Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments [Dawn Upshaw & Geoff Nuttall, directed by Peter Sellars]

Kafka Fragments

Dawn Upshaw (soprano) & Geoff Nuttall (violin)

Peter Sellars – Director
David Michalek – Photography
James F. Ingalls – Lighting design
Jenny Lazar – Production stage manager
Diane J. Malecki – Producer

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 November, 2010
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

Over nearly fifty years György Kurtág has composed numerous song-cycles – with “Kafka Fragments” the biggest in size and scope. Written over an intensive spell during 1985-6, the selection and editing of texts had been taking place since Kurtág came across Kafka’s writings during his studies in Paris three decades earlier, and this release of creative energy permeates the music to a degree which is wholly typical of this most inscrutable and yet fiercely communicative of contemporary composers.

The brevity of the texts does not impose arbitrariness on the cycle’s 70-minute trajectory. The 19 fragments of Part I present facets of a skewed but all-encompassing ‘world-view’ – set in relief by the single setting of Part II, ‘The true path’, that is made the becalmed centre of Kafka’s and hence Kurtág’s expressive universe. The 12 numbers of Part III then build in intensity to the authentically Kafka-esque vision of ‘Scene on a tram’, with its sense of the surreal in the everyday, while Part IV reconfigures many previous gestures in a further eight numbers that culminate in ‘The moonlit night dazzled us’, with its aura of bleak transcendence. No-one encountering it could remain unmoved.

Or at least they should not be, whether the work is heard in recital (as with the memorable account by Anu Komsi and Sakari Oramo given as part of Kurtág 75th-birthday retrospective in 2001 or within an overtly scenic presentation such as that which was receiving its European premiere here. This took place against a backdrop of imagery by David Michalek and ranged from abstract visuals that mirrored the mood of specific numbers to concrete portraits – of people and places not there to be identified, but because they offered an emotional corollary to the settings at hand. While one could debate the relevance of specific images to certain music, the monochrome consistency of Michalek’s photography and James F. Ingalls’s lighting provided a discursive though often affecting commentary: expanding yet without unduly generalising the sheer expressive acuity of Kurtág’s inimitable music.

Dawn UpshawWhich could not be said for Peter Sellars’s conception – setting the performance in the context of a nondescript apartment with the singer portrayed as a housewife not so much bored through the all-pervasive drudgery as constantly distracted by those ‘voices’ for which she seems to be the conduit. The production followed Dawn Upshaw as she moved from sweeping, via ironing (with which implement she enjoys an overtly masochistic association), to floor-polishing – with occasional flights of passion as if to reinforce her interior world. Violinist Geoff Nuttall stood apart from yet by no means outside her sphere of influence, attempting communication as much by the gestural aspect of his playing as by the playing itself. There were some illustrative vignettes, not least the humorous reciprocation between singer and player in ‘Scene on a tram’, while the final number brought them together as if overcoming earlier alienation. Overall, though, the internal constraints of Kafka’s verbal and Kurtág’s musical imagery were barely enhanced by Sellars’s staging but rather limited, even undermined by it.

As to the performance, Upshaw retained much of the tonal poise and eloquence characteristic of her singing, while Nuttall was committed and often commanding in his playing. In both instances, however, the tendency to snatch at phrases or render them out of shape tended to undermine the music just when it needed to be at its most communicative. Matters were not helped by visuals that announced the beginning and end of each part – necessary, maybe, for the performers to replace their props, but detracting from the formal continuity that Kurtág was so evidently at pains to establish.

Which is not to say that a staging of “Kafka Fragments” should not be undertaken: only that Sellars has once again managed to snatch mundanity from the jaws of transcendence with unnerving conviction.

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