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Kurtág Brilliantly Exploits Cimbalom’s Appeal at Boston Conservatory


With an Addendum by Christopher Greenleaf.

The Ludovico Ensemble, in residence at the Boston Conservatory, presented the complete cimbalom chamber music of the Romanian-born composer György Kurtág on Tuesday, March 23, at  the Conservatory’s Seully Hall. Kurtág composed most of the modern music for the cimbalom, a sort of hammered dulcimer. This significant concert featured the noted cimbalomist Nicholas Tolle, who is also artistic director of the ensemble.

The program began with four songs from 1969, “Four Fragments on Poems by Pál Gulyás” entitled In Memory of a Winter nightfall alternatively, …Evening). Soprano and actress Aliana de la Guardia was at her excellent best. Already the hallmarks of Kurtág’s style were evident: rapid flourishes, brevity (some of the songs were only a few seconds long) and easy access to the effect of a particular song. The Hungarian-trained composer is a master of the short form. These songs are variously about memory, nightfall and redemption (“Blood has a journey” in the translation by Daniel Acsadi.)

Eight Duos for piano, violin and cimbalom, op. 4, followed. Here Kurtág developed his tonal sense with microtones (different strings on the cimbalom). The violinist Gabriela Diaz matched Tolle’s playing every step of the way, countering its resonance and its fast notes. De la Guardia returned for Seven Hungarian Songs for voice and cimbalom from 1981 based on six poems by Amy Károlyi and one by Kobayashi Issa. Here de la Guardia proved her ability to give lightning-quick changes of mood and the rare quality to convey instantaneously the meaning of a short song.

Then the small gathering of people were treated to four solo cimbalom pieces: from Játékok, Hommage à Berényi Ferenc 70, Virág az ember… and Un brin de bruyère à Witold (a strand of heather to Witold). These pieces allowed Tolle to demonstrate his virtuosity. Under his mallets the cimbalom had overlapping tones, percussion, even vehemence. I’ll bet the audience had never heard them before.

Tolle was joined by clarinetist Rane Moore for six pieces from 1996. The nature of the clarinet, its great range and timbre, combined with the cimbalom’s qualities, was brilliantly exploited by Kurtág, especially contrasted with the violin pieces written 35 years earlier. The program included two fascinating sets of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Gebets and Koans.

The final piece featured Scenes from a Novel (1981-82) as rendered by Tolle and de la Guardia joined by Diaz and Akiko Kikuchi, double bass. The work consists of 15 Russia poems by Rimma Dalos, translated in the program book by Peter Sherwood and Gillian Howarth. Violin and double bass meant that there was an acoustic gap that Kurtág exploited well. The composer has a terrific ear for textures. The 15 poems’ subject is the forlorn hopes of a particular woman. “Visit” proclaims “In a cold blanket of snow / a visitor called: sorrow.” Think Emily Dickinson. The last poem, an Epilogue, is particularly moving: leave-taking and awaiting is this woman’s lot, expressed by Kurtág with descending scales in all instruments and voice.

The Ludovico Ensemble (pianist Karolina Rojahn, de la Guardia, Tolle, and cellist Eliza Jacques) takes its title from the Anthony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange, in which the protagonist experiences nausea whenever he hears the music of Beethoven. This is one of two ensembles I have heard in residence at Boston Conservatory whose excellence is a testament to the Conservatory’s quality.

At intermission I spoke with President Richard Ortner, who informed me that he would restore Seully Hall, which has good acoustics, to its former glory. Even before that day there is fascinating fare there.

Larry Phillips studied music at Harvard, the Montreal Conservatory, and at New England Conservatory. In 1974 he was a prizewinner at the International Harpsichord Competition in Bruges, Belgium.

The cymbalom or cimbalom is a full-size hammered dulcimer with two (or more) bridges inside a trapezoidal case. It is strung with fairly high-tensioned metal strings, many of the unison upper ones being doubled, even quadrupled. As with a 19th-century piano, the bass strings tend to be wound with copper or nickeled copper. Today’s familiar four-octave concert instrument was invented (by Schunda József, Budapest) and developed in the final quarter of the 19th century. This largest cymbalom generally has a sustain pedal that damps all the strings or, in some versions, just those of the bass and middle registers. The pedal is an indispensable aid to playing. It clears away the haze of sustained sound that results from the instrument’s typically lightning-fast tempi. A player holds two light, carefully balanced strikers (called “fennigs” for the undamped US instrument) capable of great delicacy, speed, and timbral shading. In classical concert use, as for Kodály’s Háry János Suite (from the composer’s rousing 1926 Singspiel), the largest cymbaloms and most robust beaters show up on stage. Concert instruments have removable legs that facilitate their transport and quick set-up, as well as assuring proper placement of the pedal.

We most commonly associate the cymbalom with Hungary, Romania, the itinerant Roma, and Moldova. Variants are also commonly found in mountainous regions of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Poland, and in the big 20th-century Eastern European diaspora along Lakes Erie and Ontario. Though the present instrument’s European traditions are related to or descended from its Magyar development in (probably) the late Middle Ages and again during the land’s early-17th-c. Turkish infestation, there are closely-related instrument families in Turkey, Persia, some Black Sea cultures, and scattered, ancient musical centers in North Africa.

Among the 20th-century composers who are appreciative of the instrument’s very wide dynamic range and its affinity for blisteringly fast passagework, as well as for a haunting largo character, have been Kurtág György, Rózsa Miklós, Hans Zimmer, and Louis Andriessen (Hungarian names in native order.) Numerous film score writers have put its great expressivity and exoticism to effective use in cameo moments of poignancy, especially in films with an Eastern European angle.

Over the decades before and since the end of the Soviet occupation, Hungaroton has issued a rich bouquet of solo, chamber, folk, and – notably — gypsy/café albums featuring exceptionally fine cymbalom playing. Among the leading names in the Magyar, Roma, Klezmer, and Romanian cymbalom communities have been Balogh Kálmán, Udvary Alex, Joseph Moskowitz, and the eminent Herencsár Viktória. In the 1950s and 60s, North American fans of Béla Babai and his Fiery Gypsies bought thousands of LPs and thronged the band’s many café and town hall concerts; some of the most famous post-war cymbalom players in North America toured with this much-recorded ensemble. Alas, players in the northern US and Ontario have now become few in number.

Veteran recording engineer Christopher Greenleaf collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

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