Gyorgy Kurtag’s Stele, which began Markus Stenz‘s recent stint on the Philharmonic podium, begins with a gleaming chord on G that, for its first couple of seconds, could pass for early Beethoven. Then it suddenly, fascinatingly darkens; there are glissandos across its surface that pull it out of ”normal“ tuning and into mystery. The rest of the work’s 14-or-so-minute length deepens the mystery. Kurtag demands strange instruments and puts them to strange uses: Four Wagner tubas on one side of the stage challenge, and are answered by, four trombones on the other side; the subtle difference in the intonations of these instruments sets up a clash. So do the infinitesimal discrepancies in the antiphony of grand piano, upright piano, celesta and cimbalom. The sounds pile up; ”stele“ is Greek for ”pillar.“ Then they disintegrate; the piece holds you in its grip, but is soon over. That‘s Kurtag’s way: the aphorism that sweeps quickly across your horizon, and then lingers to haunt you later on.
The Brahms Violin Concerto followed, the aforementioned performance with Mullova. Hearing this work is never one of my more cherished experiences, with its orchestration the texture of last week‘s brown gravy (the winds in the slow movement excepted) and its soloist yammering hysterically into your face at close range. But I don’t remember when I less wanted to hear it than this time, while still under the spell cast by Kurtag.