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No Going Back: Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments

By Tyler Versluis on May 12, 2014

Stacie Dunlop, soprano Photo credit- Helen Tansey
Stacie Dunlop, soprano Photo credit- Helen Tansey

At 88, György Kúrtag is Hungary’s most senior composer, and an artist whose work carries an increasing weight and importance in Europe and North America’s contemporary classical scene. Despite Kurtág’s visible roots in the European 20th century avant-garde, his music remains anomalous and hard to place; the music is often brief and gestural, carrying with it a brokenness and fragile brevity that separates him from much of the “monumentalism” of 20th century repertoire. Despite these fresh characteristics, Kurtág’s music remains intensely introspective, a quiet reminder that the 20th century was not only a period of increasing connectedness, but one of agitation, fragmentation, and loneliness.

Like most of his music, Kúrtag’s Kafka Fragments (1985-7) for soprano and violin, looks backward, drawing influence from Webern, Berg, and expressionism, particularly the concept of the artist as an “outsider” – a victim of society and its cruelty.

The marriage of Kurtág with Kafka is destiny-driven. Taking fragments of Kafka’s writing, the entire cycle consists of 40 short movements clocking in at around 70 minutes. The work is also very challenging, both for the vocalist and the violinist.

The concert on Saturday night, May 10th at Gallery 345 consisted of the Kafka Fragments and an opening piece for clarinet, bassoon and electronics, titled We Were the Sun, by reed instrumentalist Peter Lutek. Lutek’s improvisation was primarily meditative in nature, consisting of warm drones made by electronically manipulating the tones of his clarinet and bassoon.

After a short intermission, Stacie Dunlop and Andrea Neumann presented Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments in four sets. The work’s text set a wide variety of moods and situations, ranging from existential angst “Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life.” “To lost love too late. The sweetness of sorrow and love”, all drawn from Kafka’s personal writings. Dunlop and Neumann performed the work with intentional precision. Dunlop’s voice was strong and agile, and melodically leaped about like a violinist’s figures jumping across strings. Neumann’s violin primarily provided accompaniment, though occasionally crept to the forefront of the texture with bright, angular virtuosity.

A musical work of such importance and virtuosity will be rarely heard even in Toronto, and both Dunlop and Neumann should be commended not only for their discipline and artistry, but also for their bravery at committing themselves to such a challenge.

Tyler Versluis

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