The great Hungarian composer György Kurtág intends his many short Játékok (games) as naïve art. Each short piano piece is made to sound as if written by a child experimenting at the piano keyboard for the first time. The air of pure, unfettered curiosity and experimentation in these works mirrors an atmosphere that also surrounds some of the finest free improvisation, which is why Katharina Weber’s new spontaneous spin on the Játékok is so successful.
On “Games and Improvisations,” the German avant-classical pianist performs eleven of Kurtág’s iconic miniatures. Two of them stand alone at the album’s mid-point and ending, but the other nine are used as short prompts upon which she expounds in nine untitled improvisations. For these, Weber is joined by the veteran British bass virtuoso Barry Guy, and genre-crossing percussionist Balts Nill, who spends the entire recording sitting on the floor playing pots, pans and other found objects.
Improvisation is often referred to as “composition sped up” and indeed, the group finds ways to capture the essence of each Kurtág piece and take it beyond its original confines with great success. While explicit themes from a Játékok may be difficult to pin down while listening to its new companion piece, repeated listening reveals fantastic conceptual echoes such as Weber’s key-pounding fists after “Palm Stroke” and Guy’s expert counterpoint after “Dialog for the 70th Birthday of András Mihály.” At other times, the trio adds vivid new narrative Kurtág’s stories, such as the fever-dream of an improvisation following “Falling Asleep.”
The sound of the group and overall approach on the recording is one of classicism and delicacy. Indeed, Weber’s treatments of the Játékok themselves compare very favorably with the definitive recordings by Kurtág and his wife Marta on the ECM Label. All three musicians execute the improvisations with complete precision and control. Guy’s muscular playing allows him to produce extremely accurate and piercing treble tones on his very low instrument. His pizzicato playing mingles seamlessly with the timbre of Nill’s toys. Likewise, Nill uses his spread of percussive objects more as an orchestral player than a kit drummer. The result is color and texture, laid out across the music without cliché.
“Games and Improvisations” is a recording the rewards deep and repeated listening but manages to sustain a certain immediacy throughout. Just as one isn’t going to find much easy or pleasing about Kurtág’s rough diamonds, there isn’t much to enjoy in the improvisations from a melodic or rhythmic standpoint. That said, for one who’s willing to drop jazz and classical prejudices and listen like a a child again, there’s a great deal of beauty to hear on the album. Weber, Guy and Nill manage to achieve the primal with great intelligence.
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