We had our first rehearsal of Kurtág’s Bagatelles yesterday evening – a set of quirky miniatures for flute, double bass and piano. It’s mostly quite straightforward, and apart from a few sticky patches that need a bit of extra effort to get together it started to sound rather lovely by the end. For me, the major thing now (leaving aside getting a good strong forte in the low register…) is capturing the individual character of each work. Some thoughts and questions on each movement:
- Furious chorale – the sharp attacks of the piano and bass pizzicato don’t especially lend a sense of a chorale, but perhaps it is there in the richness and intensity of loud flute harmonics (overblown at a double octave). Somehow I need to feel like I’m a whole choir screeching away. The odd little vivo – marked “impudently” – that punctuates this movement needs to be just that, a naughty, rude interjection. The final line, with its brilliant octaves and ff–fff low C, needs to have a festive flair in it. I need to get enough colour and overtones on that low C so that the octaves just spin out of it (and also so it gets half loud enough).
- Hommage à J.S.B. – I wondered aloud in rehearsal whether this is Bach only in its steady perpetuum mobile and focus on harmony. To me this sounds soft jazzy, café jazz, especially at the start. If I could portamento down through that break D to Bb (high to middle register) just a little, I would. It needs an expressive, languid feel, but not lazy. Liam says he hears it more simply, just fluid continuing lines, and probably that’s how it will end up anyway. The only things I really have to play with are tone colour (limited in that register, but there’s at least two possibilities) and emphasis. Do I bring out the rhythmic lilt? Or keep every note pretty much equal-weighting? Experimentation needed.
- Like the flowers of the field – slower than we first thought, painfully slow was the eventual conclusion. And it works much better that way. It needs a much slower tempo to differentiate it from the previous movement, as it has a similar opening gesture for flute. This one is much creepier – perhaps just because I was doing Bartók with the kids at the Mater Hospital yesterday afternoon, but it reminds me a little of Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, especially when the dynamic drops dramatically. There’s a steady yearning in the descending lines. “Like the flowers of the field”… a bit of an ambiguous title – are they, for example, like the red poppies in the battlefields of northern France and Belgium in WWI? Or is it perhaps a metaphor? They sound a bit too weird to just be ordinary, pretty flowers.
- Wild and tame – the character here is contained within the timing, striking the ff scales in at precisely the moment the double bass resolves its cadence. The flute lines are scurrying and scatty, and bearing in mind that these pieces are re-workings of his Játékok (“Games”) for children at the piano, certainly this has the feeling of being some partially domesticated animal. The “tame” bit at the end is not a happy domestication, but a forced one, the breaking of a will.
- Flowers we are, mere flowers – an interesting title given the title of the third movement. Another gentle melancholy. Perhaps I need to try not to be too soft on the first few entries, so that the pp and ppp marked later can have more of an effect. I’m not sure about vibrato and colour here, yesterday I played very straight, but perhaps the sound needs a bit more variety through it. Often with these things I get the feeling I need to make a pure ringing bell tone, but really it needs to be more singing to create the effect I imagine.
- La fille aux cheveux de lin, enragée – far from Debussy’s pretty blonde image! That iconic broken minor seventh (leaving aside the original bass line) remains, but never resolves – instead it continues downwards or upwards in a full-range fury. It’s seems somehow like there’s a joy to all this rage, however, as there’s a dancelike lilt. The meaning contained in the softer, reflective lines isn’t clear to me. Is it an external view of an angry young girl that allows someone viewing her to either romanticise the image or reminisce about her in a happier state?
A fun piece! Very strange, but brilliant and beautiful in its own way.