The Southbank Centre’s weekend exploring mental health coincided neatly with the 90th birthday this month of György Kurtág, whose music is connected to ideas of psychology more explicitly than most. And the musician forming the fulcrum of its two concerts was Patricia Kopatchinskaja, a violinist who makes music seem a direct, almost unmediated communication of a state of mind.
In his Kafka Fragments, Kurtág set 40 snippets from the writer’s letters and diaries. Some last a few minutes, most only a few seconds. Kopatchinskaja and soprano Anu Komsi performed them on the Festival Hall stage with their backs to the empty auditorium; the audience was on stage and in the choir stalls. In such proximity Komsi could whisper, or use a quiet tone as pure as a sine wave, then shock us with a blast of passionate fortissimo intensity. Kopatchinskaja was her equal partner in these tiny, distilled narratives, weaving sounds around her that crunched, slid, soared, grated or danced – then switching mercurially into a new mood. It was mentally exhausting, like being forced to speed-read a poetry book when you wanted to linger, but it was riveting, too.
Kurtág had provided Kopatchinskaja’s encores the evening before, when she had played Schumann’s Violin Concerto with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under Marin Alsop. Either side, the OAE gave a thickly woven performance of Brahms’s Haydn Variations and an uplifting, dynamic one of Schumann’s Rhenish Symphony. Schumann’s concerto is itself eccentric, a sprawling work by a composer on the cusp of syphilitic madness, but to call Kopatchinskaja’s approach to it unconventional is only the start. She and her gut-stringed violin pounced, pleaded, skittered and swung through it, and Alsop and the orchestra backed her choices all the way; together they made the opening of the slow movement something strikingly amorphous. Perhaps no violinist can make this work sound like a masterpiece, though plenty can make it sound intermittently noble, graceful or pretty. Kopatchinskaja, instead, made it sound alive.
• On BBC Radio 3, 8 February, then on BBC iPlayer until 9 March.