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Mauricio Kagel plays with the semantics of ‘play’ in his piano trios

Cover of the recording being discussed, showing the members of Trio Imàge
Cover of the recording being discussed, showing the members of Trio Imàge
courtesy of ClassicsOnline

Yesterday I wrote about how one could approach the short pieces for piano in György Kurtág’s Játékok (games) as an exploration of the rich semantic potential behind the word “play.” Today I would like to shift attention to another particularly adventurous composer who was active during the last hundred years, the Argentinian Mauricio Kagel. The second sentence of his Wikipedia entry states (with citation):

He was notable for his interest in developing the theatrical side of musical performance.

This would often involve embedding the act of playing music into a dramatic context, weaving an even more elaborate semantic web than Kurtág had constructed by turning performance into “playing within a play.”

This past February CAvi-music released a recording of the three piano trios that Kagel composed during his lifetime. They are performed by a group calling itself Trio Imàge, consisting of Gergana Gergova on violin, Thomas Kaufmann on cello, and Pavlin Nechev on piano. The trios cover a substantial span of Kagel’s life. The first was written between 1984 and 1985, the second in 2001, and the last between 2006 and 2007, not long before Kagel’s death in 2008.

The accompanying notes by Rainer Nonnenmann describe these trios as being “purely musical.” This may be accurate when compared with Kagel’s early string quartets in which the score is supplemented with stage directions for each of the four performers. However, even if “the act of playing music” does not entail “dramatic acting,” there is still a readily detectable element of dramatism in all three of these trios.

Thus, although Kagel describes the pieces only in terms of the number of movements (three in the first trio, one in the second, two in the third), each individual movement is structured as a series of episodes. While these episodes do not necessarily link together to define a narrative thread, the listener is better off approaching each movement as a narrating voice, rather than an instance of any conventional musical structure realized through the traditional grammatical constraints of contrapuntal voice-leading or harmonic progression. In other words the music is decidedly dramatic; but it is a “personal drama” that resides only in the mind of the individual attentive listener.

I would therefore say that the listener can take or leave any of the descriptive material in the accompanying booklet as (s)he sees fit. This is music that speaks to the listener without any third party required to explain, or even describe, what it is saying. All that really matters is the clarity with which each member of Trio Imàge performs his/her part. On the basis of having listened to a fair amount of Kagel’s music, mostly through recordings, I can say that my reaction to Trio Imàge lies somewhere between comfortably satisfied and particularly impressed.