Magazine article Czech Music

Iva Bittova on Kurtag and the Sounds of the Hudson Valley

Magazine article Czech Music

Iva Bittova on Kurtag and the Sounds of the Hudson Valley

Article excerpt

On most occasions, Iva Bittova is categorised as 'alternative'. This follows from the character of her solo work, and also from her development as a musician: a violinist and singer with experiences in the Brno theatre Husa na provazku, she contributed to the Brno-centred alternative rock scene. Her albums with Dunaj or drummer Pavel Fajt combine song structures with improvisation and a search for unusual sounds. In her solo work, Bittova created a unique style, in which the violin and the voice seem to become one, with transformed echoes of folk music.

But Bittova does not leave other styles unexplored. Her forays into jazz involve the Norwegian-Czech ensemble NoCZ, her sister Ida Kelarova, George Mraz, Emil Viklicky and Laco Tropp, or musicians from the New York jazz scene like Hamid Drake. Another dimension of Bittova's work is less visible, but it give its listeners a considerably greater surprise. In these cases, Bittova at least partially surrenders the position of the author and becomes a performer, interpreting pre-composed music. Her first effort, in 1997, was a recording of Bela Bartok's 44 Duos for Two Violins with Dorothea Kellerova, then came Classics, an album featuring pieces by Leos Janacek and the composer father-and-son duo, Milos Stedron and Milos Orson Stedron, among others. During the last decade, we have had many further opportunities to hear Iva Bittova as a performer of art music written in the second half of the 20th century. On several occasions, she enraptured audiences with Russian postmodernist composer Alfred Schnittke's Faustian cantata Seid nuchtern und wachet..., originally composed for Russian pop star Alla Pugacheva. This February, she sung Luciano Berio's Folk Songs cycle, accompanied by the Brno Philharmonic. A number of Czech, Moravian and Slovak composers have written vocal parts for Bittova, including Peter Graham, Vladimir Godar and Pavel Fischer.

Bittova also periodically turns her attention to historical music. In 2004, she sung Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and her present repertoire includes pieces by composers of the 1 7th and 1 8th centuries whom she encountered during her studies in musicology. She occasionally performs with lutenist Jan Cizmar with a programme combining, among others, Baroque and contemporary music, Iva Bittova's compositions, or John Lennon songs.

Iva Bittova's next significant foray into the performance of 20th century music will be introduced to Prague audiences on the 24th of April, when she will perform - together with Czech violinist Hana Kotkova, now based in Lugano - within the chamber concert series of the Prague Symphony Orchestra FOK. The programme will consist of a single work: Kafka-Fragmente by Gyorgy Kurtag (*1926). These forty settings of diary fragments, letters and short stories by Franz Kafka were written between 1985 and 1987, and it is the composer's longest vocal work - Kurtag is famous for his use of very short forms. His music, however, is also very carefully composed, and it demands great discipline from its performers. At certain points, it also alludes to Hungarian, Roma and Jewish folk music.

What was the motivation for you to learn the Kafka Fragments?

After me and Dorothea Keller - with whom we recorded the Bartok 44 Duos for Two Violins - stopped playing together, I got an invitation from a festival in Sydney. They were interested in this same programme, so I was looking for a violinist. I remembered a very dear friend, virtuoso Hana Kotkova. We knew each other as children, we both grew up in Opava and our parents were very close friends. Hana agreed, and we enjoyed working on the Bartok so much we decided to learn the Kurtag. I'd had the score at home for years, thinking its time might come.

What aspect of the piece proved most difficult?

The blend of the voice and the violin is crucial: we have to sound like one. Then it's important to create a musical arch for the entire work, as well as to master the German and work out a differentiation for the colour and expression of each individual fragment. …

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