Hebrides Ensemble: Kurtag - Kafka Fragments
Work based on Kafka’s diaries and letters with Soprano Elizabeth Watts
This article is from 2011.
One of Britain’s hottest new singing talents, whether in opera or on the concert platform, 31-year-old soprano Elizabeth Watts (pictured) joins leading chamber music group Hebrides Ensemble for Kafka Fragmente by György Kurtág, an extraordinary masterpiece of the 20th century. Almost an hour in length, the piece is made up of tiny fragments of texts from Kafka’s diaries and letters. The Hungarian composer’s genius for aphoristic, terse writing is well known, and nowhere more so than in Fragmente.
The 40 short movements for voice and violin are, says Watts, ‘eclectic, mysterious and very beautiful in places, even though they are atonal. It’s almost impossibly difficult. At one point, the score’s instruction is to sing “nein! nein!” at the highest pitch you can manage. It depends on which day it is, but it could be a top G.’ At the other end, Watts has to sing an E below middle C, the lowest note in her range.
Never performed in Scotland before, the settings might be just a few seconds long, or a few minutes. ‘It’s very intense,’ says Watts, ‘and all about the inner psyche but not necessarily abstract. Some of Kafka’s writing seems abstract, but it also has a fundamental meaning.’ One example is ‘someone tugged on my coat and I shook it off’. ‘That’s actually very picturesque in Kurtag’s music,’ says Watts. She likens the piece to a modern art installation. ‘Everyone has the common experience of psychological exploration but everyone takes something different away.’ For Watts, whose undergraduate degree was a first in archaeology, studying music with the intensity demanded by Fragmente is testing her too. ‘It may sound a little like pseuds corner, but being locked away for hours working on this music is teaching me things about myself I don’t think I’d have known otherwise.’
The Arches, Glasgow, Tue 31 May; Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wed 1 Jun