None of György Kurtág’s works demonstrates more powerfully how he is able to create music of enormous weight and intensity from collections of apparently insubstantial miniatures than his three great song cycles: The Sayings of Péter Bornemisza, Messages of the Late Miss RV Troussova, and the longest of them of all, Kafka Fragments, for soprano and violin. Completed in 1986 and dedicated to the art psychologist Marianne Stein, it was, until the premiere of his opera Fin de Partie in 2018, Kurtág’s longest work. The 40 fragments set extracts from Kafka’s diaries, letters and a posthumously discovered text, which Kurtág had collected over the years; in this performance by Anna Prohaska and Isabelle Faust, the longest of them, The True Path (which is dedicated to Pierre Boulez) lasts almost seven minutes and the shortest just 14 seconds, but together they create an hour-long work of extraordinary variety and emotional depth.
The fragments are shaped into four sections, taking in the whole spectrum of human experience, from the most profoundly existential to the most profoundly trivial, and Kurtág’s settings of them similarly range from Webern-esque expressionism to folk-like simplicity. There’s no over arching narrative, though that has not prevented a number of opera directors (including Peter Sellars and Netia Jones) from presenting the work on stage. But as the best performances regularly demonstrate, Kafka Fragments needs no visual enhancement to cast its spell, and Prohaska and Faust’s recording is among the best of what has become one of Kurtág’s most frequently recorded works.
But the competition is fierce, and good though this new version is, I think I still marginally prefer Juliane Banse’s 2006 recording with the violinist Andras Keller. Banse’s silvery, flexible sound seems to match these elusive little pieces better than Prohaska’s richer tone, though as you would expect from one of the world’s greatest violinists, Faust’s contribution is exemplary. And masterpieces such as Kafka Fragments can certainly bear many different interpretative approaches.
This week’s other pick
The Berlin-based label Bastille Musique has already issued a recording of Luke Bedford’s opera Through His Teeth, and its first batch of releases in the UK includes Besilvering, a disc of his instrumental music, played by members of the Holst-Sinfonietta, conducted by Klaus Simon. The 11 works span almost two decades of Bedford’s composing career, from the octet Man Shoots Strangers from Skyscraper, composed while he was a student in 2002, to the 2019 Hornpiece Solo, and including Wonderful No-Headed Nightingale of 2012, part of his trilogy of “Nightingale” pieces. Every one of them is full of vividly imagined, luminous textures, a reminder that Bedford is one of the most gifted of the fortysomething generation of British composers, whose music is heard too rarely here.