Kurtág: Dawn Upshaw, Geoff Nuttall, Barbican Hall, London 11.11.10 (Gdn)
György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragments
Dawn Upshaw soprano
Geoff Nuttall violin
Peter Sellars director
I wonder what György Kurtág makes of Peter Sellars' 'interpretation' of his music. His feelings are probably similar to those of his compatriot Ligeti, whose reaction to Sellars' production of Le Grand Macabre consisted of a desperate attempt to get the show pulled, followed by a long sulk in the sound truck lasting the full length of the opening night performance. But that's not Kurtág's style, he is much more mild mannered and tends to avoid confrontation. When he dislikes a performer's reading of his music, he always says so, but he is also noble enough to respect another artists' viewpoint of the work he has created. If Kurtág ever met Sellars to discuss this project I can't imaging he got a word in edgeways. The experience of watching this performance is very similar: the music is diminutive and introverted yet perfectly formed, while the staging is bombastic and egotistical, with hundreds of visual ideas thrown at the music in the hope that one or two might make an impression.
'Kafka-Fragments' is a seminal Kurtág score. Its structure is abstract but tight, consisting of 40 short movements, each setting a Kafka aphorism. The scoring, at least in Kurtág's conception, is for soprano and violin, each an equal partner in the exploration of Kafka's ideas. Both parts are technically complex, although the musical vocabulary is limited. There is no sprechgesang in the soprano part, for example, and the most radical aspect of the violin writing is the detuning of the strings as the music plays. Emotionally, the music follows the constrained expressionism of Kafka's texts. There is everything here from sensual ecstasy to utter despair and everything in between, but the expression is always constrained, and the claustrophobia of Kafka's world accords well with Kurtág's solitary artistic path.
Peter Sellers is on a very different path. His currency is big ideas, complex narrative structures and metaphor-rich theatrical settings. His context for the Kafka-Fragments is a woman doing household chores and (presumably) exploring notions of transcendence through the radical contrast between her situation and the attenuated mysticism of Kafka's disjointed thoughts. It is a brave approach in some ways, but it really doesn't work. The violence it does to Kurtág's delicate score is far in excess of any insights it might offer, and the imposition of the mundane into an artistic environment that is anything but is irrelevant at best. One of the great things about Kurtág's score is the way that the singer and the violinist perform as equals. Here though, the acting singer automatically subordinates the violinist to the role of accompaniment. And Sellers' response to Kafka's words is meagre in comparison to Kurtág's; concrete statements in the text are acted out pedantically, while abstract phrases are all but ignored.
Musically, the performance was good, but it really felt like an American reading of a central European score. Both Upshaw and Nuttall produce big, bold sounds, which are often loud but rarely intense. That isn't really a problem, Kurtág isn't above using the shock factor so a bit of volume can help hammer his message home. And he's hardly a Romantic, so a little emotional distancing on the part of the players is no bad thing. There is plenty of musical variety in their performances, and Nuttall in particular performs the score (which he reads from a digital display – the Americans seem to be ahead of us in this long-overdue technology) with all the variety of timbre and articulation it needs.
If this production has anything to tell us about the Kafka-Fragments, perhaps it lies in the fact that Sellers' tangential relationship with Kurtág mirrors Kurtág's tangential relationship with Kafka. All three are real individuals whose work seems to demand autonomy. Bringing them together is going to produce fireworks, and at least one of them is going to come off the worse for it. Peter Sellers is clearly a man who likes challenges, and he certainly finds one in the Kafka-Fragments, a score actively opposed to the possibility of dramatic staging. But just because it is a challenge, that doesn't necessarily mean that it is worth doing.