To celebrate György Kurtág's eightieth birthday on 19 February 2006, ECM issues his longest work to date, the Kafka Fragments for soprano and violin, in a new recording made in close co-operation with the composer. As with his previous albums for ECM, Kurtág's presence at the recording sessions can be considered as a seal of quality: for virtually his entire career he has taught countless international master classes in chamber music in Budapest, training generations of musicians to approach the masterpieces of music history with modesty and humility. His gimlet eye for seemingly inconspicuous details is legendary. During the composition of the Kafka Fragments the violinist András Keller, who has been familiar with Kurtág’s work for many years, advised him in questions of instrumental technique. In 1987 he gave the work its premičre at the Witten Festival of Contemporary Chamber Music, along with the soprano Adrienne Csengery; later he took part in the first recording for Hungaroton. The German soprano Juliane Banse has sung the Kafka Fragments in many recitals over the years, allowing her rich experience in lied performance and contemporary music to influence her interpretation. With her superb virtuosity and powers of expression, she conveys both the work's highly emotional passages and the intimate simplicity of its lyrical sections.
In an introduction to a performance of the Kafka Fragments at the 1993 Salzburg Festival, Kurtág recalled how he came to write his fifth song cycle in 1985. For years he had jotted down excerpts from Kafka's diaries, letters and posthumous fragments that he felt were 'composable'. One day a teaching commitment forced him to stop work on a piano concerto (it still remains unfinished), and he began to sketch music for some of the fragments almost as an afterthought, 'like a little boy nibbling at forbidden sweets'. Unexpectedly, the Kafka excerpts exercised a strange magnetism on him: 'Their world of pithy formulae full of sadness and despair, of humour and melancholy, of so much at once held me in thrall for a year and a half.'
Kafka and Kurtág share common roots in the rich Jewish traditions of Prague and Budapest, respectively. Both men are noteworthy for the economy of their artistic means, their rigorous self-criticism and their correspondingly long periods of apparent inactivity. Both share 'a will to the unconditional, an impulse to go to extremes in every respect and an abhorrence of artistic compromise', as Wolf Lepenies has remarked.
The forty pieces that make up the four sections of the Kafka Fragments for soprano and violin were completed in spring 1987. Kurtág has given them every hallmark of a personal confession. The manuscript is headed with the words of the third fragment from Part 3: 'My prison cell, my fortress'. Although this motto was discarded in the printed edition, the work retains its dedication to the psychologist Marianne Stein, who helped the composer through a severe personal crisis during his stay in Paris in the late 1950s by showing him a new way to compose. As Claudia Stahl points out in her study of Kurtág's large-scale vocal cycles, Kafka's comparison of storytelling with a toddler's attempts to walk (see the sixth fragment of Part 4) is an apt metaphor for Kurtág's circumspect handling of simple and elementary musical resources, an approach that has marked his personal style ever since that decisive volte-face in his musical evolution. Later Kurtág stressed that Stein was still giving him important suggestions at the time that he wrote the Kafka Fragments: 'If my experience with her in Paris was marked by rigor on many levels, she later [...] helped me greatly by doing the exact opposite: by teaching me to take my time and, as it were, to forgive myself. It made me freer.'
Kurtág selected passages from Kafka's writings that immediately appealed to him without trying to impart narrative unity to his cycle. The order of the pieces (some last only a few seconds, the longer ones scarcely more than five minutes) was altered several times, even after the premičre in spring 1987. The work's central motif is the 'path', a figure that Claudia Stahl has called an 'archetypal image of the human condition'. The very first words of the cycle are 'The good march in step', and the cycle ends with the line 'We crawled through the dust, a pair of snakes'. The longest piece, lasting more than seven minutes, is a multilevel hommage-message to Pierre Boulez entitled 'The True Path'.
The musical correlative to these images of arduous progress is the contrasting interplay of smooth, synchronous forms of motion with others that are hesitant and asynchronous. The governing principle is the perpetuum mobile, the constant repetition of brief snippets of melody without significant variation. Kurtág's ingenious onomatopoeic ideas call for a huge range of technical resources from the violin. The demands he places on the voice range from extreme leaps (some exceed two octaves) and contrasting shades of Sprechstimme to garish screams which, according to the instructions in the score, must continue 'until the voice completely fails'. Sometimes the Kafka Fragments go beyond these immense technical difficulties and enter the realm of pantomime and theatre. The twelfth piece in Part 3, 'Scene on a tram', requires the violinist to alternate between two instruments, each with a different tuning, and to stand first to the left and then to the right of the soprano. The two musicians mentioned in Kafka's text thus assume visible form in the performance. In musical terms, however, they are poles apart: 'Eusebius' and 'Florestan' appear in square brackets at the start of each relevant section in the score. These are not the only references to Schumann: Fragment 18, 'The flower hung dreamily', is an explicit obeisance to Kurtág's admired forebear.
Hommage ŕ R. Sch. is the title of ECM's first Kurtág recording, an album of 1995 that juxtaposed music by Schumann and Kurtág. The like-named trio for clarinet, viola and piano, composed in 1990, contains a movement headed 'Eusebius: the closed circle' that is expanded in the sixth piece from Part 3 of the Kafka Fragments to the words 'The closed circle is pure'. The first and the most recent Kurtág albums from ECM are thus intimately related. In the meantime his music has been documented in a number of ECM discs. The Keller Quartet has recorded his Music for String Instruments, and the composer and his wife Márta have issued the Játékok cycle. In 2003 his Signs, Games and Messages was issued in conjunction with vocal works on texts by Hölderlin and Beckett.
György Kurtág was born on 19 February 1926 in Lugoj in the Banat region of eastern Europe, an area assigned to Rumania by the Treaty of Trianon (1920). From 1946 he attended the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where he studied piano with Pál Kadosa and composition with Sándor Veress and Ferenc Farkas. In 1957-8 he lived in Paris, where he attended courses by Olivier Messiaen and Darius Milhaud and worked intensively with the psychologist Marianne Stein, who gave important impetus to his creative work. It was in these years that he discovered the music of Anton Webern. His string quartet of 1959, which he regards as his Opus 1, marked a clean break with the past after his return to Budapest. He worked as a vocal coach at the National Philharmonic in Budapest (1960-68) and was appointed professor of chamber music at the Franz Liszt Academy (1967). His Messages of the late Miss R. V. Troussova, premičred in Paris in 1981, brought him international fame. From 1993 to 1995 he was composer-in-residence at the Berlin Philharmonic. During this period he wrote his orchestral work Stele. Kurtág has received a great many awards, including the Siemens Music Prize in 1998. In February 2006 the Budapest Music Centre will honour him with a festival of several days' duration in the Hungarian capital and concerts including a performance of the Kafka Fragments by Juliane Banse and András Keller. Three weeks earlier at the MIDEM trade fair in Cannes, the Budapest Music Center hosts a double birthday concert celebrating both Kurtág and his formative influence, Béla Bartók whose 125th anniversary is in 2006. György Kurtág will be present to receive the MIDEM Classique 2006 Award.
The CD contains a 44-page booklet with an essay by Paul Griffiths in English and another by Thomas Bösche in English and German.