Melzer & Stark Perform Kurtág’s “Kafka Fragments”

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KURTÁG: Kafka Fragments / Caroline Melzer, soprano; Nurit Stark, violinist / Bis SACD-2175

Here is another recording by Nurit Stark that I missed when it came out in 2015. Until a few years ago, I had never heard of, let alone heard, György Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments, but this is now the second recording of them I’ve heard (the first being by Anu Komsi). Written between 1985 and 1987, it is based on Franz Kafka’s diaries as well as posthumously published letters and stories. Although there are 40 songs in the cycle, the 20th is the longest in the entire cycle, but by “long” we’re only talking about seven minutes and 22 seconds.

I’m not sure, however, if the photo of the horse’s head on the cover of this disc is particularly apropos or helpful to one’s understanding of the music although the text of No. 31 is, “Amazed, we saw the great horse. It broke through the ceiling of our room, the cloudy sky scudded weakly along its mighty silhouette as its mane streamed in the wind.” Maybe that’s why ol’ Dobbin is on the cover.

Since this is a Nurit Stark recording, of course the music had to be edgy and rather sad in character. She is not a violinist to play the Paganini Caprice No. 20 or Dinicu’s Hora Staccato for folks. But of course I’m just being a little tongue-in-cheek about this; as I said in my previous reviews, we clearly need an artist of her integrity and resoluteness in sticking primarily to modern repertoire.

Happily, Caroline Melzer is a pretty good soprano. She has a very pretty timbre and absolutely superb diction (one of my bugaboos in reviewing modern singers), her only flaw being some unsteadiness in sustained tones. Although she has sung such conventional operatic roles as the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, Giulietta in Les contes d’Hoffmann and Lisa in Pique Dame, she has also sung in operas by Aribert Reimann and given numerous lieder recitals. She thus makes an excellent partner for Stark and a fine exponent of these modern songs, giving great attention and meaning to the words being sung. But these are not so much poetic texts as simply good old Kafka’s depressed psyche expressing itself in brief statements, i.e.:

Someone tugged at my clothes, but I shrugged him off.

Slept, woke, slept, woke…miserable life.

Once I broke my leg: it was the most wonderful experience of my life.

I tell you, this guy was undoubtedly a big hit at parties. One of the edgiest, least lyrical vocal lines is written for No. 19:

Nothing of the kind, nothing of the kind.

The longest song is set to the text of “The true path goes by way of a rope that is suspended not high up, but neither just above the ground,” and is dedicated as an homage to Pierre Boulez. Despite some microtonal slides for the violinist, this one is surprisingly rather tonal and even a bit lyrical in style, not as edgy as most of the others. Indeed, the variety of styles that Kurtág used in these songs-with-violin is not only surprising but welcome, and should serve as a lesson to many modern composers who all write in the same edgy-abrasive style, as if that were the only way to write new music. A few of them sound like some of the atonal music of the 1960s, such as No. 26 (The Closed Circle) while others lie in a space halfway between lyricism and edginess. Judging solely by this cycle, I think Kurtág is not nearly as resistant to lyricism as his older colleague, György Ligeti, was, and that’s a good thing because it shows that he has more range.

I found myself mesmerized while listening to this disc, and that surprised even me. I can’t claim to have heard many other complete recordings of this cycle, but I honestly can’t imagine them being sung or played, as a complete series, better than this.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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