Kurtag: Kafka-Fragmente, Op. 24

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COMPOSERS: Kurtag
LABELS: ECM
ALBUM TITLE: Kurtág
WORKS: Kafka-Fragmente, Op. 24
PERFORMER: Juliane Banse (soprano), András Keller (violin)
CATALOGUE NO: 476 3099
If the fragment is the archetypal 20th-century art-work, Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente of 1985-86 seems the archetypal late 20th-century song-cycle. Consisting of 40, mainly tiny, movements for soprano and violin – on phrases and sentences extracted from the author’s letters and diaries – Kafka-Fragmente imposes its own order and interpretation on these desolate, ambiguous texts by means of piercing expressionist gesture. Paul Griffiths’s notes compare it to Schubert’s Winterreise, except that here the journey is wholly internal, the landscape that of the restless mind and despairing heart. A swoop of the voice, an exclamation, a chord here, a goal-less ostinato there: that can be a whole movement, and yet the precision with which everything is placed means these elements build into a major spell-binding work.

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The musical language, reduced to shards and splinters, has roots from Bach to Webern, via Schumann; and Kurtág pays all his debts to Magyar music (and Bartók in particular) in the brilliant Csárdás of No. 32, ‘Scene on a Tram’. Juliane Banse is focussed in the drama and atmosphere of each phrase over the cruelly immense vocal range, down to the yelping-dog effect of ‘Sunday, 19th July 1910’. András Keller has long been associated with Kurtág’s music, and participated in ECM’s recording of Bartók’s 44 Duos. He plays with sovereign eloquence. Urgently recommended. Calum MacDonald