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György Kurtág, Kafka-Fragmente, op. 24, Juliane Banse and András Keller (released on March 28, 2006)
With the passing of György Ligeti, the laurels of most important living composer may pass to György Kurtág, at least in my mind: indeed, some already thought that way, and he did win the Grawemeyer Award last year. He celebrated his 80th birthday in February. The last piece by Kurtág that I heard live was Jelek, játékok és üzenetek (Signs, Games, and Messages, 1989-1997), begun shortly after the work under review, Kafka-Fragmente, op. 24, was finished. Both works have a similar makeup, as does much of Kurtág's music, a series of small bagatelle-like miniatures. Kurtág has often acknowledged his sympathy for the works of Robert Schumann, for whom we are also celebrating a significant anniversary this year and who was another composer gifted with miniatures and songs.

Kurtág composed Kafka-Fragmente for soprano Adrienne Csengery and violinist András Keller, who premiered the work in 1987, after working with the composer on revisions during rehearsal. The pair made a recording, released on CD in 1995, with Hungaroton. (I read several reviews of last year's semi-staging of these pieces by Peter Sellars, with Dawn Upshaw and Geoff Nuttall. No word on a DVD release yet.) This new version from ECM New Series is a most welcome rendition, pairing Keller's expertise with the music, having been there at its birth, with the extraordinary voice of German soprano Juliane Banse. She brings a flexible and operatic power (most needed in the electrifying shrieks of Fragment 19, Nichts dergleichen, 'Nothing of the kind'), pure and accurate production (the tuning of dissonances is nearly flawless), and of course a mother tongue pronunciation of the German text. Kurtág selected brief texts, sometimes only a couple words not even comprising a sentence, from the diaries and letters of the singular writer Franz Kafka, who lived in Prague but wrote in German as his first language.

Kurtág's settings can be strikingly literal, like the plodding violin in no. 1 (Die Guten gehn im gleichen Schritt..., The good march in step...), the twitching figures in no. 8 (Es zupfte mich jemand am Kleid, Someone tugged at my clothes), or the fluttering violin notes in no. 2 (Wie ein Weg im Herbst, Like a pathway in autumn). However, with those texts that are not descriptive, that capture the meaningless of Kafka's world, it is there that Kurtág's music excels. Sonntag, den 19. Juli 1910 (Berceuse II), in fact, receives two settings of the desperate words from Kafka's diary: "Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life." The first lasts 1:16, while the second, subtitled "Double" or an ornamented repeat, is only 0:21. Can such a complicated sentiment be expressed musically in so short a time? Kafka did it with six words. If existential, sometimes thorny, modern song is up your alley, this cycle is highly recommended.

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