In an interview, Gyorgy Kurtag once likened his working method to a cartoon he liked, depicting “a snail equipped with a speedometer.” It is an apt description of the Hungarian composer’s music: compact, laconic, enigmatic, yet packed with layers of meaning. These qualities were borne out by a performance of one of his masterpieces, the “Kafka-Fragments,” by mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and violinist Martha Morrison Muehleisen on Saturday night at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.
Franz Kafka intended his diaries to be destroyed upon his death, but his literary executor, Max Brod, could not bring himself to do it. Kurtag slowly gathered fragments from the diaries and letters, until in 1985, he later recalled, “almost by accident I began to sketch the music to a few selected texts, like a little boy relishing a forbidden treat.” Few of the pieces are longer than a minute or two, but each movement contains worlds in miniature, here tart and dissonant, there mellifluous and tonal. Ihnen brought a sure sense of pitch to the vocal part, stretched a bit by the extremes of its wide range but with sure-footed dramatic sense.
The violin part proved more of a challenge for Muehleisen, especially in the grueling double-stops of “Der wahre Weg” and other songs. A video piece by artist Karen Yasinsky, purportedly telling “a historical fiction of Junko Tabei,” the first woman to climb Mount Everest, was mostly an unwelcome distraction, displayed on the theater’s back wall.
“Kafka-Fragments” can only really tell the story it was meant to tell — indeed, the inability to tell a story, described in one of the fragments, became one of Kurtag’s signatures. Perhaps it is best to leave it that way.
Downey is a freelance writer.