György Kurtág actually composed Az hit for soprano. The aphoristic, atmospherically dense piece is part of his Lieder cycle The Proverbs of Péter Bornemisza, which Kurtág wrote between 1963 and 1968; it is the Hungarian composer’s major work of the 1960s. Laid out in four large sections – Confession, Sin, Death and Spring – it consists of maxims of the 16th-century Protestant preacher, describing a path to salvation: from satanic temptations to the mercy of compassion.
Az hit (Faith) stands at the beginning of the part entitled Spring. A solo soprano sings the melody which, closely oriented to the text, features many leaps, while the depressed pedal on the piano provides reverberation. Kurtág’s transcription of Az hit for solo violoncello (published for the first time in 2007 by Universal Edition) gives Bornemisza’s text below the staff with the note “The underlying text is for understanding purposes only: it is not to be sung.”
Except for a few added double-stops, Kurtág’s cello version adheres faithfully to the soprano melody. “Parlando, rubato, con slancio, molto passionato” is the character marking above the movement, thus advising a rhythmically free interpretation patterned on the language. The amount of information on the two pages of score paper is remarkable; along with precise indications of articulation and some awkward bowings, there are a number of instructions regarding the formal structure. Long, dashed phrasing lines clarify units of meaning, additionally marked with numbers. Combined with the text (in three languages – Hungarian, German, English), the circumstance may arise that the performer no longer sees the forest for the trees; here, less might have been more. There are also unusual performance markings, such as the frequent small semicircles placed over individual notes; explanations from the publisher would be helpful.
Not only does the violoncello’s sonorous and balanced tone make it eminently suited to this music (to be rendered cantabile); the extreme leaps of up to three octaves can also be realised without losing the melodic line. Kurtág includes fermatas to let the music resonate in the silence, as if the cellist needed to draw breath for the next phrase; thus, it is only a short path from the violoncello back to the soprano voice.