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Composed: 1987-88

Length: 9 minutes

Orchestration: solo piano, timpani, percussion (bongos, snare drum, side drum, bass drum, crotales, vibraphone, marimba), cimbalom, celesta, harp; Offstage – Group I (suspended cymbals, cymbals, gongs, tam-tam, triangles), Group II (suspended cymbals, bass gong), Group III (flute [= piccolo and recorder], oboe, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabassoon), Group IV (horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba), Group V (2 violins, viola, cello, bass); Throughout – harmonicas and hand percussion

Strauss’s tone poems are on one level like vast concertos demanding virtuosity from the entire orchestra (one reason they’re also terrific pieces to display an orchestra’s technical dazzle). But another concerto concept permeates the four-movement …quasi una fantasia… by György Kurtág, one in which the spatial dimension of the sound production itself is factored into the rapport of instrumentalists (an extraordinary showpiece, therefore, for the acoustical architecture of a venue such as Walt Disney Concert Hall).

Kurtág exhibits a continual sense of wonder at what we often take for granted: the phenomenon itself of musical language. A brief exile in the late 1950s in Paris, where he studied with Messiaen and Milhaud, exposed Kurtág to a liberating avant-garde in contrast to the state-approved policies in Hungary.

Crucial to his artistic evolution was Kurtág’s discovery of Anton Webern’s supercondensed brevity and of Stockhausen’s division of the orchestra in Gruppen. Kurtág has developed an extremely idiosyncratic language informed by an awareness of the vulnerability and transience of communication. His relatively small body of work attests to a Cartesian process of doubting and reconstructing an entire world anew.

…quasi una fantasia…, originally written for Berlin’s Philharmonie Hall, is characterized by Kurtág’s extreme concentration of gesture and affinity for aphorism and fragmentation. Rather than the traditional duality of piano and orchestra, its guiding principle is a fragmentation of the space in which we hear music by dividing the score’s “instrumental groups” and redistributing them in various locations of the concert hall.

The Largo presents a paradigmatic falling gesture: single notes of a descending scale which has the gravity of a baroque lament. Its pitch compass extends dramatically to foreground a sense of space. “Wie ein Traumeswirren” (Like the disturbances of a dream) is the Schumannesque subtitle for the second movement’s agitated, surreal collage of instrumental colors. A new specific gravity enters with the funeral tread of the third movement “recitative”: granitic double strokes and mass in percussion and brass.

The last movement’s title, “Aria,” extends the sense of a ruin (a baroque opera seria?) that is being deciphered anew. The score is inscribed here with lines from Hölderlin’s poem “Andenken” (Remembrance), a meditation likewise on the fragments of memory and what remains. A quasi-Bachian chorale is filtered through Kurtág’s unique instrumental colors, including recorders and mouth organs, returning to another version of the descending scalar pattern with which the work began.

- Thomas May is senior music editor at Amazon.com and author of Decoding Wagner as well as the forthcoming John Adams Reader.