CONCORD - Maybe it's the air that wafts off Walden Pond and still carries with it an invitation to progressive thinking. Or a feeling that a small space and a bit of distance from the center brings a certain freedom to maneuver. Whatever the case, this weekend, the organizers of a modest concert series that takes place at the Concord Free Public Library showed the courage to do what many of their big-sibling mainstream presenters east of Route 128 often have not: think boldly and offer cutting-edge chamber music.
On Saturday night Music From the Library, in its 12th season, presented the soprano Tony Arnold and the violinist Movses Pogossian in a performance of Gyorgy Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments," one of the most spare and harrowing chamber works written in the last three decades. A capacity crowd braved the bitter cold to turn out for this free program, and they were rewarded with a concert that was easily the most memorable of the new year.
And this despite the fact that the cheerful and very brightly lit rotunda in this suburban library made an awkward backdrop for this dark work - full of night, shadows, and a distilled existential angst of European vintage. But thanks to a performance of enormous skill and conviction by these two young musicians, the piece still hit its mark.
Kurtag, who at 82 is widely acknowledged as Hungary's greatest living composer, wrote "Kafka Fragments" in the 1980s. Having lived for decades under stifling communist rule, the composer found a kindred spirit in the private writings of Kafka, who died in 1924 and yet peered with uncanny depth into the abyss of Europe's future. The true nature of Kafka's private experience, Walter Benjamin chillingly observed in 1938, "will probably first become accessible to the masses at such time as they are about to be annihilated."
Kurtag's "Kafka Fragments" is made up of 40 independent settings of short epigrams taken from Kafka's letters, diaries, and notebooks. The texts are actually quite varied in tone and are not unified by any particular narrative, though Kurtag has confessed that the work as a whole is autobiographical, a kind of fractured journey into a composer's private wilderness. Indeed, the piece's original title, taken from one of the fragments, captures the essence of Kurtag's plight as a composer for whom the painful isolation of life behind the Iron Curtain also encouraged a kind of radical self-reliance. Or as the soprano sings: "My prison cell - my fortress."
On Saturday, Arnold rendered this fragment with the laser-like intensity and complete dramatic conviction that she brought to the entire cycle. Both players have clearly lived with this music for years and have not only mastered the extreme technical challenges of its rugged, stripped-down language, but have also internalized its deeper mysteries, its jagged theatricality, and its searing emotional honesty.
No doubt it made a significant difference that this duo has worked closely with the composer himself - typically no casual endeavor, as Kurtag is known for his relentlessly high standards and his extremely critical style. The musicians described their experiences in some pre-concert comments, offering valuable context if also perhaps one anecdote too many.
But of course it was the performance itself that mounted the strongest case for this music. Arnold made the soprano line's giant leaps and wild pivots feel like a natural expression of the texts at hand. Her halting delivery of the 38th fragment, about an artist's struggle for authentic self-expression, was particularly riveting. Pogossian, moving between two violins with different tunings, deftly conjured the music's surreal post-Bartokian nightscape: by turns dreamy, frenetic, and ultimately in the final fragment, sublime.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.