At the beginning of this month GENUIN classics released its first solo album of Elisabeth Kufferath. Entitled Libero, fragile (free, fragile), Kufferath performs the music of Luciano Berio, Elliot Carter, György Kurtág, and Jan Müller-Wieland without accompaniment. However, Kufferath’s performances see her alternating between violin and viola. Each of these composers is represented by music for each of these instruments. Both of the Müller-Wieland tracks are world premiere recordings; and the viola selection, “Himmelfahrt” (ascension to heaven), was dedicated to Kufferath.
The longest tracks on the album are devoted to Berio. Kufferath plays the two pieces in his Sequenza (sequence) series for solo violin (the eighth) and solo viola (the sixth). These were composed in 1976 and 1967, respectively; and the whole collection of fourteen pieces was composed over the course of Berio’s life, beginning with the first (for flute) in 1958 and concluding with the fourteenth (for cello) in 2002. In each of these compositions, Berio was interested in exploring the instrument’s potential for a wide scope of sonorities, often involving non-standard techniques for their creation. One may thus regard each as an étude; but it is as much an étude for the listener (broadening expectations of how one listens to each of the instruments) as it is for the performer learning how to master the necessary techniques for execution.
All of the remaining tracks are relatively brief. Most of them are pieces that Kurtág collected under the title Jelek, játékok és üzenetek (signs, games and messages). All of these are solo works; and he has composed them for violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon between 1984 and 2008. (Since Kurtág is still alive, he may well be writing more of these pieces.) Each is a miniaturist study, and most involve an aphoristic reflection on some particular topic. Many of them are memorial in nature. Kufferath performs selections from both the violin and viola collections.
Like Müller-Wieland, Carter is represented by two short pieces, “Mnemosyné” for the violin and “Figment IV” for the viola. Like Sequenza, Figment is a title for a series of six pieces, each for a single instrument. However, the collection is neither as extensive nor as systematic as Berio’s. The first two were composed for cello; and the remaining three were composed for bass, marimba, and oboe.
Taken as a whole, the album presents a useful survey of modernist techniques during the twentieth century. Because the tracks are short, the survey is more accessible than what one might encounter during a two-hour “new music” concert or, for that matter, an album with fewer but longer selections, particularly one that focuses on a single composer. I must confess that I have had an ongoing fascination with Kurtág’s music ever since my first encounter with his Játékok pieces for solo piano, when I heard them performed by Marino Formenti back in April of 2007. I also first became acquainted with some of the Jelek, játékok és üzenetek viola pieces through a recording that Kim Kashkashian made for ECM in 2012 that coupled Kurtág with György Ligeti.
My interest in Berio, on the other hand, has tended to be more “academic.” I share his interest in diversity of sonorities and the idea that sonority itself can be as “legitimate” an element in composition as are melody, harmony, and counterpoint. As a result I have felt a certain frustration over how few of the Sequenza compositions I have managed to encounter for serious listening.
Nevertheless, I have been struck by a shared approach to performance at the few occasions I have experienced. Because the technical demands are so great, page-turning tends to be impractical, if not impossible. As a result, the soloist will set up a row of music stands and spread the score pages across them. This requires playing while standing, rather than seated; and it entails movement from (the performer’s) left to right as the performance advances. However, for the listener this physical layout provides a sense of the entirety in a single glance, so to speak; and the performance amounts to a journey along a well-defined path that is as literal as it is metaphorical. I have come to expect this as part of the listening experience when I attend a recital that includes one of the Sequenza pieces; and, clearly, that component is absent when one is listening to a compact disc recording.
To be fair, I have no idea whether Berio knew of musicians playing these pieces this way during his lifetime. However, once a score has been published, the composer has to accept the fact that is no longer entirely in his hands. There is clearly a systematic approach to how Berio explores his diversity of sonorities. However, in the absence of those visual cues, those explorations run the risk of feeling like little more than one thing after another. On the other hand, because these pieces are performed so seldom, having recordings like these does much to prepare the listener for the diversity of sonorities that will ensue.