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Gyorgy KURTAG (b.1926)
Kafka Fragmente Op. 24 (1985-86)
Juliane Banse (soprano)
Andras Keller (violin(
rec. Reitstadel, Neumarkt, September 2005 (no other details given)
ECM NEW SERIES 1965 4763099 [59.41]
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This disc marks the 80th birthday of Hungary’s leading, living composer. It is difficult to think of a better tribute. Here, arguably, is one of his finest and most original pieces presented in a superb performance.

It’s interesting to remark that he was born just a few weeks after Henri Dutilleux whose music seems to spill out of Debussy. Kurtag on the other hand has often claimed that Bartók has always been his inspiration. Thus we have links between masters of the 20th century.

Some readers may know another superb complementary Kurtag disc (Sony SK 53290) on which can be heard two song-cycles including ‘Messages of the late Miss. R.V. Troussove’ Op 17. What is so striking, as one looks through forty or more years of Kurtag’s creative life, is his consistency of language and the consistently fine quality of invention. He has not over-written, and manages to say a great deal in fewer notes than most composers. It’s interesting also to consider the vocal lines. They are mostly conjunct, even sometimes modally inflected and sensitively written although not without their difficulties. But it is the accompaniments which can be so startling, often digging in to the text and revealing aspects of it which can surprise and challenge. That is the case with ‘Scene from a Novel’ Op. 19 on the Sony disc and is certainly so here. Particular words are highlighted and presented dramatically by instrumental effect.

This is a point taken up in some detail in one of the booklet essays, an extensive and enthusiastic one by Thomas Bosche. The other, by Paul Griffiths, is curiously poetic. Bosche comments on Kurtag’s "onomatopoetic rendition of the textual fragments with elementary musical devices, allowing him to probe abysses of the soul with seismographic accuracy"!

This kind of word-setting is even more pronounced when the voice is accompanied for almost an hour by solo violin as in the work considered here.

You might be thinking that this unrelenting sound-world would create in the listener a passive attitude or that the work would come across as dull and definitely not for you. That is certainly not the case here. Right from the start your attention is arrested. The first song, ‘Die Guten gehn im gleichen Schritt’ has the violin rotating over two notes whilst a melancholy line winds around it with a typically aphoristic text: "The good march in step. Unaware of them, the others dance around them, the dancers of time".

But where do these texts come from exactly? Paul Griffiths calls them ‘Private writing’, This is a song-cycle of fragments. These fragments are diary jottings and aphorisms from Kafka notebooks collected and edited by Max Brod. They carry the perceptive and I think accurate if unwieldy title ‘Observations on Sin, Sorrows, Hopes and the True Path.’

Kurtag divides the printed text into four with the intense second section being just one fragment entitled ‘The True Path’. The reason, I think, is to highlight its message which acts as a microcosm for the entire cycle. The other sections have between eight and nineteen fragments. The balance of the work as a whole is never compromised.

There are a number of very moving moments. I will highlight two which are fairly typical. Song 3 ‘Versteck’ (Hiding-Places) is all over in twenty seconds; surely Anton Webern is the inspiration here. Every note counts. No word is repeated. The effect appears random and is very pointillistic. Banse is totally adept at a song like this as well as in the longer expressive ones. She characterizes the mood perfectly. She pins each note, elucidates each consonant and carefully places each vowel. In response violinist Andras Keller articulates a voice that mixes and matches and intertwines. Similarly in song 18, ‘Traumend hing die Blume’. Weighing in at two minutes and twenty seconds this is one of the longer ones. Here, a slow, wistful melancholy, a sort of expressionism for our own times, hauntingly passes over you. The violin is more high profile with the voice winding its line between longer held notes. The dynamic hardly rises above piano. The text, ‘The flower hung dreamily on its tall stem’ may remind you of the opening of Dichterliebe; not surprisingly the song is in ‘Homage to Schumann’. In contrast the next song ‘Nothing of the kind’ includes many squealings representing nihilism. Talking of Homages, several songs are thus inscribed. The whole of the second section discussed above (The True Path) is dedicated to Pierre Boulez, a man who has over the years promoted Kurtag’s works on several occasions.

This is startling and original music, wonderfully performed. Kafka Fragments is a work which I am sure will rank as a masterpiece of the late 20th Century, and which I can only advise readers to listen to and study many times over.

Gary Higginson



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