Many writers dream of having letters after their name, particularly if those letters are -esque. The idea that one's prose style prompts recognition and imitation has an obvious appeal. Few could have been more surprised at attracting this suffix than Franz Kafka (1883–1924) who, having had no novels published in his lifetime urged, without success, the posthumous destruction of his opus. Moreover, the term Kafkaesque has transcended a solely literary context and refers as much to life itself; not so much to biographical specifics, but more to a certain quality of life characterised by anxiety – often of unspecified provenance - and alienation.

Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño © Marty Sohl
Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreño
© Marty Sohl

Nationality and historical context tend to be eclipsed in the common language of aphorism. However, many drawn from Kafka's diaries (1910-23) bear his fingerprint e.g. “my prison cell – my fortress.” In György Kurtág's Kafka Fragmente (1985–87), forty such maxims and musings are interpreted by soprano, accompanied by solo violin. As this staged version (imaginatively devised by Rene Zisterer) was about to unfold, I found myself wondering if such small, essentially non-harmonic forces would have the textural armoury to pull off the task. Scarcely had the performance begun when this thought dissolved entirely. The experience was thrilling on every level – compositionally, technically, expressively and dramatically.

Soprano, Elizabeth Watts, was electrifying in this one-woman, fractured opera. Effortless vocal range and agility were highlighted particularly when, in one scene, she was required to turn her back to the audience. Seated at the back of the hall, I could make out every syllable as though she were facing me, a few metres away. Her pitching of notes against what some would consider to be unhelpful tonal clues in the accompaniment was very impressive. Technique aside, it was a truly dramatic performance. Violinist, Alexander Janiczek, as acclaimed for his interpretation of Mozart as for his resonance with contemporary music, switched between three different tunings – standard (G, D, A, E); E, D, A, E and - more disconcertingly one would imagine – G, Db, Ab, Eb! He also seemed completely at home in the exciting, virtuosic, micro-tonal writing. Occupying the entire second half of the evening, this rapturously received piece was, for me, a once in a lifetime experience.

In his illuminating introductory remarks at the evening's outset, cellist and director of the Hebrides Ensemble, William Conway, explained that the overarching idea of the programme was to explore how words and music communicate 'with and without each other'. A little background information was necessary to know that a Tolstoy novella was the inspiration behind Leoš Janáček's String Quartet No. 1 'The Kreutzer Sonata'. Composed in just sixteen days in 1923, the quartet portrays the novella's first person account of a suspicious, jealous husband's murder of his wife. Arousing suspicion is the presence of a dashing violinist with whom the wife is rehearsing Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata. The Beethoven-Tolstoy-Janáček trajectory was further inflected by the Hebrides Ensemble's choice to perform a recent transcription of the work for piano trio by Till A. Körber. This afforded an exploration of the effect of a change of messenger on music's power to communicate - most noticeably in the rapidly repeated notes, urgently conveyed by pianist, Philip Moore. This exchange of textural integrity for contrast also freed up the division of labour. I didn't know the original but it seemed to me that the range of the piano may have been allowing, for example, the cellist to play lines originally assigned to viola or violin.

The concert opened with a beautiful song without words for cello and piano – Schumann's Liederkreis op. 39 - movement 7 Auf einer Burg. The Eichendorff poem originally set by Schumann, describes the statue of a knight looking down on a wedding scene from his castle. “Musicians play merrily and the bride, she weeps.” With Kafkaesque remoteness, the statue is empowered to observe and report, yet powerless to speculate on the tears' cause or to or console – assuming they are tears of sadness. The harmonies, beautifully shaped by Conway and Moore in this performance, suggest that they might be. This ambiguity is reflected in the song's lack of final resolution which, I felt sure, prompted the ensemble to segue into the tonally related Kreutzer Sonata.

I found, to my surprise and initial bewilderment that, thrilled as I was by the Kurtág, I was haunted more by the Schumann in the hours following the concert. It then occurred to me that I am not in possession of sufficient internal harmonic equipment to enable haunting by the musical language of Kafka Fragmente and will, I suspect, be pursuing this work for some time to come. Therein, perhaps, lies the fascination of much new music; a language which feels right but is neither completely understood nor assimilated. The enthusiastic response of the audience had me wondering if others share this feeling. What seems clear is that those who take this road less travelled appear animated and enriched by the dark beauty which is often to be found there.

*****