Much has been made - and rightly so - of the centerpiece of tonight's Berlin Philharmonic program, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. But there has also been much discussion of Gyorgy Kurtag's Stele, the program's other entry.
In case you are wondering what Kurtag's work is doing on tonight's Symphony Hall program, I refer you first to Bernard Holland's review of the Berlin Philharmonic's Friday evening concert at Carnegie Hall, which includes the following bare-bones outline:
"'Stele' updates the spiritual darkness yet great beauty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire into which Mahler was born. We were reminded that Budapest, Vienna and the Bohemia of Mahler’s birth are, on the map, only a few hours apart. The quality of 'Stele,' which was written for the Berlin Philharmonic in 1994, is clear from the start. Mr. Kurtag has not composed much orchestra music, but here the fineness of the textures and the originality of the colors advertise the poise of a master."
Read all of Notes on Mortality and Darkness
Alex Ross, in his new book, The Rest Is Noise, Listening to the Twentieth Century, connects Stele directly to Beethoven:
"At the beginning, octave Gs make an unmistakable reference to the opening of Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3 - a representation of the topmost step of the staircase that goes down to Florestan's dungeon. Kurtag, too, leads us into a subterranean space, but we never get out. The final movement, muted and maximally eerie, fixates on a sread-out chord that repeatedly quivers forth in quintuplet rhythm. At the very end the harmony shifts to the white-key notes of the C-major scale, all seven of them sounding in a luminous smear."
But Stele's (and Kurtag's?) world, as heard by Ross, is not entirely hopless, and Stele's ending has "the rhythm of a gaunt figure staggering on."
And then there is Jeremy Eichler's portrait of Kurtag for The Boston Globe. Eichler spoke with Sir Simon Rattle, who will conduct Stele tonight:
"Speaking recently by phone from Berlin, Simon Rattle was rhapsodizing about 'Stele,' the work he is about to perform with the Berlin Philharmonic. 'It's like a gravestone on which the entire history of European music is written,' he said. 'I just find it one of the most profoundly moving pieces. And my experience has been that audiences take to it absolutely immediately, because they can tell how genuine it is.'"
Eichler also went to the source, discussing Stele with Kurtag himself, in-person, earlier this fall:
"Sitting at his desk, looking down at the score, Kurtag grasped for words to explain this sudden congregation of otherworldly flutes. Whatever it was, it seemed to be of vital importance and personal resonance. He ultimately leaned on an image from Russian literature.
This is music, he said, of someone lying wounded on a battlefield. 'The fighting rages all around him, but he sees only a very clear, very blue sky.' Kurtag paused, again searching for words. 'His feeling is that nothing is as important as this sky.'"