in: Reviews

September 24, 2015

Kurtag, Kafka, Superior Craft


A Seully Hall full of young faces and a few older ones were on hand Wednesday for the performance of Gyorgy Kurtag’s Kafka Fragments for soprano and violin featuring BoCo Kunkemueller Artist-in-Residence (and Somerville resident) Tony Arnold and LA-based Movses Pogossian; they witnessed a smashing concert, full of atonal delights, semitones and unusual tunings for Pogossian’s violin, acrobatic sprechtstimme and acting from the vibrant Arnold, underlying mordant, wry, sometimes agonized text, such as (“Once I broke my leg; it was the most wonderful experience of my life”), from the diaries of Franz Kafka.

Like Kafka, the Hungarian Kurtag was no stranger to totalitarianism. But the latter’s artistic vision changed considerably during his one-year sojourn in Paris in 1957. He wrote Kafka Fragments in 1986, weaving a song cycle from jottings of Kafka, in German, which range from acerbic observations (“My prison cell—my fortress”) to slices of life (Scene on a tram”) to fanciful imaginings of moonlit nights and magical leopards. Difficult and varied, the music requires much of its performers. Arnold and Pogossian have championed the piece, working with the composer, recording it on CD and DVD and performing it in over 30 venues during the past 10 years.

Arnold was a sight to behold, from stylish blonde coif to asymmetric pleated-crepe jacket to matching flared jodhpurs (think Yul Brynner in King and I via Soho) to turquoise shoes. A diva from Saturn, a friend said. But she is an inventive actress with a mobile face and expressive gestures to go along with her supple and full voice. She did not spare it in the strident, stratospheric Nein, nein of “Nothing of the Kind”, but was also able to croon a long-drawn-out piano uber dir in “Nevermore—Excommunicatio” or shiveringly sing the atonal coloratura of the final words of the song cycle Schlangenpaar (pair of snakes). She did the cycle from memory, lending integration to the work that would not otherwise be possible. There was no intermission; the performers took several breaks onstage, reposing motionless in chairs on either side of the stage.

Pogossian and Arnold play Kafka Fragments (file photo)

Pogossian and Arnold play Kafka Fragments (file photo)

Pogossian, a prize winner of the 1986 Tchaikovsky and 1985 USSR National violin competitions, has serious chops. He needed them. He was all over the fingerboard and used both hands for pizzicato playing two variously tuned violins and semitones as if born to them. A highlight was the song “The True Path—Hommage—message a Pierre Boulez” in which sliding semitones in the violin invoked a peasant dance laced with existential angst. He was amazingly attuned to Arnold and she to him, especially in the halting steps of “In Memoriam Joannis Pilinsky”, in which the two traded notes and pauses in a paean to writer’s block.

It is great though not uncommon to hear a singer-pianist duo who have played a Schubert cycle for years until it has sunk into their bones reveal music unfettered by limitations of memory or technique. Bringing such total involvement to a new masterwork song cycle is much rarer; this such outing proved revelatory.

Jeffrey S. Berman is Professor of Medicine at Boston University. He is also a clarinetist in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra and a member of several music boards in the Boston area.

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