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György Kurtág: Juliane Banse (soprano), András Keller (violin). Wigmore Hall, London. 18. 2. 2011 (KC)


This is a minor masterpiece. It sets forty fragments from the diaries, notebooks and letters of Franz Kafka, with whom Kurtág came to identify. From 1957 to 1985 he collected the prose extracts, setting them to music in 1985/86. The work, which he originally entitled ‘Meine Gefängniszelle – meine Festung’ (‘My prison cell – my fortress’), falls into four parts, largely arranged by the musicologist András Wilhelm, who described the work as ‘a kaleidoscope in a classical frame’.

The settings are for solo soprano, coupled with solo violin. It is, one might say, a work composed for two voices, one of which is able to articulate words. (In fact, two violins alternate, the one tuned in the orthodox manner, the other to cope with quarter-tones.) The writing, as one might expect from Kurtág, is extraordinarily spare. Gradually, cumulatively, the listener realises that this composition is nevertheless extraordinarily rich and varied – in both content and technique.

The ‘fragments’ vary from parable to paradox, from exaggeration to suddenness, from statement to outburst, from detached observation to declarations of despair. There is a strong undercurrent of a sense of shame, failure and inadequacy. More overt is the ‘spiritual’ behest to ascertain and follow the ‘path’ of goodness – which, with wry self-deprecation, Kafka describes thus: ‘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 upon’ (Part 2).

At times, the violin plays simple, isolated, often strident, strokes of sound, some double-stopped. Here it seems to be providing musical punctuation or italicising for emphasis. At other, it accompanies in smooth, almost-melodic counterpoint, providing an underlying commentary. At others still, it gives loud, grating, busy ostinato in contrast to the smoother voice-line. Here, we hear two contrary voices within the same head. Occasionally, the violin plays alone, as if freed to speak its mind. As the work progresses, the violin become a more vigorous partner – and dances with fervour.

Equally vigorous demands are made upon the soprano – not least in the unrelenting concentration required, as in, for example, the intense and often impassioned accuracy of the awkward, often ungrateful, intervals she must articulate with pinpoint accuracy. The programme notes comment on demands for grotesquerie, ‘with strident, choked sound’, repeating a snippet ‘until the voice fails at last’.

Juliane Banse and András Keller have identified themselves with this rich and exacting work, which they have previously recorded (review). Last Thursday, it was a rare and inspirational experience to hear these two remarkable musicians perform it live, lending their dedication and intensity of purpose to purveying this extraordinary, minuscule panorama of mankind’s search for emotional deliverance.

Ken Carter

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