Claude Debussy: Préludes (ECM New Series 2241/42)


Claude Debussy

Alexei Lubimov piano
Alexei Zuev piano
Recorded April 2011, Sint-Pieterskerk, Leut, Belgium
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Production coordination: Guido Gorna
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM Production

My shadow glides in silence
over the watercourse
A glow arises in my breast,
the one mirrored in the water.
–Federico García Lorca, “Debussy”

Though unconventional in form, the two books of piano music known as Claude Debussy’s Préludes have withstood the test of time by means of their structural integrity and ordering—or, in the latter case, their lack thereof. For while their collective title conjures the well-tempered catalogs of composers as divergent as Bach, Chopin, and Shostakovich, in practice they bear little resemblance to those 24-part pantheons of keyboard literature. Whether by the descriptive titles famously appended to the ends individual pieces or by the fact that Debussy never intended for them to be played as a unified set, one can see that the Préludes were built as agents of a creative mind for whom fragments were worlds unto themselves. On the latter note, it’s easy to see why Debussy’s sound has so often been misconstrued as “impressionistic,” when in fact it was more closely aligned to the assured stroke of a pen than to the fleeting contact of a paintbrush. With such knowledge held firmly in mind, Russian pianist Alexei Lubimov roulettes the sonority of these emotionally charged miniatures by recording Book I on a 1925 Bechstein and Book II on a 1913 Steinway—the logic being that such instruments might better express Debussy’s own envisioning of how they should be played. This decision brings about surprising color shifts and, somehow, a keener feel for the rhythms therein.


Book I, composed between 1909 and 1910, opens and closes with touches of cabaret, balancing the sweep of Debussy’s pastoral vision with “pingbacks” of striking modernism. Between them is nothing so dramatic as to bog down the listener’s response, so that even the most provocative spirals—viz: “Le vent dans la plaine,” “Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest,” and the flamenco-inspired “La sérénade interrompue”—seem but compressions of the more typified mysteries of “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir” and the echoing passage of “Des pas sur la neige.” Even the sportive “Les collines d’Anacapri,” while exuberant enough, only reinforces the reflective heart of this music. Nowhere do these two ends of the spectrum mesh so democratically than in the “La cathédrale engloutie,” which drips from Lubimov’s fingers like the anointing perfume from Mary Magdalene’s alabaster jar. Cutting across their timeworn densities, Lubimov lets those block chords sing with ecumenical clarity and hits that fated low note with perfect pressure.

Through this “inside-out” approach, Lubimov nurtures a sustainable ecosystem from Debussy’s already-organic notecraft, thus clarifying the bas-relief of Book II. Composed between 1911 and 1912, its elemental pathways range from watery swirls (“Brouillards,” “Ondine,” and “Canope”) and flowering dances (“La puerta del vino” and “Feux d’artifice”) to downright Bartókian diversion (“General Lavine – excentric”) and sweeping intimacies (“Les fées sont d’exquises danseuses” and “Bruyères”). A note-worthily deep point coheres around “La terrasse des audiences du clair de lune,” the exposition of which calls forth the composer’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande as if it were a lucid dream.

In addition to the Préludes, Lubimov’s student Alexei Zuev joins his teacher to traverse piano versions of two of Debussy’s most beloved orchestral works. Maurice Ravel’s transcription of the Trois Nocturnes cuts a tree of plaintive ornaments, swaying to increasingly fervent winds toward the final “Sirènes,” wherein seeps 11 minutes of nutrients for roots stretching far into the interpretive histories of those on either side of the score, the undercurrent of which teems with an oceanic abundance of life. To finish, the duo benchmarks Debussy’s own transcription of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune with a performance of such scope and vision that one need no effort trying to imagine the landscape burgeoning beneath its 20 fingers.

Kurtág / Ligeti: Music for Viola (ECM New Series 2240)

Kashkashian KL

Kurtág / Ligeti
Music for Viola

Kim Kashkashian viola
Recorded May 2011 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Two Györgys, Kurtág and Ligeti, are subjects of violist Kim Kashkashian’s adventurous solo program—“adventurous” because the music steps bravely out into the open, absorbing the elements as they come: wind, water, earth, fire, and air, but also mineral, animal, and vegetable. The end result begins an experience which, if handled with time and care, is sure to grow with the listener in ways only the most intimate albums can.


Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages is an ongoing project begun in 1989. Instigated by the composer’s usual insistence on note integrity, these pieces divide like cells in a colony toward a body that will likely never walk upright. It is, rather, content to slither and percolate into mental corners both dark and delightful. Though characterized as a master miniaturist, Kurtág is more the scientist whose microscopy reveals terrains not audible to the naked ear without intervention of ink and staves. Bound to an honest, exploratory spirit, Kurtág charms in the purest sense of the word, combining thought and action through a system of articulation that is only magnified by Kashkashian’s dynamic readings thereof.

An introductory “In Nomine” widens the scope of possibilities from the earliest stirrings. It slides and swivels like a Rubik’s cube without a solution but which finds language hidden in every manipulation. The pieces that follow don’t so much have beginnings and endings as they do openings and closings. This gives them a three-dimensionality, forged at the intersection of an inner space the musician might enter, an outer space from which she might shut herself away, and a sense of time that meshes the two. Details emerge in literary fashion—which is to say, by the scrawl of a writer’s instrument. The most frenetic passages swirl behind closed eyes, manifesting in their destined form before emerging on the open page. The notion of the solo performer as one who interacts as much with herself as with the music finds itself multiply confirmed by a tactility that only Kashkashian can bring to her instrument. Even at points of least resistance, she remains aware of the skin at hand, scars and all.

That Kurtág and Ligeti were lifelong friends may not be so obvious based on their compositional output alone, but through this recording one may locate an affinity that goes beyond the mere juxtaposition of their works. For while Ligeti’s masterful Sonata for viola solo (1991-1994) would seem a more constructed organism, its veins guide a likeminded bloodstream between inhale and exhale. The opening “Hora lungă,” modeled after a traditional lament, is played exclusively on the viola’s C string. Kashkashian deftly handles the timbral subtleties required to bring it to life. She bends notes at the cusp of their chromatic defaults, warping them like the convex surface tension of a fully filled glass. After the candle’s flicker that is “Loop,” the ashen “Facsar” revisits the psychological vessel in which the sonata began, only now with the addition of double stop harmonies and thus a feeling of ceremonial craftsmanship. The fourth movement, marked “Prestissimo con sordino,” is an energetic afterimage, but also preludes the fifth movement, a “Lamento” that works muscles of mystery in the finish before the final “Chaconne chromatique” parts the darkness to reveal a lantern’s glow. Though tense and sinuous, it feeds its own melancholy by taking a step forward to contain the shadows.

This album’s earning of a Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo is proof enough of the wonders of its performance, program, and production. But neither award nor accolade can express Kashkashian’s embodied art better than the recording itself. It’s a truth that comes out only in the listening, so that even these words, as I write them, turn to smoke in the firelight of experiencing it for yourself.

(To hear samples of Music for Viola, click here.)

Arianna Savall & Petter Udland Johansen: Hirundo Maris (ECM New Series 2227)

Hirundo Maris

Arianna Savall
Petter Udland Johansen
Hirundo Maris – Chants du Sud et du Nord

Arianna Savall voice, gothic harp, Italian triple harp
Petter Udland Johansen voice, hardingfele, mandolin
Sveinung Lilleheier guitar, dobro, voice
Miquel Àngel Cordero double-bass, voice
David Mayoral percussion, voice
Recorded January 2011 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I fell in love by night, by moonlight beguiled.
If ever again I fall in love, let it be in the broad light of day.

Hirundo Maris is a landmark achievement on at least two counts. First, it literally marks land on either side of the North Seas, the currents of which linked Vikings, Catalans, Scots, and Sephardic Jews by lines of exploration and cultural exchange. Second, it spotlights the voice of Arianna Savall in ways that so recall her mother, Montserrat Figueras, with especial affection. Savall in fact dedicates this album to Figueras’s memory, to the “voice that sang to me and accompanied me from my very first heartbeat.” It’s a poignant undercurrent that might easily slip by the digital downloader without a CD booklet in hand, but one that imbues this sometimes-surprising bouquet of song with that much more generosity.

Fronting a seamless “jam band” aesthetic, the core duo of Savall (also a masterful harpist) and Petter Udland Johansen (singer, fiddler, mandolin player) elicits a seamless mash-up of early music and folk influences. In the latter vein, Johansen offers traditional songs from the tundra. With spotlight thrown on his lyrical voice, he helms their passage with troubadourian intuition. A handful of Norwegian examples boasts the consummate balladry of an unconsummated love in “Om kvelden” (In the Evening) and the dancing strains of “Ormen Lange” (The Long Serpent), which details the building of a great ship by the same name (a mood and image paralleled in Johansen’s bare rendition of the Scottish folk song “The Water Is Wide”). Other notables flower beneath overcast skies. There’s the sad tale of Bendik, who loves the king’s daughter, Årolilja, and is ordered to be killed when he is found out. In this song, Johansen’s ashen fiddling gives way to piercing, constellatory light as he trades verses with Savall in a complementary atmosphere. There’s also the “Trollmors vuggesang” (Mother Troll’s Lullaby), a Swedish children’s song by Margit Holmberg (1912-1989), in which the protagonist sings nonsense syllables to her eleven little trolls.

Throughout the program, these two gorgeous voices are joined by guitarist Sveinung Lilleheier, bassist Miquel Àngel Cordero, and percussionist David Mayoral, whose presence is felt in evocations from the mainland. Five traditional Catalan tunes highlight the syllogistic “El mestre” (The Schoolmaster), the liltingly harmonized “Josep i Maria” (Joseph and Mary), and artisanship of “El mariner” (The Sailor). The latter tells of a maid who sits embroidering by the sea. When she runs out of silk, a sailor lures aboard with promises of more. He sings her to sleep. She awakes, only to discover he is the son of England’s king and means to marry her. With its synthetic ocean waves and tactile harping, it is the album’s most evocative song. Also evocative is the “Tarantela” by 17th-century Spanish harpist Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz. The crispness of Savall’s rendition only emphasizes its lustrous antiquity.

Savall’s craftwork comes into greater focus in her original tune “Le Chant des étoiles,” which joins her harp in a sparkling instrumental of plucks and plumes. Johansen also contributes an original: the enchanting “Penselstrøk” (Brushstroke). “The dream is lost in a moment of joy,” he sings, “and for you it could be the last.” And with those words, he cloaks the sun in dusk. The collection rounds out with three Sephardic traditionals, including “Buenas noches” (Sweet Nights), which shines with steel-string inflections, and “Morena me llaman” (Dark One, They Call Me), another song of ship and sail. This genre favorite receives a downtrodden treatment here, replete with sparse instrumental reflections throughout.

Although this very special album bears the subtitle “Songs from the South and North,” by its end one feels the futility of mortal instruments to gauge directions across time. It is, instead, a chronicle not of geographies per se but of the transitions between them.

(To hear samples of Hirundo Maris, click here.)

Vox Clamantis: Filia Sion (ECM New Series 2244)

Filia Sion

Vox Clamantis
Filia Sion

Vox Clamantis
Jaan-Eik Tulve conductor
Recorded September 2010, Dome Church of St. Nicholas, Haapsalu
Engineer: Igor Kirkwood
Editing: Margo Kõlar
Recording supervision: Helena Tulve
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

O wisest Virgin,
where art thou going in this deepest red of dawn?

Estonian vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis shares its passion for Gregorian chant in an album dedicated to the Daughter of Zion. Directed by Jaan-Eik Tulve (husband of composer Helena), who sees precise blending as the foundation for purposeful singing, Vox Clamantis adds subtlest gold leafing to the program’s Marian repertoire. Remarkable in this regard is the use of overtone singing, an unlikely technique begotten through the spirit of improvisation during rehearsal. It is employed to glorious effect in two 12th-century pieces by Magister Perotinus and Hildegard von Bingen. As the twin hearts of the album, they shine with the depth of conception, mysterious and divine.

Polyphonous textures are only occasional throughout the program, appearing noticeably in the “Rex virginum,” which comes from the 13th-century Codex Las Huelgas of Spain. Cycling between two-part harmonies and plainchant, its timbral cast magnifies sanctity with sanctity. The motet “O Maria”—from another codex (from Montpellier) of the same period—gilds kindred geometry, while the tenors of “Prelustri elucentia” (by Petrus Wilhelmi de Grudencz, c1400-c1480) bind linearly, like the ligament of a spiritual body. The album’s final piece, a Jewish chant from Cochin entitled “Ma navu,” comes as a revelation that flows from chest to sky through c(h)ords of light.

Most of the album is rooted in plainsong, and few ensembles extol its unifying force with the grace of Vox Clamantis. The thickness of the monophonic pieces, and these performances of them, is such that polyphony would seem an overwhelming embellishment. Rather than muddy the waters, the singers clarify them, moving antiphonally between solo and tutti passages. Each chant feels torn from a book of shadows, so that it might be inscribed with light. This record comes long after a wave of chant albums that flooded the New Age market in the mid- to late 1990s. Unlike those transients, the present disc is set fully in its proper context. Its heartfelt prayer is for circularity: ashes to ashes, voice to voice.

The people of the nations that lay in darkness
rise up at the joy of so renowned a birth.

Eleni Karaindrou: Concert in Athens (ECM New Series 2220)

Concert in Athens

Eleni Karaindrou
Concert in Athens

Eleni Karaindrou piano
Kim Kashkashian viola
Jan Garbarek tenor saxophone
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Camerata Orchestra Alexandros Myrat conductor
Concert production: The Athens Concert Hall
Recorded live November 19, 2010 at Megaron Hall (Hall of the Friends of Music), Athens
Recording engineer: Nikos Espialidis
Editing/assistants: Bobby Blazoudakis, Peter DePian, Alex Aretaios, and George Mathioudakis
Mixed and edited March 2012 by Manfred Eicher and Nikos Espialidis
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Eleni Karaindrou’s 10th album for ECM frames the self-taught Greek composer as the subject of worthy tribute in a second live conspectus for the label. Five years have passed since the recording of Elegy of the Uprooting, also captured at Megaron Hall in Athens, and the depth of her soundings has only intensified in that period. While that former performance made obvious her intimate working relationship with late filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos by way of a large projection screen at stage rear, here the music is its own actor. Differences between the two programs are striking, with emphasis now on Karaindrou’s incidental music for theatre. Directions also play out in the featured soloists: violist Kim Kashkashian and saxophonist Jan Garbarek. Kashkashian was instrumental—in the most literal sense—in exposing international listeners to Karaindrou’s sound on the highly successful Ulysses’ Gaze . Like that perennial soundtrack, Concert in Athens is a way station on her distinctive compositional path. Garbarek makes for an equally fine companion, his salted tone tessellating every motif it embraces.


Garbarek oversees the most brooding portions of the concert, which opens and closes with his flute-like tenoring in “Requiem for Willy Loman” and its variation. This piece, from Death of a Salesman, suspends its mournful souls like laundry without bodies to wrap. It’s a tender circle, within which further theatrical connections abound. Whether unlocking dramatic awakenings in “Invocation” (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) or matching the sway of windblown branch in “Tom’s Theme” (The Glass Menagerie), Garbarek holds these melodies to be self-evident. The same is true for the consummate “Adagio for Saxophone,” the inward spiral of which traces the album’s endearing highlight.

Kashkashian, for her part, sails closer to the coast, skirting the rim of darkness beyond the lighthouse’s purview. The strings reveal her singing patina in “Closed Roads” as if it were a jewel clasped in silver. With just a sweep of her bow, she evokes a tug of war between flesh and horizon that finds resolution only in the “Dance” from Ulysses’ Gaze. As an agent of memory, she emotes without mitigation, standing out even among the trio settings of “Laura’s Waltz” (with orchestral accompaniment) and “After Memory” (without). The latter’s braiding with Garbarek and oboist Vangelis Christopoulos is another of the performance’s focal points.

Karaindrou herself sits at the piano, laying the groundwork for much of the activity surrounding these themes. Her solo from Eternity and a Day comes second in the program, a hinge for every door thereafter. Other cinematic intersections include Landscape in the Mist and Dust of Time. In these, tension becomes an organic material, a bed of soil as ocean. On that note, there is a textuality to both this music and its sources that finds confirmation in four pieces inspired by M. Karagatsis’s novel Number Ten. Of these, “Waltz of Rain” unfolds most nostalgically, affirming yet again why Karaindrou’s oeuvre is as enduring as the relics of her homeland.

(To hear samples of Concert in Athens, click here.)

Franz Schubert: Moments musicaux (ECM New Series 2215)

2215 X

Franz Schubert
Moments musicaux

Valery Afanassiev piano
Recorded September 2010, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Valery Afanassiev returns to ECM with his second program dedicated to Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Whereas his much-lauded Lockenhaus disc reckoned with the massive final sonata, here focus is on the Moments musicaux (D. 780, Op. 94) and the Opus 53 D-Major Sonata, both late works of characteristically bipolar flavor. Also characteristic are Afanassiev’s interpretations of them, infused as they are with ebullience and melancholy in equal measure. In his liner notes, the Russian pianist muses on the notion of a “no-time’s land,” a momentary space that Schubert has filled with this music. It is a lingering moment, a moment to take pleasure in the details of one’s surroundings, a moment that is itself music. He notes also the tendency among (a certain number of) Japanese poets to unravel a moment, “driving it to the brink of eternity.”

Such aesthetics operate at turning points throughout the disc, first noticeable in the transition between the C-Major Moderato and A-flat Major Andantino of the Moments musicaux. Schubert composed its six miniatures sporadically between 1823 and 1828. That Mendelssohn called them “Songs without Words” should come as no surprise, for the block chords that pervade the first of the two sections in question lay down a solid foundation for all the melodies to follow. Emotionally vibrant yet somehow neutral (the notes shuffle one step back for each taken forward), these mercurial waters yield an Arthurian sword of innocent beauty. Neither parallel nor divergent, these streams meet in the solace of a universal unfolding. Following the charming, child-like storytelling of the f-minor Allegro moderato, the c-sharp minor Moderato owes its texture to Bach, whose keyboard style it expertly emulates but also colors with its own romantic flair before returning to f minor in a galloping Allegro vivace. Afanassiev excavates the latter with just the variety it needs to catch our archaeological regard. Last is an Allegretto in A-flat Major. Its statelier posture and chromatic inhalations make it the most mature moment of the set.

Characterized by Afanassiev as “an assortment of games,” the D-Major Sonata is something of a fountain of youth. “Unlike Schubert,” he goes on to say, “I shall never play hopscotch again except in some of his sonatas.” A relatively brisk sonata by Schubert standards, the Opus 53 can hold a candle to any of Beethoven’s and rests on the foundation of its massive first movement. A dense opening reveals flowery, delicate runs, alternating between drama and reflection within a naked stream of consciousness. The second movement, while longer, is more introspective. Afanassiev’s management of its densities depends on a feel for harmony as masterful as the composer’s. Like the Scherzo that follows, and even the concluding Rondo, it fuels its own ambition with transparency.

Afanassiev is an artist keyed into cinema, philosophy, and cultural difference. He brings this knowledge to his Schubert, which opens its eyes like sails and catches the wind of an interpretive spirit. Through this allegorical filter, he turns life into light and shines it on the keyboard without compromise. These pieces, then, become part of a brighter whole, wherein beats the heart of one who had many more songs to sing.

(To hear samples of Moments musicaux, click here.)

Reto Bieri: Contrechant (ECM New Series 2209)


Reto Bieri
Music for clarinet solo

Reto Bieri clarinet
Recorded September 2010, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Within the ECM New Series sub-catalogue of solo recordings, the label debut of Reto Bieri stands out for impeccable selection and technical prowess. The Swiss clarinetist studied at Basel’s Academy of Music and at the Juilliard School before embarking on a solo career in collaboration with new and established composers alike, and the fruits of those efforts are bursting from their skins on Contrechant. Luciano Berio is the only featured composer with whom Bieri did not work in preparing for this album, and his 1983 Lied opens the program with its cantabile, legato phrasings. Aside from establishing something of a theme (in his liner text, Paul Griffiths notes among these pieces an affinity for song), the meticulousness of Bieri’s approach to the instrument sets a precedent for mood and timing. At his fingertips—each a hand unto itself—the deceptive simplicity of Berio’s spatial grammar feels omnipresent.

Likewise omnipresent are the grammars of Salvatore Sciarrino and Heinz Holliger. Both composers make illustrative use of multiphonics and formidable extended playing. The former’s 1982 Let me die before I wake reveals a matrix of overtones so rich that the addition of any other instrument would be an intrusion. Its artisan quality seems to plane away its own surface until underlying patterns are revealed. The album’s title piece comes from Holliger. Composed in 2007, it strikes a characteristic balance between darkness and whimsy. Each vignette therein is a window both into itself and into the whole. Across a range of transcendent voicings, it steps through a spectral door in the five-minute epilogue. Holliger’s Rechant (2008) bears dedication to the late Swiss clarinetist Thomas Friedli, with whom Bieri briefly studied. Despite its kindred telemetry of action and reaction, of interpretation and extrapolation, a lighter footprint makes it a song of more internal measures.


The title of Elliott Carter’s Gra means “to play” in Polish and was written in 1993 to commemorate Witold Lutosławski’s 80th birthday. With its leaping figures and exacting breath control, it is a virtuosic feast, to be sure. Beyond that, its youthful pilot light flickers with verve. Péter Eötvös’s Derwischtanz (1993/2001), on the other hand, travels upward rather than inward, shuffling staircases before falling like an autumn leaf with no purpose but to decay. The latter piece pairs well with Lightshadow-trembling (1993) by Gergely Vajda, a student of Eötvös whose embodiment of title feels like a narrative too restless to contain.

This is, in the end, what connects all of the above: an uncontainable feeling to be experienced.

(To hear samples of Contrechant, click here.)