Ever claustrophobic, Kafka could not stomach big words. "If uttered by a young woman, breathlessly," the marvelous Italian writer Roberto Calasso notes in his magisterial recent study of the writer, "he had the impression that they emerged 'like fat mice from her little mouth.' "
That image alone should be enough to scare composers away from setting Kafka texts, what with music's fondness for fattening every syllable. And how many young sopranos are willing to accept rotund rodents as a side effect of song?
No Kafka-inspired opera has stuck. It might be tempting to argue that Kafka simply does not call for music, were Gyorgy Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments" for the unusual combination of soprano and solo violin not a masterpiece. Introducing a performance of the hourlong cycle at the Colburn School's Zipper Concert Hall on Sunday afternoon, violinist Movses Pogossian aptly noted the difficulty in discovering just where the Czech writer ends and the Hungarian composer begins.
Written in 1986, "Kafka Fragments" was immediately recognized as something special. But so demanding on performers and so draining on listeners is this cycle of 40 short musical incidents (ranging from around 15 seconds to 7 minutes) that it was rarely encountered until recently.
Two years ago, Peter Sellars staged it for soprano Dawn Upshaw and violinist Geoff Nuttall as the devastating psychosexual inner life of a wife cleaning house, watching Iraq disintegrate on television and falling apart. Last year, in honor of Kurtag's 80th birthday, ECM released a new recording by Juliane Banse and Andras Keller of the "Fragments" as intensely focused understated drama.
Pogossian, an Armenian violinist, and a young American soprano, Tony Arnold, are now touring the "Fragments" in preparation for another new recording on Bridge Records. Their powerful performance Sunday was part of Dilijan, a chamber music series for which Pogossian is artistic director.
Dilijan, named for a resort town in Armenia, has the mission of furthering Armenian music, and Pogossian began the program with three short works connected in one way or another to Armenia. All three were also meant to further the soprano/violin duo repertory, of which there isn't much.
But first some praise for Pogossian, who is a terrific violinist. He has the flair and the huge technique of a Romantic-era specialist, a virtuosity and magnetism that he applies to newer music. Dilijan is an ambitious and interesting series, which draws excellent musicians. But its main flaw is that it thus far doesn't seem to promote itself outside the Armenian community. That is enough to fill about half the 415-seat Zipper. These concerts, and particularly Pogossian, deserve much wider exposure.
The three introductory pieces were intriguing if minor. John Asatryan's "Dou Merzhetsir" was an arrangement for violin and soprano of a somber work by a midcentury Armenian composer. Paolo Cavallone's "Frammenti Lirici" and Artur Avanesov's "In Luys" were world premieres by young composers. The first is an Italian avant-gardist's deconstruction of an Armenian tune used in Berio's "Folk Songs." The second is a rhapsodic rendering of Kilikian folk song with an especially memorable violin part.
"Kafka Fragments" is a journey, and that is how Arnold and Pogossian approached it. Arnold is an impressive singer, with operatic projection and tremendous flexibility. She has recently made a very good recording of George Crumb's "Ancient Voices for Children," which has been nominated for a Grammy. In the first half of the program she was commanding.
The Kafka fragments selected by Kurtag from diary entries are individual peerings into both the composer's and the writer's inner life. Sunday's performance seemed to separate the two.
Pogossian's characterful, concentrated playing conveyed the complex context that Kurtag give his music, cross-referencing earlier composers, paying tributes to contemporaries and conveying his own concentrated inner sound world.
Arnold, though, is more an overt illustrator. Some fragments go off like bombs. "Slept, woke, slept, woke, miserable life" -- the musical shards are soft, shockingly loud, soft, shockingly loud. She sings with her body, her face, her eyes, which can be very effective in a Schubert song cycle.
But what I most missed was the deeper meaning of this journey. Arnold appeared unchanged by Kurtag and Kafka. An hour passed by the clock. Many small stories were told, many fat mice flew out of her mouth. Then time was up. It should feel as though time slows down. Unlike Arnold, Upshaw became a new and different, wiser and deeper woman, and an audience could be altered too, after a clock-stopping Kafka-Kurtag immersion.
Still, the dedication and attention to detail by Arnold and Pogossian was moving, and I look forward to the recording. All Arnold really needs is a good drama coach who doubles as a Kafkaesque exterminator.