A little over a week ago the Swedish BIS Records label released a new recording that explores another aspect of Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s ability to pack considerable expressiveness into highly brief durations. The single CD provides a complete performance of Kurtág’s Opus 24 Kafka-Fragmente (Kafka fragments), composed between 1985 and 1986 and scored for soprano and violin. The soprano on this new recording is Caroline Melzer, performing with violinist Nurit Stark.
Like Kurtág’s ongoing Játékok (games) project, Kafka-Fragmente definitely has the virtue of truth in advertising. Just as there is always at least one ludic element in each of the brief pieces for piano in Játékok, the libretto for Kafka-Fragmente consists entirely of fragmented texts by Franz Kafka. The texts are all prose; and they come from three sources, Kafka’s diaries, letters, and stories none of which were published until after his death. Stylistically, each source may be treated as an aphorism; and Kurtág’s setting amounts to an expressive declaration of that aphorism. Considering that Kafka may not have intended any of these sources to see the light of day, the decision to “declare” any of them has a certain element of prankishness about it; but the fact that Kurtág selected these texts at all should probably be taken as evidence that he felt that Kafka’s messages were worth delivering.
Kafka-Fragmente consists of 40 of these fragments, unevenly distributed across four parts. The second of those parts consists of only a single fragment; and, ironically, while it is the longest composition, the text itself is not the longest of the 40 fragments. Indeed, it is rather brief: “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.” This is, at the very least, arch; but Kurtág ups the ante with a subtitle that describes it as an “homage-message” to Pierre Boulez. Was Kurtág invoking Kafka to twit Boulez for his austere avoidance of any sign of stumbling? The longest of the remaining parts is the first, with nineteen fragments. The third and fourth parts have twelve and eight fragments, respectively.
At the end of the day, this is truly a fascinating project on Kurtág’s part. What makes it particularly interesting is that one can become totally absorbed in reading the libretto in silence, simply because so many of these text fragments reveal aspects of Kafka’s personal character that one would not guess at from the “official canon.” It is hard to read any of them, even the very short and enigmatic ones, without wonder what sort of personality would conjure up such semantic wonders. In some respects this may actually be a good approach to listening. By forming personal opinions of each fragment, the listener is better prepared to draw comparisons with Kurtág’s own impressions. Those impressions have been rendered with expert clarity by both Melzer and Stark, making such an approach to listening a somewhat eccentric, but most likely rewarding, experience.