György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragmente (ECM New Series 1965)


György Kurtág

Juliane Banse soprano
András Keller violin
Recorded September 2005, Reitstadl, Neumarkt
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended not high up, but rather just above the ground. Its purpose seems to be more to make one stumble than to be walked on.
–Franz Kafka

The Kafka-Fragmente (1985-87) of György Kurtág make up the composer’s longest song cycle to date. Written for soprano and violin, its forty short pieces fall just shy of an hour. While Kurtág frames the text, consisting of fragments from Franz Kafka’s diaries and letters, and its ordering as being secondary to the music, I believe a closer look at the words can only enrich one’s experience of these finely composed vignettes. In the same way that Kurtág has pulled Kafka out of context and reworked him, so too has he pulled melodic material from the words themselves and fashioned it into a demanding exercise in instrumental and vocal economy. The scoring may be sparse; the results are anything but. Kurtág’s miniaturist approach ensures that every word gets its unadulterated moment, while the intimate arrangements pay due attention to the space into which those words are deployed.

Some of these pieces are relentlessly dramatic—“Ruhelos” (Restless), “Stolz” (Pride), “Nichts dergleichen” (Nothing of the kind) come to mind—and others meditative—“Berceuse I,” “Träumend hing die Blume” (The flower hung dreamily), “Ziel, Weg, Zögern” (Destination, path, hesitation)—but all are linked by dialogue. Still others are playfully programmatic and concise, such as “Es zupfte mich jemand am Kleid” (Someone tugged at my clothes) and “Eine lange Geschichte” (A long story). The one fragment that is Part II, which I have quoted above, is a haunting piece and seems to act as the center toward which the others gravitate.

As part of a lifetime’s worth of personal musings and correspondences, Kafka’s jottings are, of course, rather candid, and indeed give us a “fragmentary” vision of the great writer. None is perhaps so self-deprecating as his letter to Milena Jesenká. “I am dirty,” he writes, “endlessly dirty, that is why I make such a fuss about cleanliness. None sing as purely as those in deepest hell; it is their singing that we take for the singing of angels.” Whatever darkness this piece may imply on the printed page is immediately transformed into a serenade, evoking the final image with voracious dedication. We find another lyrical moment in the mysterious “Verstecke” (Hiding-places), in which Kafka muses: “There are countless hiding-places, but only one salvation; but then again, there are as many paths to salvation as there are hiding-places,” and for which the accompaniment is suitably cryptic, scampering toward any available cranny in which it might conceal itself. Another highlight is “Szene in der Elektrischen” (Scene on a tram), a whimsical anecdote about street musicians and the delicate line they walk between musical appreciation and intrusion into personal space. Because the story tells of two violinists, the violinist must switch between two differently tuned instruments on either side of the soprano, who strings the narrative along with her own bowed articulations. The final fragment, “Es blendete uns die Mondnacht…” (The moonlit night dazzled us…), is a brooding and mystical evocation of animal spirits and the limits of human understanding.

Soprano Juliane Banse displays a superb command of voice as she squeals, chirps, and whispers her way through Kurtág’s personal selections, and violinist András Keller negotiates the minutiae therein with finesse and panache, while also managing to maintain the touch-and-go relationship with the texts at hand. In spite of the bright performances and ingenuity throughout, this isn’t necessarily music to have on the in the background while surfing the internet or throwing a dinner party (and to anyone using Kurtág to enhance a soiree, I humbly request that you invite me), but rather demands our attention as “readers.” Kurtág was in the studio throughout the entire recording process, and his presence is palpable. It is only appropriate, then, that we be just as present in the listening.

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