are unlikely to experience again.

Olivier Messiaen in 1930

The fascinating Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre has now reached its mid-point, with the focus on music created out of oppression and war. In Friday night’s chamber concert at Queen Elizabeth Hall two pieces written in the most straitened circumstances during the Second World War were presented: Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio, a haunting lament for the tragic victims of the war and conflict in general, and Messiaen’s extraordinary Quatuor pour la fin du temps (“Quartet for the End of Time”), composed and premièred in a German prisoner of war camp. The works were performed by world-renowned musicians – French brothers Renaud and Gautier Capuçon (violin and cello respectively), Denis Kozhukhin (piano) and Jörg Widmann (clarinet). They offered a highly emotional, profound and concentrated performance which demonstrated their commitment to and understanding of this difficult, meaningful repertoire.

Read my full review here