Duo Gazzana: Poulenc, etc. (ECM New Series 2356)

2356 X

Duo Gazzana
Poulenc / Walton / Dallapiccola / Schnittke / Silvestrov

Natascia Gazzana violin
Raffaella Gazzana piano
Recorded June 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In 2011, pianist Raffaella Gazzana and violinist Natascia Gazzana, better known as Duo Gazzana, made a quiet, if colorful, splash with Five Pieces, their first record for ECM’s New Series imprint. Navigating a recital comprised of works by Takemitsu, Hindemith, Janáček, and Silvestrov, the Gazzana sisters, in close collaboration with producer Manfred Eicher, demonstrated an acute sense of programming, technique, and integrity. Despite the title of their debut (named for the Silvestrov composition of the same name), which contained only four pieces, Silvestrov’s Hommage à J.S.B. (2009) comprises the heart of this truly pentagonal sequel. The Ukrainian composer offers three short movements: two Andantinos and one Andante, each the band of a deeper and more nuanced spectrum. The end effect is one of suspension. Although originally written for Gidon Kremer, the Hommage is uniquely informed here by the Gazzanas’ attention to detail. “The music of Silvestrov is not difficult in terms of notes,” Raffaella tells me in a recent interview, “but it’s so particular. In a way, you have to isolate yourself from the noise of life. He’s a composer who belongs to another time, bringing these beautiful melodies, as if from the past.” Indeed, as Wolfgang Schreiber observes in his album notes, the Gazzanas share in the spirit of the music they have selected, which like them finds newness in the old. Their unwavering commitment to urtexts only serves to emphasize what is unwritten in them, thus coaxing out hidden messages and spirits.

Gazzana Portrait

Radiating outward from the Silvestrovian center are two richer, denser works: Poulenc’s Sonate pour violon et piano (1942/43, rev. 1949) and William Walton’s Toccata for violin and piano (1922/23). Dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca, the Poulenc sonata is, in Raffaella’s estimation, a product of its time, as is clear in the first in third movements, designated “Allegro con fuoco” and “Presto tragico,” respectively. These are extroverted, almost flailing. Stravinsky looms large in the final, especially, but there are also—unwitting, perhaps—nods to the late Romantics and Ravel as the piece nears its enigmatic coda. “After expressing the suffering of the war,” Raffaella observes, “Poulenc wanted to finish with this dreamy catharsis. This was his character, shy but also enjoying life. He was, I think, a very elegant man, and in this sonata you can hear that.” Poulenc purists take note: the Gazzanas’ interpretation corrects mistakes left in the original French edition prepared by Max Eschig, which elides key signatures in the last page. After careful study of the facsimile, they believe to have arrived at the definitive version.

Although more obscure, Walton’s Toccata was the subject of Raffaella’s dissertation and is no less possessed of elegance. Nataschia’s opening proclamation stirs the piano’s waters with relish and fortitude, giving way to a virtuosic and starkly exuberant foray, pocked by haunting, probing depressions. Although written in the composer’s 20s, it smacks of maturity and daring-do. Raffaella: “I am always impressed by the piece’s improvisational elements. At the time he was working on it, Walton was planning a jazz suite for two pianos and orchestra. Although it never panned out, you can hear this influence throughout the Toccata. The beginning contains no tempo or bar divisions. You just have to go with it.”

Two further works draw the album’s outer circle. First is Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style. Originally composed for two 1965 films (Adventures of a Dentist and Sport, Sport, Sport) by director Elem Klimov, Schnittke arranged these five selections for violin and piano in 1972. Its moods are crisp and compelling. Especially moving are the Minuet and the spirited Fugue. Only the final movement, marked “Pantomime,” has the surreal touches one might expect of the composer. Still, it is playful and fragile, ending with a mystery.

Tartiniana seconda (1956), by the 20th-century Italian composer Luigi Dallapiccola, concludes. Referencing Tartini, this divertimento spreads a beautiful carpet across its four Baroque-inspired movements. “This piece enjoys great popularity in Europe,” Raffaella explains, “especially in Italy. It makes exclusive use of canons, pastorale, and variations: all forms that belong to the past.” At times ponderous and lyrical, at others swirling with ornament and invention, it culminates with a set of emphatic statements from both musicians. Of all the pieces on the album, it is the most architectural. This is no coincidence: “It helps to have the score in hand when listening, because it’s as much for the ears as it is for the eyes. In the opening Pastorale, for instance the piano plays the violin’s lines exactly, but staggered and in reverse, while in the second Variation, it plays the exact reverse, bar for bar.” The Tartiniana also gives contrast to the freer forms of Walton, lending finality and flourish to this exquisite sophomore program.

Coinciding with the release of this disc was the Duo Gazzana’s North American concert premiere when, on May 2, they performed as part of 2014’s Look & Listen Festival in New York City. For this performance, they chose the Silvestrov and Poulenc pieces from the new album, and enchanted the audience with their grace, sensitivity, and mutual resonance. Hearing this music live brought home a vital point in relation to the album’s core philosophy. Because the nature of past and future is immaterial, the only true reality of this music can be the here and now of performance and listening. On this point, Raffaella has the final word: “Chamber music has ever been one of the most beautiful expressions of liberation, one that tests the ability of performers to listen to one another in dialogue. These peculiarities attract us and in our interpretations we try to emphasize them. All the study we put into these pieces is just the grammar. But grammar must be spoken to come to life. Nowadays, it’s easy to speak without caring what other people think. Chamber music ensures we never fall into that trap. Sure, there are good performers, but it’s obvious when they’re performing only for themselves. Chamber music is, quite simply, enjoyable. It’s so beautiful to share it with such a caring musical partner, and with the listener in turn. When you do something out of love, you transmit this love to others. And people can hear this.”

(See this article as it originally appeared for Sequenza 21. To hear samples of this album, click here.)

Robert Schumann: Geistervariationen – Schiff (ECM New Series 2122/23)


Robert Schumann

András Schiff piano
Recorded June 2010, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Pianist András Schiff, best known for his surveys of Bach and Beethoven, combines the former’s austerity and the latter’s dynamism in this, his second ECM reckoning with Robert Schumann. More so than the first, the present program tracks a composer stepping out from Beethoven’s shadow and into a light very much his own. As any Schumann interpreter perhaps must, Schiff brings awareness of attendant shadows as well. These he evokes through a balance of restraint and transparency.

To be sure, the Papillons (1829-31) one of Schumann’s earliest piano works (it is his Opus 2), benefits from just such a well-rounded approach. This collection of 12 innovative vignettes linked in brazen montage is as colorful as it is compact. Indeed, each section would feel like the beginning of a longer excursion were it not already so elaborate. The C-sharp Waltz and Waltz in D are notably filigreed in this manner, while the playful chromatism of the Polonaise in D leaves a tannin-rich aftertaste.

The first sonata, his Opus 11, follows. Written in 1835 and dedicated to his future wife, Clara, it is an effusive and utterly heartfelt work, one from which Clara would draw themes for her own compositions. From the introduction alone, it’s clear that Schiff has hit upon the right formula. The modest Aria that follows is, at just over three minutes, a lovely foil to its 13-minute predecessor, and all the more enchanting for it. Even in his propriety, Schiff teases out an epic flow from its underlying fortitude. The final two movements pulse with theatricality. The last is engaging from the first, not least for Schiff’s handling of its quieter passages, the sonata’s most delicate. Through both jagged stitching and smoother threadings of the needle, a brocade of melody and atmosphere emerges that works lyrically, but with a certain sense of muscle that is distinctly Schumann.

The Kinderszenen or “Scenes from Childhood” (1838) are his most widely performed pieces and represent another innovation: children’s music for adults. Among the first of their kind, they have inspired many imitations but none quite so charming and musically direct. Moments of quietude and solitude increase among those of play as they drift onto darker, more dreamlike avenues, culminating in the grimly apportioned “Der Dichter spricht” (The Poet Speaks). Whether opaque or translucent, all 13 are suffused with a spirit that in Schiff’s hands feels as fresh as the ink drying on the original score.

On the subject of original scores, the Fantasy in C of 1836 will be either the decisive or divisive hinge, depending on your taste. Schiff works vitally through the first two movements, his left hand working overtime in support of the flowering right. Furthermore, he brings out that special stream of consciousness that pervades even the softest moments of Schumann’s writing at its most mature. In a brief liner note, Schiff delights in his possession of a first-version manuscript of the third and final movement. In this iteration, Schumann revives the final theme of the first movement—a strategy later scrapped for its pedantry. For the tried-and-true, Schiff tacks on the final, published version at the album’s end, leaving those used to the latter searching for it there. Perhaps a more useful strategy would have been to switch the two, but this is one pianist’s vision, and to it we are invited to abide. Whatever your preference, an inherent boldness perseveres.

The Waldszenen (1848-49) or “Forest Scenes” are similar in title to the Kinderszenen, but reflect a starkly different spirit. Schiff seems to draw energy directly from nature and experiences of observation for a reading that is understated yet lyrical. He brings enough insight to inspire but not to overwhelm, allowing the solace of each to occupy its respective niche with plenty of room to slumber.

Last on the program proper is Geistervariationen, or “Ghost Variations.” These pieces of 1854 are rarely performed, much less with such veracity, and comprise Schumann’s final piano work. Brokering some urgency here and there, the main theme and its five variations bespeak a tender privacy that is self-assured and wise, despite being written in the wake of a failed suicide attempt and soon before admission into an asylum. And yet, here it stands, calm and collected, in need of a wider circle of interpreters to make its visions known.

On the whole, this has the makings of a benchmark record, although some listeners will want to pair it with other classics in the field. These Kinderszenen, for instance, may not replace Horowitz’s beloved traversal of the same for CBS, but are a close second and well worth as much consideration as Schiff has put into them. Neither will Richter’s take on the C-Major Fantasy likely forfeit its place at the top for some (or any) time to come. Nevertheless, what we have here is another example of a profound relationship between artist and label, triangulating with a composer whose piano music glistens anew, as if of its own desire to be heard.

(To hear samples of Geistervariationen, click here.)

Alban Berg/Karl Amadeus Hartmann: Tief in der Nacht (ECM New Series 2153)

Tief in der Nacht

Alban Berg
Karl Amadeus Hartmann
Tief in der Nacht

Juliane Banse soprano
Aleksandar Madžar piano
Recorded March 2009, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

A grey man goes through the silent wood
singing a dismal song.
The birds at once fall silent.
The spruces tower so mute and sultry
with the heavy turmoil of their branches.
A sound rumbles in distant depths.
–Johannes Schlaf, “Rain”

When discussing Alban Berg, it’s almost impossible not to include Arnold Schoenberg, a mentor of whom he was the brightest protégé. While Berg grew into his own as a defining composer of the early 20th century, in scholarship and on record his early songs were relatively ignored at the time of this release. More than a transition stage, these songs embody key qualities of the composer’s output to come. The hand of Schoenberg is felt less in the music, which still has a foot in the waning Romantic era, and more in the assembly, as the Sieben frühe Lieder (1905–1908) that open the program were extracted from a set of thirty written under his teacher’s careful scrutiny. Setting the poetry of Carl Hauptmann, Nikolaus Lenau, Theodor Storm, Rainer Maria Rilke, Johannes Schlaf, Otto Erich Hartleben, and Paul Hohenberg, these seven songs are stippled with shadows and patches of forest, and the apparent ease with which soprano Juliane Banse and pianist Aleksandar Madžar weave through them enriches the listening experience. With titles like “Nacht” (Night) and “Traumgekrönt” (Crowned in Dreams), one can already sense the nocturnal imagery before a single word is sung. “You came,” goes a verse of the latter, “and softly as in a fairy tale the night resounded.” Thus the lyrics lead us into a world of fantasy. Whether carried on the back of “Die Nachtigall” (The Nightingale) or brightened in the final clip of “Sommertage” (Summer Days), each word turns charcoal to ash and ash to flame.

Rilke, Schlaf, and Storm further populate the Jugendlieder (1904-08) of the same period, along with poetry by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Carl Busse, and Peter Altenberg. Now the verses as well as the music are more colorful and, in light of Berg’s compact developments, genuinely impressionistic. From melancholic lullabies—“I mourn lost happiness,” sings Banse in “Erster Verlust” (First Loss)—to the Mozartian patterning of “Hoffnung” (Hope), composer and musicians draw from a nuanced palette of evocative pigments. Schlaf’s “Regen” (Rain) makes for a beautiful highlight, finding in the music a life only implied in the text. All of this culminates in “Mignon,” which expresses a longing for some idyllic land that, while beyond the reach of flesh, blooms across the landscape of art.

Two settings of the same poem—“Schließe mir die Augen beide” (Close Both My Eyes) by Storm—complete the Berg selections. The first, written in 1907, is already a masterful explosion and re-piecing of utterance, while the 1925 version works almost scientifically to balance freedom and precision. What was once a telescope now becomes a microscope.

Banse is extraordinary, not only for her diction but also for the steadiness of her footing as she journeys across Madžar’s constantly shifting topography. Berg is always felt, and Schoenberg over his shoulder, assuring that every change happens in mutual understanding, so that densities and clarities alike always share a strand.

One of those strands surely leads to Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Lamento (1955), a work that in its original 1936/37 form bore dedication to Berg. Like Hartmann, it survived the war—during which time he studied with another Schoenberg protégé, Anton Webern, in Vienna—with not a few dark clouds in its memory. For this, Hartmann sets three poems of 17th-century Silesian dramatist Andreas Gryphius. One may not feel this as a trilogy, but as a continuous gradation of dusk to dawn. “Elend” (Misery) compares earthly and heavenly troops, and engages the wonder of God’s non-action. Although the light flowers in Banse’s delivery, the geometric diffusion that follows casts a pessimistic shadow to be obliterated in the central song, “An Meine Mutter” (To My Mother). This eulogistic prayer acknowledges the potency of the divine in the realm beyond, a realm in which grace leaks out through Banse’s powerful highs. In the final “Friede” (Peace), she emphasizes the core message: “We once were dead; now peace a life is giving.” The pianism throughout is exquisitely written and executed, and leaves us, like the album as a whole, to reckon with the authority of silence.

Alexander Lonquich: Robert Schumann/Heinz Holliger (ECM New Series 2104)


Alexander Lonquich

Alexander Lonquich piano
Recorded November 2008 at Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Alexander Lonquich follows up Plainte Calme, an all-French program that introduced ECM listeners to this erudite German pianist, with a pairing from which New Series aficionados are sure to derive much pleasure. Composers Robert Schumann and Heinz Holliger may have intersected more recently on Aschenmusik, but here’s where it all began.

Schumann’s 1838 Kreisleriana and Holliger’s 1999 Partita share much in common. Both bear dedications to pianists (Schumann’s to Frédéric Chopin and Holliger’s to András Schiff), both are overflowing with ideas, and both immerse themselves in narrative to the last measure. Lonquich traverses the original 1838 version of the Kreisleriana, which, according to the composer, was “heavily revised,” many of its intricacies elided or otherwise obscured in its now-standard 1850 print. Lonquich notes an ego shift from the pianistic Schumann to the symphonic Schumann, but argues for the psychic exactitude of the earlier version, less glossed by a man rightly concerned with his public image. Indeed, the later changes “sacrificed many subtleties to the need for simplicity and clarity,” making the Kreisleriana, in modern parlance, more user-friendly.

Schumann’s wildly popular performance piece presents to us, as Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich notes in the CD booklet, “the dark, nocturnal sides of romanticism: wild dreams, phantasms, obsession, insanity.” Taking E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr and its protagonist, Johannes Kreisler, as inspiration (the novel shares another ECM connection with György Kurtág, whose Hommage à R. Sch. also makes reference), the music reveals a growing dissatisfaction with what Schumann saw as the piano’s limitations. Not that we have reason to agree. The sweeping cascades that open the collection make for some invigorating listening. From cautious steps to headlong rush, we are led up spiral staircases and over archways, following Lonquich’s expert navigations of quietude interspersed with flushes of activity. With such a robust palette at our scrutiny, there’s plenty to pique the interest of repeat customers—whether in the reflective fourth movement (every bit as enchanting as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata) or in the sportive seventh—all the way to the curlicue finish.

Schumann has long occupied the “true center” of Holliger’s music thoughts, and in the Partita it’s easy to see why. Jungheinrich argues for a romantic affinity in Holliger’s penchant for the “fractured and insecure,” a characterization that in this instance takes sometimes wistful, sometimes complex form. If the title seems to cast its net over Schumann into Bach, it’s only because it seeks a structural traction in the face of romanticism’s self-deprecating infrastructures. Shuffled into the usual Prelude, Fugue, and Chaconne—all of which reflect Holliger’s prodigious ability to twist templates into deeply personal effects—are a few brilliant additions. Most notable are two Intermezzi marked “Sphynxen für Sch.” These achieve the cavernous atmosphere of their namesake by strumming inside the piano, sometimes in the barest whisper of skin on string, amid a pollination of microscopic adjustments. Another clever insertion is the “Csárdás obstiné,” a strangely beguiling vignette of interlocking helixes that seems a nod to Franz Liszt: an intriguing choice, given the complicated nature of Liszt’s relationship with Schumann. Such strategies, however, are to be expected of Holliger, a composer who has always indulged in a wry sense of patterning.

In addition to being a unique recital performed by its ideal interpreter, this is one of the finest pianos ECM has ever recorded. The instrument simply shines at Lonquich’s fingertips, as if eager to feast on every note until only resonant midden remains.

Toshio Hosokawa: Landscapes (ECM New Series 2095)


Toshio Hosokawa

Mayumi Miyata shō
Münchener Kammerorchester
Alexander Liebreich conductor
Recorded October 2009, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Toshio Hosokawa, born 1955 in Hiroshima, is a fisher of multiple ponds. On the one hand, he carries the torch of European modernism, having studied in Germany under Isang Yun and Klaus Huber. On the other, he professes a deep affinity for traditional Japanese music and Zen Buddhism.


Landscapes is ECM’s only disc dedicated to the composer, who in three of the album’s four pieces employs the shō, or Japanese mouth organ. Here it is played by Mayumi Miyata. A pioneer in introducing the shō as a solo instrument in contemporary classical music, she plays a “concert” shō with a pitch range broader than its standard counterpart. It requires expert control of the lungs, including circular breathing and steady changes in dynamic intensity. In Miyata’s hands it sings like the very phoenix it was originally intended to mimic.

Mayumi Miyata

As for Hosokawa’s music, it all too easily falls into an interpretive trap like so many characterizations of Japan in general, which tend to paint the culture as a uniquely enigmatic blend of the ancient and the modern. Yet such an image fails to acknowledge the immediacy of its creative arts, and in particular of Hosokawa’s sound-world, which for all intents and purposes seeks not a bridging of spaces and eras but a reckoning of their aesthetic and (sometimes) political intersections. In the latter vein, he has created massive works in memory of the victims of Hiroshima and the tragic tsunami/earthquake of 3.11. In the former we have this program of meticulous dreamscapes to whet our appetite for beauty. It is, however, a tainted sort of beauty, one not destined for the painter’s canvas but rather for the videographer’s resignation. In his liner notes, Paul Griffiths likens Hosokawa’s constructions to the amorphousness of clouds, and certainly we can feel that stretch of variation, play of sun and spectrum, and stormy grays manifesting throughout the program.

Landscape V, originally composed for string quartet in 1993 and later expanded to the current version for shō and orchestra, unfurls a veil as thin as an insect’s wing that conforms itself to the shō’s summery spirals. One might not expect breath through bamboo to mesh so well with the feel of horsehair drawn across strings, but in Hosokawa’s renderings at least they become harmony incarnate, the shō illuminating the flow of air through an orchestra’s sound holes. In this pairing one may hear voices, shifts of wind, the flow of water, the meeting of stones, and even the light of moon taking sonic shape. The music is, at the same time, crystal clear. It wears no pretension, puts on no airs. It is, rather, the full breadth of its titular landscape pulled through a wormhole of consistency, so that even the more explosive moments take form not as catharses but as opportunities for deeper contemplation.

The Ceremonial Dance (2000) that follows is for string orchestra only, but loses no texture in the shō’s elision. Its heart would seem to lie in the comportment of gagaku (traditional Japanese court music), which turns illusions of a floating world into hyper-articulate bodies. That being said, the “dance” is implied through effect rather than movement, hiding in the absent drum. There is a liminal quality to this piece, performing an indeterminable ritual of which the score is but a simulacrum.

Sakura (2008), for shō solo, acts as a prelude to a choral setting of Japan’s most ubiquitous folk song. Bearing dedication to the former music director of the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, Otto Tomek (who also commissioned the setting), it is intimate and drifting, more postlude than prelude, the afterimage of a fallen blossom’s path toward water. As luminescent as its chords are, they are also dappled by the shadows of an unbroken gaze.

Last is Cloud and Light (2008), which pairs the shō with a full orchestra, including some light yet impactful percussion. Like its predecessors, it never overwhelms with its style, but unpacks itself in real time with self-awareness and tactility. It enacts a sharing of spirit between water and air, between the shapeless and the shaping. Large brushstrokes of brass pull their hairs through ink, soaking up as much of the universe as they can before falling along with the rain into the pond where Hosokawa’s bob and lure continue their meditation, content in knowing that no fish need ever bite to bring meaning to their dangle.

(To hear samples of Landscapes, click here.)

Stefano Scodanibbio: Reinventions (ECM New Series 2072)


Stefano Scodanibbio

Quartetto Prometeo
Giulio Rovighi violin
Aldo Campagnari violin
Massimo Piva viola
Francesco Dillon violoncello
Recorded January 2011, Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, Pollenza
Engineer: Gianluca Gentili
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012), best known for his collaborations with Terry Riley and as an improviser and extended technique innovator on the double bass, was also a prolific composer, writing more than 50 works for strings. His sole album for ECM owes its existence to Irvine Arditti, lead violinist of the Arditti Quartet and a longtime friend, and actualizes a dream that occupied the composer’s final years to the point of obsession.

Stefano Scodanibbio
(Photo credit: Alfredo Tabocchini)

The “reinventions” of the album’s title refer to his string quartet reworking of Bach, Spanish guitar music, and Mexican songs in a long-form suite of seamless, expressive character. Although, on the surface, three iterations of the Contrapunctus from Bach’s Art of the Fugue seem little more than slight deviations of their source material, they actually brim with harmonic ornaments and slow tempi that allow the listener to better scrutinize their pathos through Scodanibbio’s idiosyncratic lens. Rather than simply “re-imagine” the works of his interest, Scodanibbio turns them slowly in the hands, studying them as might a diviner a crystal ball, until they sing of their own accord.

The Bach references are the massive vertebrae of the suite, each cushioned by the Spanish and Mexican disks between them. The former take the name of Quattro Pezzi Spagnoli, but breathe as one unit. The pizzicato ornaments of “Lágrima” begin a stroll through elegant gardens, which with every step elicits new aspects from each melody in turn. There is already so much life in this music that Scodanibbio’s filtering would feel intrusive, were it not for his sensitivity, so that by “Studio” we may feel every detail as a song unto itself.

The five Canzoniere Messicano, on the other hand, come across more urgently with the opening “Cuando sale la luna.” Their life force swirls in the night, disturbing the reflection of a waning moon and etching out a dance along the water. Even the evergreen “Bésame mucho” (the most beautiful song ever written, in the composer’s estimation) leaves ripples in the mirror of its timelessness. “Canzone popolare: La llorona” ends this portion as if thrown in a bottle out to sea, a beacon for ghosts whose love of life keeps them haunting the pitch.

The performances by Italy’s Quartetto Prometeo are quiet, assured, and strangely uplifting—as much a quality of the music as of their playing. The cyclicity of both underscores the depth of Scodanibbio’s craft: no mere homage but a profound exercise in empathy.