Marta Kurtag Dies at 92, Sundering a Profound Musical Partnership

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Marta Kurtag, a pianist and teacher who shared a 72-year collaboration with her husband, the prominent avant-garde composer Gyorgy Kurtag, profoundly influencing his work and joining him in dual recitals that acquired a legendary reputation in their later years, died on Oct. 17 in Budapest. She was 92.

Her death, in a hospital, was confirmed by the Budapest Music Center, a performing arts complex with an apartment where she lived with Mr. Kurtag.

“Occasionally I have had the feeling that, to the world at large, I only exist as the wife of Gyorgy Kurtag and not an independent being,” Mrs. Kurtag said in the notes for her only solo recording, an account of Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations that was recorded in 1999 but not released until 2009.

“That is not a bad thing, indeed it’s very good of course, even though it has at times been the cause of tears,” she continued. “But I felt the need to set down the work, to show who I am, and what I know about it.”

Mrs. Kurtag knew a lot. She played a pivotal role in Hungarian musical life as a piano teacher — first at the Bela Bartok College of Music in Budapest, between 1953 and 1963, and after 1972 on the faculty of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, Hungary’s storied conservatory, from which she had graduated in 1952.

A pianist of considerable skill and insight, she had a solo career of her own in Eastern Europe. But even her own understanding of the pieces she played was, she wrote, the product of a lifetime of joint effort that started with her marriage in 1947.

“Right from the beginning Gyorgy and I divided the repertoire between us,” Mrs. Kurtag said in her notes. “If I played Schumann’s F sharp minor sonata, he would play Schumann’s G minor sonata; if he played the five-part C sharp minor fugue from ‘The Well-Tempered Clavier,’ I would play the five-part B flat minor fugue. If he played the Eroica Variations at his graduation concert, then a year later I played the Diabelli Variations at mine.”

Her performance of the Diabelli Variations in 1952 was thought to be the first in Hungary since World War II.

When it came time for her to study that work, she said, “We had to resolve by ourselves the special problems of interpretation required by the variations.”

“I use the plural as always,” she wrote, because “we have worked together throughout our long lives since.”

Mrs. Kurtag’s contribution to her husband’s success long went unacknowledged. She was always central to his life as a muse, a critic and a performer, but her role became noted as such only later — even by Mr. Kurtag himself.

Speaking to The New York Times about his much-delayed only opera, “Endgame,” based on the play by Samuel Beckett, which had its premiere at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 2018, Mr. Kurtag said his wife had become indispensable to completing the work.

“At the end,” he said, “she didn’t just have thoughts on orchestration; she was composing the music.”

Mrs. Kurtag, sitting nearby, interjected, “That is a bit of an exaggeration.”

Even so, to its admirers, Mr. Kurtag’s concise, concentrated music always somehow seemed to reflect her influence.

“The deep love that glows through his music” was most likely “an expression of his extraordinary relationship with his wife, Marta,” the pianist Mitsuko Uchida said in a citation when she nominated the couple for the Franco Buitoni Award, which they received in 2017.

“They live music together,” Ms. Uchida, who has performed Mr. Kurtag’s music, said.

The joint piano recitals Mrs. Kurtag performed with her husband were crucial in her growing international prominence.

“You felt that you were eavesdropping on an intimate family affair,” the critic Alex Ross wrote in The New Yorker of a concert in Vienna in 2006. “Like some sweet old couple in a movie, the Kurtags smiled at each other and allowed their bodies to sway with the music, apparently oblivious of the packed hall of new-music aficionados watching them.

“But what playing! To close, the Kurtags performed an arrangement of the opening movement of Bach’s cantata ‘Gottes Zeit ist Die Allerbeste Zeit,’ which was — how else to put it? — one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.”

Often given at an upright piano with its soft pedal permanently depressed, the unassuming but intense concerts interwove similarly otherworldly transcriptions of works by Bach with the two- and four-hand aphorisms of “Jatekok” (“Games”), pieces that Mr. Kurtag has written throughout his life, often with Mrs. Kurtag in mind.

The combination of Bach, Kurtag and Kurtag was “itself a composition, with a rationale that goes on disclosing itself,” the critic Paul Griffiths wrote in a New York Times review of their recording on ECM of “Jatekok” pieces, released in 1997, which has acquired a devoted following. A 2016 compilation on BMC documented tapings of the “Jatekok” that they made across the span of their lives together for Hungarian Radio.

Marta Kinsker was born on Sept. 30, 1927, to a Jewish family in Esztergom, Hungary, a historic city on the Danube River 30 miles northwest of Budapest. Her father, Armin, was a civil engineer and her mother, Borbala Stern, a teacher.

Marta began studying piano at age 5, and showed enough promise to be sent at 11 to continue her studies in Debrecen, near the border with Romania to the east. Already at risk, Jews faced increasing repression there from a regime allied to Germany after war broke out.

Her father urged her to flee. With forged papers and the help of a Zionist group, she left for Romania. Left behind, her parents and her brother perished.

While a refugee in Bucharest, Ms. Kinsker met Gyorgy Ligeti, the other great 20th-century composer trained in Hungary. After the war they returned to Budapest to study at the Liszt Academy, where she met Mr. Kurtag.

The Kurtags remained friends with the Ligetis throughout the postwar period, A 2018 article in The Spectator noted that they spent “every Saturday singing Mozart operas at the piano, Marta taking the female parts, Ligeti the male, Kurtag the orchestra.”

When the Soviet Union sent troops to crush the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, the Ligetis decided to leave. The Kurtags chose, at the very last minute, to stay. The Kurtags and the Ligetis were reunited a year later while Mr. Kurtag studied in Paris with Messiaen and Milhaud.

Along with her husband, Mrs. Kurtag is survived by their son, Gyorgy Jr., a compose, and three grandchildren.

In a recent interview, Mr. Kurtag said that his wife was “the first reliable critical authority to either accept or reject my compositions.”

“I only ever show a work of mine to others after getting her confirmation that she likes it,” he added. “She actually understands composition better than I do.”


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