Anu Komsi and Patricia Kopatchinskaja Draw Listeners into Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Kurtág: Anu Komsi (soprano), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin). Royal Festival Hall, London, 7.2.2016 (MB)

Kafka Fragments, op.26

György Kurtág is the last man standing. Although not quite a member of the ‘post-war avant-garde’ in the sense that composers such as Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono, Berio, Ligeti, et al. were, he is of that generation, and has had much in common with them. When, as a boy, I first became seriously interested in music, all of those composers, bar Nono, were alive; now, following the death of Boulez, only Kurtág remains. If his international star perhaps burned a little less brightly to begin with, that was probably because, unlike his fellow student Ligeti, he remained in post-1956 Hungary. Kurtág’s aphoristic style, however, owes arguably as much to Webern as does the music of any other of those composers; indeed, Kurtág learned a great deal from copying out Webern’s scores. Kafka Fragments is one of those Kurtág works constructed out of, yes, fragments; in 1985, it was the largest such to date. Although it has received a good few performances recently, this was my first opportunity to attend one, intriguingly programmed as part of the Southbank Centre’s Changing Minds 2016 weekend mental health festival.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, who had performed Schumann’s Violin Concerto as part of this same festival, the night before, was joined by Anu Komsi to perform this work of forty fragments. My impression was that this was an unusually broadly-conceived performance; even allowing for having started five-or-so minutes late, and for pauses, it lasted considerably longer than advertised. The work’s progress did not, however, drag; indeed, on both a micro- and a macro-level, one was drawn in, Nono-like, to listen. Collaboration between the two artists was, as it would have to be, extremely close; this was a performance that partook of the gestural, indeed almost of the staged, as much as of the musical, without in any sense minimising the musical achievement. The fine booklet note by Bruce Hodges offered an excellent simile, which, to me penetrated to the heart of the performance as well as the work: ‘The singer and the violinist are equal partners, like two gnarled branches, intertwining as they age, each subtly affecting the growth of the other. (Kurtág loves the strange trees in the Parc Montsouris in Paris.)’ From the weary tread of the violin’s Schritt in the opening ‘Die Guten gehn im gleichen Schritt’, the voice itself emerged. Or had it been there all along, silent? Such thoughts were not, I hope, just pseudery, although you may think otherwise, but rather a consequence of the closeness of collaboration, both musicians playing from a single score.

Mood – perhaps, given the circumstances, an especially important consideration – ranged widely, whilst rarely, if ever, registering as unambiguously bright. The texts are, after all, by Kafka. Violinistic ferocity in ‘Ruhelos’, followed by the whispering of the fragment’s single word, might have led anywhere; only after the event did it seem necessary for Kopatchinskaja to have taken up her own challenge, in the next-but-one fragment, ‘Nimmermehr (Excommunicatio)’, with virtuosic descending figuration, quickly responded to by its inversion, or something close thereto. The ultra-melismatic writing of ‘Die Weissnäherinnen’ was relished by Komsi, just as was the alternation between Sprechstimme and song in ‘Zwei Spazierstöcke (Authentisch-plagal)’. Dance rhythms from old Mitteleuropa haunted the ‘Chassidischer Tanz’ as they did ‘Szene in der Elektrischen’, its kinship with Bartók especially resonant. Webern naturally came to mind on several occasions, none more strongly than in the high-altitude stillness of ‘Träumend hing die Blume (Hommage à Schumann)’; so, however, perhaps did the mountain-lake tranquillity, that yet moves, of the slow movement to the Hammerklavier Sonata. My own fancies? Perhaps; who knows? The openness of work and performance was, I suspect, not entirely neutral, though, in provoking such reflection.

Liszt in Mephisto-mode had swiftly followed in the closing number of the first part, ‘Nichts dergleichen’, preparing the way, or perhaps not, for the single number in the second part, ‘Der wahre Weg (Hommage-message à Pierre Boulez)’. This seemed, and I mean this not at all in a negative sense, to last quite some time; as for minutes on the clock, I have not the faintest idea. However, as something akin to a still, small voice of calm spoke, we experienced the arduous nature of the path that ‘goes by way of a rope that is suspended not high up, but rather just above the ground’. As if, paradoxically, rejuvenated through the exhaustion that entailed, the third part changed tack in nervy yet bright fashion with its opening ‘Haben? Sein?’

Was it just the language of ‘Der begrenzte Kreis’ that provoked a momentary thought of Pierrot? Difficult to say, but I think it was something more, however difficult or impossible to put into words; the musico-dramatic prowess of the performers almost certainly played a part too. When it came to the fourth and final part, the opening ‘Zu spat (22 Oktober 1913) sounded ‘too late’ indeed: no hysteria, just quiet despair, all the more deadly for its soft-spoken motion. The line ‘Ich lebe rasch’ in the ensuing ‘Eine lange Geschichte’ seemed to burn itself out, almost as if delivered by Don Giovanni himself. It was the ecstasy, the extremity of the post-Gurrelieder Wild Hunt that seemed to haunt ‘In memoriam Robert Klein’: almost, yet not quite, necessitating the measured diagnosis of ‘Aus einem alten Notizbuch’. I say ‘almost, yet not quite’, since the relationship between the fragments is often difficult to describe; one feels it, yet one seems not really to know it. The halting progress one makes in that respect as listener is perhaps not unlike that the performance evoked in ‘In memoriam Joannis Pilinszky’. The closing ‘Es blendete uns die Mondnacht’ provoked all manner of conflicting reactions concerning the fragments and their assembly. Such is surely as it should be, given the centrality of the fragment to any consideration of the modernism whose flame yet flickers and burns in Kurtág’s art.

Mark Berry

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