KURTAG: Kafka Fragmente – Caroline Melzer, sop./Nurit Stark, v. – BIS

KURTAG: Kafka Fragmente – Caroline Melzer, sop./Nurit Stark, v. – BIS-2175, 58:08 multichannel SACD (Dist. by Naxos) *****: 

Challenging these pieces may be, but if you buy this SACD, it will give you gooseflesh if you listen closely.

Those famous works by Franz Kafka that you read in school? Not his best. The Trial, that novel about the nameless bureaucratic murder of an ordinary citizen has its moments, but overall I find the writing thuddingly prosaic. “Metamorphosis,” the short story about an ordinary citizen symbolically turned into a giant cockroach, shows better craft but belabors its central point. (It’s better as an animated cartoon.) And don’t get me started on The Castle and America, works so leaden and desultory I couldn’t get through them. No, the best of Kafka’s work is short. Very short. It’s found only in his fragments.

The joining of modernist composer György Kurtág’s music to Franz Kafka’s letters and diary excerpts (the closest he came to poetry) is a fortuitous one for the late twentieth century. Here’s how it was done: “There is a destination, but no path to it; what we call a path is hesitation.” In Kurtág’s music, soprano Caroline Melzer holds one long note at the final word “hesitation” and a far northern breeze chills your blood. Then there’s this gem: “I look a girl in the eye/ and it was a very long love story/ with thunder and kisses and lighting. I live fast.” The accompanying music? Not what you’d expect. They play it haltingly, in choppy staccato phrases as if Kafka is sure neither of the direction nor outcome of this affair. Nurit Stark’s violin playing is exemplary, particularly in the sprightly longish piece “Scene on a Tram.” Other violinists warn that the music is “borderline unplayable,” but Stark scorns such trepidation. I particularly like their performance in this one: “Slept, woke, slept, woke /miserable life.” These words sound depressing, but the music? Not so. Abrupt tonal and tempo shifts between the words “slept” and “woke” are actually funny.

Beware though. Don’t play this music in your car, unless you intend to read the libretto at stoplights. Some fragments are self-evident statements of Kafka’s depressive outlook and self-loathing, but others form glimmering shards of meaning or just fleeting impressions. Like this one: “Nothing of the kind, nothing of the kind.” That’s all there is. So what’s it mean? Listen to the music and find out. Meltzer sings her way through this one-minute piece like a crazy woman raging at the world. The last half is nothing but violin-accompanied, high-pitched shrieks of the word “nichts.” My wife walked by when it was playing. “Are you reviewing this or something?” she said, her code words for whenever she hears a particularly … uh, challenging work.

Challenging these pieces may be, but if you buy this SACD, it will give you gooseflesh if you listen closely enough. And you’ll learn the significance of the Shire draft horse on the front cover.

—Peter Bates

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