Keith Jarrett: Barber/Bartók (ECM New Series 2445)

Barber Bartók

Keith Jarrett

Keith Jarrett piano
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra
Kazuyoshi Akiyama conductor
Samuel Barber
Concert recording, June 3, 1984 at Congresshalle, Saarbrücken
Engineer: Helmut Fackler
Balance engineer: Helmut David
Béla Bartók
Concert recording, January 30, 1985 at Kan’i Hoken Hall, Tokyo, as part of Tokyo Music Joy Festival
Engineer: unknown
Concert promoter: Toshinari Koinuma
Mastered at MSM Studios by Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

It’s tempting to trace overlaps between Keith Jarrett’s roles as a “classical” and “jazz” musician, but in this archival treasure I for once see the importance of their differences. It is precisely because Jarrett is so well versed, and indebted, to both spheres of influence that he seems to recognize the divergent types of rigor involved. In less uncertain terms: to merely conflate one with the other shortchanges both in the process. Hearing these recordings, now three decades old, we can be sure that many things have changed in the pianist’s approach to style and timbre just as we can be sure that whatever indefinable flame sustains him burns as brightly now as it did then.

What we have here are two recordings—one made in Germany in 1984, the other in Japan in 1985—of piano concertos and an additional encore of improvisation. Beyond that, however, we have a statement of almost divine purpose from a musician who listens to everything before he plays.


The Piano Concerto of Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is first on the program and finds Jarrett fronting the Rundfunk-Sinfonienorchester Saarbrücken under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies. Davies is a natural fit, having previously conducted Jarrett on record as composer (see Ritual) and, more than a decade after this recording was reeled, as the featured soloist of Mozart’s own concertos. Written between 1960 and 1962, Barber’s earned him a second Pulitzer Prize and is largely considered to be among his masterworks. The sheer variety of the first movement alone tells us so. The introductory solo might seem spontaneous were it not for the first orchestra hit soon thereafter. Jarrett’s rhythmic acuity is in such fine form that the other instruments almost feel ornamental. The second movement more pastoral, and Jarrett plays it with such flowing intuition that again it sounds like his own creation. Here the very personality of the piano, through Barber’s writing, takes shape, like an infant growing to young adulthood in the span of five minutes. The final movement begins as if through a mysterious screen before stoking its hearth to roaring flame. More pronounced brass and percussion make it a captivating one, even if those faunal winds do creep around the occasional corner with indications of less complicated sojourns. Rousing rhythms from both soloist and orchestra trade places at a moment’s notice, leaving us spellbound.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Barber’s only piano concerto should be paired with the third of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), as soloist John Browning, who premiered the Barber in 1962, ranked it alongside the very same as a crowning achievement of the genre in the 20th-century. Bartók wrote his in the final year of his life, after having fled to America in the wake of World War II. Jarrett likewise renders it here far from home (in Tokyo, that is) with the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazuyoshi Akiyama. The first movement is more soaring than the Barber, filled with minuscule nooks in which to store our fascinations. The denser textures and more overtly “pianistic” writing allow for great variation at the keyboard. Jarrett responds with that trademark touch, building punctuation marks into paragraphs and paragraphs into full narratives. The second movement, though graver, nevertheless achieves crystalline form. Among Bartók’s most profound pieces of writing, its strings emerge like sunrays at dawn. Jarrett coaxes the orchestra, even as it coaxes him, creating a feedback loop of lyrical unfolding. He attends with a patience that is noticeable even in the most percussively inflected portions. An unresolved ending anticipates the finale, a movement of such fitness that it practically leaps away from the musicians of its own accord. Through windswept strings, Hungarian folk dance motifs, and purposeful drama, Jarrett handles that final ascent with finesse.

Following this performance, Jarrett improvised a piece that has since taken the name “Tokyo Encore—Nothing But A Dream.” It’s a balladic jewel that diffuses the energy of the Bartók even while enhancing it, for here is a heart that respects not only the beauty of art, but more importantly the art of beauty, handling both as if they were of the same substance. Anyone else might bungle it, but Jarrett gives it such a genuine connection that we are reminded of his many gifts, not least of all those given to listeners fortunate enough to see their lives overlap with his.

(To hear samples of Barber/Bartók, click here.)

Kate Moore: Dances and Canons (ECM New Series 2344)

Dances and Canons

Kate Moore
Dances and Canons

Kate Moore composer
Saskia Lankhoorn piano
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of composer Kate Moore is a hybrid of hybrids. It channels the inner fire of things that must someday turn to ash, and coaxes from this realization one intensely melodic conflagration after another. Born in England but raised in Australia, Moore cites the latter’s open landscapes as having permanently hued her artistic paintbrush. Moore’s longtime interpreter is pianist Saskia Lankhoorn, who debuts both herself and the composer to ECM’s hallowed New Series family.

Even though Moore professes no allegiance to minimalism—and rightly so, for her politics could hardly be more different—fans of the genre’s stalwarts are sure to take distinct pleasure in this program. Furthermore, taking the opening solo piano piece Spin Bird as an example, we find a natural wonderment present in, say, the seminal Philip Glass. Yet where Glass might attend to the overarching philosophical questions of a Koyaanisqatsi or a Satyagraha, Moore is more interested in the under-arching gesture, a cupping of water in all its microscopic glory. In this respect, Stories For Ocean Shells, also for solo piano, is like two hands interlocking: despite being of the same organism, each has characteristics that distinguish it from the other, with whom it only partners occasionally in a world designed to separate them through material engagement. Only through immaterial actions do they come together in a temporarily unbroken circuit of meditation and profound thinking. Every microtonal harmony is a puff of spore, every melodic spiral singing as if sung in the manner of a falling leaf. The result is a music that gazes on its own reflection and sees insight into the self as insight into all selves. And so, what might seem a mere chain of arpeggios in theory is in practice a downright sacred unfolding of time signatures, which can only be notated through the act of speech and bodily interpretation. Lankhoorn is fully adapted to bringing all of this out, and more.

(Photo credit: Dániel Vass)

But if The Body Is An Ear takes its inspiration from the writings of Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan (as it does), then it also takes inspiration from that which cannot be written (as it should). The rhizomatic pulse of its two pianos is so translucent that the instruments bleed through one another until there is but one between them. The transitions are resolutely beautiful—from smoothness to pointillism, from connectivity to individuality, from river to ocean—but hearing them as we do from the level of the molecule, we recognize that even beauty needs emptiness to survive. In this light, Canon is the intermediary between coalescence and dissolution. Magnified now to four pianos, Moore’s forces begin with a rounded dance of solitude and finish in a thought spiral. As the newest piece of the program, brought to the studio as it was in still-raw form, its gradualness begs a contemplative spirit and rewards the patient listener with presence of mind.

From the above descriptions, it would seem as if Moore’s is an ephemeral realm. This it might very well be, though no more than anything in this world already is. It’s also physical. The spine of Zomer (for solo piano) is glass-boned, its nerves of light sending their messages in occasional, quiet bursts, while Joy (also solo) grows heavier with every iterative cycle of its unfolding. Like the emotion itself, it is sometimes messy, at other times supremely ordered, and prone to exhaustion. The ultimate (for being fundamental) distillation of all this is Sensitive Spot for “multiple pianos,” meaning the musician must play against recordings of herself, trying to match them as closely as possible. Quick and almost nervous, it reinforces itself like a flower becoming lost in its own fragrance.

Landhoorn performs Sensitive Spot:

The closing reprise of Spin Bird, then, feels less like such. Rather, it is a leap farther inward to a place where only you, dear listener, and I may travel, untethered and free to roam.

(To hear samples of Dances and Canons, click here.)

Trio Mediaeval: Aquilonis (ECM New Series 2416)


Trio Mediaeval

Anna Maria Friman voice, Hardanger fiddle, melody chimes
Linn Andrea Fuglseth voice, portable organ, melody chimes
Berit Opheim voice, melody chimes
Recorded June 2014 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recording supervision: John Potter
An ECM Production

Trio Mediaeval are Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and, making her ECM debut, Berit Opheim (who in 2014 replaced Torunn Østrem Ossum). In their sixth New Series program, the Scandinavian songstresses bring a characteristically thoughtful cohesion to their selections and the themes under which they live again. The album’s title means “North Wind,” but as recording supervisor John Potter explains in his album note, the metaphor is as much temporal as geographical, emphasizing as it does the Trio’s centuries-long reach.


Furthest from the present are two Italian sacred songs from the 12th century. “Benedicti e llaudati” (Sacred and blessed apostles…) and “Fammi cantar l’amor” (Let me sing of the love…) contrast radiant harmonies spun around a core of chant with monophonic lines of flight. The drone also figures as a natural extension of three Norwegian folk songs, which find the singers accompanying themselves for the first time on instruments (the enriching percussion heard on 2007’s Folk Songs was courtesy of Birger Mistereggen). The Hardanger fiddle, played by Friman, is both heart and lungs of “Ingen vinner frem til den evige ro” (Eternal rest is the reward of…), and its ghost whispers in the air of the vocal solo “Gud unde oss her at leve så” (God gave us grace to live), a string of beauty untying itself in righteousness.

A step closer brings us to 14th-century Iceland and the vespers of the Office of St. Thorlak, beautifully unpacked from their plainchant rudiments into braids of censer smoke. The masterful arrangements enchant with their folkish brogue, sounding at times more like songs of the Irish plains than prayerful nights. Now it’s Fuglseth on the portable organ who gleans a droning undercurrent from the score and copies its DNA until it breathes. Yet another step lands us in the more pronounced polyphony of three 15th-century English carols, of which “Ecce quod natura mutat sua jura” (Behold, nature changes her laws) and “Alleluia: A newë work” are sublime highlights. The latter was the first piece the original Trio ever sung and makes its glowing presence known to a wider audience at last.

In the realm of the living, English composer Andrew Smith contributes three symbiotic pieces to the Trio’s repertoire. Of these, “Ioseph fili David” (Joseph, son of David) is the crowning jewel of the program, while “Ave regina caelorum” (Hail, Queen of heaven) breaks glass with its light. Swedish composer Anders Jormin, better known to ECM fans as a jazz bassist with a classical heart, solely offers “Ama.” Based on a poem by Virgil, it is a miniature of overlaid shapes, transparent and turned askew until they form new harmonies in search of the old. The singers themselves compose three pieces, each a vital organ to the program’s functioning body, planets without satellites whose clouds welcome all suns. And American composer William Brooks yields the somber yet tender “Vale, dulcis amice” (Farewell, sweet friend) on which the program ends.

The combination of self-accompaniment and new music secures the women of Trio Mediaeval as the reigning torchbearers of the now-defunct Hilliard Ensemble, of whom they are superlative protégés. Like their legendary mentors, they are able to move from one coil of existence to the next without slightest loss of form. Here’s hoping they continue to do so for decades to come.

(To hear samples of Aquilonis, click here.)

The Hilliard Ensemble: Transeamus (ECM New Series 2408)


The Hilliard Ensemble

David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2012, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

The illustrious Hilliard Ensemble ends its decades-long tenure with ECM, and with the world of performance, in a program of 15th-century English carols and motets for two, three, and four voices. Since debuting on the label with 1989’s Perotin, countertenor David James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter, and baritone Gordon Jones have enchanted with their peerless blend of timbres, equal interest in contemporary and early music, and scholarly sheen. In 1998 Steven Harrold filled the venerable shoes of Potter, who would go on to strengthen his leadership of the Dowland Project (see, for example, Night Sessions) and pursue alluringly off-the-map endeavors such as Being Dufay. Harrold joined ECM’s venerable ranks in a traversal of motets by Guillaume de Machaut, one of many landmark recordings by the newly minted ensemble.

(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)

Whereas other vocal groups might have bowed out with a flourish, the Hilliards have chosen a contemplative return to roots, drawing from a repertoire ingrained in their individual beings long before becoming a part of their collective one. Many of the composers whose work is represented herein are anonymous, yet their music, notes David James in his affectionate liner note, is anything but. Included among the sélections sans auteur is some of the Hilliards’ most incisive singing on disc, which illuminates the verily bookended pages of “Clangat tuba” in purest gold and imbues “Lullay, I saw” with baby’s-breath. Also remarkable are the more intimate combinations, especially those pairing James with one or both of the tenors. The Codex Speciálník has long been one of my most beloved Hilliard albums, in large part because of its occasional duets, and Transeamus may just share that position for its own. “There is no rose,” one of the program’s three carols, is one such instance of skeletal beauty.

John Plummer (1410-1483) is one of four known composers represented. His “Anna mater” is an astonishing creation. Through watery sustains, over which the higher voices bend like willow branches, it reveals a consummate approach between image and reflection. The “Stella Caeli” by Walter Lambe (1450/51-a.1499) threads one of the program’s most angelic looms with a continually changing color scheme. “Ave Maria, Mater Dei” by William Cornysh (c.1468-1523) is as lovely as it is luminescent, and is all the more moving for Gordon Jones’s spinal tap. Lastly, Sheryngham’s “Ah, gentle Jesu” secures the Hilliard Ensemble legacy with a piece of such descriptive power that it turns the immaterial into a tangible piece of faithful proportion, if not also proportional faith. Like the windows of Propstei St. Gerold, the Austrian monastery where so much of their brilliance was captured for posterity, these unrivaled singers allow light to shine both ways.

This album’s title may be Latin for “we travel on,” but we the listeners can be sure that just as much of the Hilliards will be left behind in our hearts as they will carry forward in their own.

(To hear samples of Transeamus, click here.)

Anna Gourari: Visions fugitives (ECM New Series 2384)

Visions fugitives

Anna Gourari
Visions fugitives

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded October 2013, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I do not know wisdom—leave that to others—
I only turn fugitive visions into verse.
In each fugitive vision I see worlds,
Full of the changing play of rainbows.
Don’t curse me, you wise ones. What are you to me?
The fact is I’m only a cloudlet, full of fire.
The fact is I’m only a cloudlet. Look: I’m floating.
–Konstantin Balmont, 1903

In 2012, pianist Anna Gourari made her ECM debut with Canto Oscuro, a diurnal recital of such imagination that it begged a sequel. Only Visions fugitives is, despite its modern vintage, more of a prequel, for it opens more of her heart than ever to the listener’s privilege. The title composition by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is his opus 22 and marks a sensitive turning point in the prolific Russian composer’s oeuvre. Written between 1915 and 1917, the clarity of its 20 miniatures is in full evidence. But as David Nice observes in his biography of Prokofiev, the Visions fugitives also reveals “a new and more disturbing vein of the dynamic malice found in the early piano pieces as well as a more elusive sadness,” and these Gourari elicits with her detailed touch.

Prokofiev seems never to have intended the Visions as a set (the composer himself played no more than a handful in one sitting), but in listening to them as such, one cannot help but notice what Paul Griffiths in his liner text rightly calls their “family resemblances.” And while the title connotes fleeting things, there is something unusually indelible about their impressions. Closer to linked verse than haiku, the suite coheres by virtue of its consistent intimacy. It is, of sorts, an anti-sonata endowed with illustrative prowess, each movement so perfectly flavored that it needs no side dishes: a veritable tapas tasting of thematic subjects, of which only two exceed the two-minute mark. The opening dichotomy sets a tone of blissful regret that, like a pile of shorn wool, is pulled and spun into workable thread. Internal variations work in such a way that each piece, marked only by its tempo, seems a reflection of the one that precedes and a predictor of the one that follows. You may find yourself drawing connections to other composers (No. 8, for example, marked “Comodo,” feels a bit like Satie), but the phenomenological presence of Prokofiev’s score is such that one need hardly reach far to find purchase in between the lines. Some, like Nos. 7 (Pittoresco) and 18 (Con una dolce lentezza), may be incredibly pretty, but resist the plunge into full-on impressionism. Others, like No. 4, 5, 9, 15, and 19 are virtuosic standouts, but speak in tongues of escape over flourish. And in the twentieth Gourari finds a contemplative doorway waiting for her.


At two minutes and forty-six seconds, the Fairy Tale in f minor by Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) may look like filler material in theory, but in practice it acts as a vibrant ligament at the program’s center. Composed in 1912 as part of Medtner’s opus 26, it is a prime example of his skazki, or “tales,” a genre of his own making. One may project any number of scenes onto its imaginary folk setting, but these ears detect a forest of seasons: the wind combing through trees in spring, the fragrant foliage of summer, the decay of autumn, and the whisper of snowfall in winter. With these transformations in mind, we turn lastly to Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) and his opus 58 Sonata No. 3 in b minor of 1844. In the opening Allegro and subsequent Scherzo, Gourari is an artful dodger, the adept inhabitant of an otherwise empty castle. She walks through walls and transcends chambers as simply closing the eyes. She pushes through memories of pomp and circumstance, emerging from them trailing a single thread of transcendence, by which she stitches virtuosity to its shadow. The formidable Largo is a more brooding affair with a funereal quality but sheltering a hope realized in the triumphant Finale before burrowing into the reset of hibernation. Declamation, not proclamation.

Returning to Griffiths, who notes, “In integrating, however, Chopin also disintegrates,” we might lay the same claim about Gourari’s selections. This recital is a step inward, a dissolution of self into pure music that, once unleashed, takes on a life…and death…of its own.

(To hear samples of Visions fugitives, click here.)

Pablo Márquez: El Cuchi Bien Temperado (ECM New Series 2380)

El Cuchi Bien Temperado

Pablo Márquez
El Cuchi Bien Temperado

Pablo Márquez guitar
Recorded May 2012, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Even if The Well-Tempered Pig sounds far more appetizing in Spanish than it does in English, Pablo Márquez’s second album for ECM is an extraordinary achievement. The titular “Cuchi” (an ancient Quechua word meaning “pig”) was the sobriquet of one Gustavo Leguizamón (1917-2000), a composer, musician, lawyer, and pedagogue from the northwestern Argentine city of Salta. Salta is renowned for its musical heritage and is named for the same province that gave us Dino Saluzzi, who followed in Cuchi’s footsteps. Márquez describes Cuchi’s zambas (folk dances) as quintessential markers of Salta’s culture. Having grown up singing so many of them (they are, he explains, always accompanied by poems), Márquez was ideally suited to arrange them in a spectrum of 24 keys akin to, and inspired by, Bach’s monumental Well-Tempered Clavier. Although this album’s press makes further allusion to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, the listener would do well to absorb this music without intervention of a comparative filter.


Although Cuchi’s zambas take up the lion’s share of the program, the songlike vidalas, few as they are, reveal his truest heart. Opener “Coplas des Tata Dios” is a shimmering vidala-baguala, tinged with folkish hues and broken by the occasional tambora (rhythmic tapping at the base of the guitar strings). It seems to emerge from the fog of obscurity into the lucid here and now, and like so many of the pieces assembled here is intensely evocative. A single strum can reveal a shy glance through an open window, and the ghosts of a love that has yet to pass beyond it. Other instances of this form include “Chaya de la albahaca,” which plays with dissonant clusters and scraping of fingernails, and “Canción del que no hace nada,” which ends the album. But before we reach that bittersweet farewell, we are treated to an audible banquet like no other. Less represented dance forms such as the courting bailecito and exuberant carnavalito yield cavorting motifs and elastic strumming, while the three more compactly syncopated chacareras sprinkle the path with technically brilliant puzzles.

All of these aspects and more permeate the masterful zambas, which at Márquez’s touch serve as benchmarks of their form. In cinematic terms, they range from interior shot (“Zamba del carnival”) and soft-focus dream sequence (“Zamba de Lozano”) to flashback (“La cantor de Yala”) and close-up (“Zamba para la Viuda”). Also like an effective film, the music’s character development strengthens over a soundly engineered narrative arc and saves the best for later in “Zaba soltera” (this would be the love scene), “Zamba del pañuelo” (its enervating afterglow), the starkly realized “Maturana,” and “Chilena del solterón.” The latter is indicative of the entire set, pausing for breath and gathering new inspiration before rejoining the waves.

If Márquez were a painter, he would of course have his way with a brush, but would be especially skilled with a palette knife. With rigid elements he is able to render softness and structure in equal measure. As he recalls for an interview printed in this album’s booklet, Cuchi was fond of saying that “the ultimate accolade for an artist is that people think his work is anonymous.” But we can be thankful that, thanks to the efforts of guitarist, engineer, and producer, such anonymity may be harder to come by and will only enhance the wonders therein.

(To hear samples of Ei Cuchi Bien Temperado, click here.)

Anja Lechner/François Couturier: Moderato cantabile (ECM New Series 2367)

Moderato cantabile

Moderato cantabile

Anja Lechner cello
François Couturier piano
Recorded November 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After honing their simpatico relationship at the core of the Tarkovsky Quartet and as part of Maria Pia De Vito’s Pergolesi Project, cellist Anja Lechner and pianist François Couturier step naturally as a duo into a temple of wonders on Moderato cantabile. Over the years, ECM has carved an unparalleled subgenre of cello-piano recordings, notably the collaborations of Ketil Bjørnstad/David Darling and Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Lechner, and it’s impossible to imagine this album having ever come about without those predecessors. Fans of especially the latter project, which shares Lechner’s mellifluous bow, will encounter fascinations galore in Couturier’s deeper impulses. This album takes the very best of those projects and spins it into a world all its own, one in which we are seated as honored guests at the head of the table. Distinguishing the current duo’s music from the rest are the organicity of its approach and blossoming sense of development. The result is no less meditative, but adds to its contemplations the temperance of flame.

Lechner Couturier

Although not arranged in the following way, one may treat the program concentrically, moving from outward from Komitas, one of three composers named on the album’s cover, which neglects to mention Couturier’s own contributions (in keeping, one imagines, with the classical billing as a New Series release). The Armenian priest’s Chinar es has about it a dervish quality, calligraphing hypnotism in the twirl of receptive bodies. Its combination of piano arpeggios and seamless cello threading indicates an aesthetic mind-meld between the two musicians, who are responsible for all of the arrangements heard here.

While the cello is so often thought to be the most vocal of the symphonic strings, making it sing in the way Lechner does is no small task. She is resolute in her approach to the melodies of Greek-Armenian philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff, famously transcribed by way of oral transmission to begin with. Cellist and pianist use their complementary masteries to pair hymns and dances in a tessellation of leaves and sky. Gurjieff awakens like the sun lifting its eyelid over the horizon and extends his spirit-seeking ways through a magnifying glass. There is, too, the Night procession, in which the cello seems to emerge from the piano itself, whispering of charcoal before there is fire. Gurdjieff’s No. 11 dovetails into Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s Fêtes lointaines no. 3, thus creating a chromatic masterpiece in a realm of shadow so deep that it can only speak in light.

Subsequent Mompou selections feel as much like poetry as song, each with a sense of joy and belonging. Tracing parabolic arcs into dance, the strength of Lechner’s technique brings out the songlike heart of this music as well beneath Couturier’s low-flying melodizing. Whether gracing the streets of the Música Callada or scenes of Mompou’s first published work, the Impresiones intimas, theirs is an ocean of churning memory in which the buoys of experience are many and reliable.

Couturier’s own pieces are as beautiful as they are surprising. Soleil rouge surveys a pointillist field of ideas, switching masks over rhythmic double stops from cello, while the duo scales its highest evocative cliff in Papillons, for which they consolidate their artistic toolkit in service of the image. Voyage finds the composer spinning a helix of chords beneath Lechner’s floating crosshatch before they detour through individual veins of rumination. Lechner’s pizzicati blot out stars one by one, until only the moon is left to dance.

The connections of these musicians are special not only with each other, but also with ECM. The love and appreciation that went into this album’s production is discernible at any given moment, and those fortunate enough to bask in its rewards will not be disappointed.

(To hear samples of Moderato cantabile, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)

Tre Voci: Takemitsu/Debussy/Gubaidulina (ECM New Series 2345)

Tre Voci

Tre Voci

Marina Piccinini flute
Kim Kashkashian viola
Sivan Magen harp
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When is it really over? What is the true end? All borders are as if with a stick of wood or with the heel of a shoe driven into the earth. Until then…here is the border. All that is artificial. Tomorrow we’ll play another game.
–Francisco Tanzer, trans. J. Bradford Robinson

Tre Voci are violist Kim Kashkashian, flutist Marina Piccinini, and harpist Sivan Magen. Following a 2010 debut at the Marlboro Music Festival, the trio solidified its identity as such and came to ECM with this program of three works. Although disparate in geographical origin, each connects to the others by instrumentation and, above all, integrity of spirit. More than the unique combination, however, it is the supreme, interlocking level of ability in each musician that makes this disc such a pleasure to behold.


The program opens with the reflection of a reflection: And then I knew ’twas Wind by Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996). The Japanese composer’s illustrative genius is in full effect in this garden of painterly delights, from its opening sprinkle of raindrops to its closing fractals of coincidence. Although the instruments are inseparable partners in the worlding of this piece, and must be equally attuned to what Jürg Stenzl in his liner notes calls the “almost calligraphic precision” of Takemitsu’s score, the harpist must be especially aware of the palette at hand. Magen articulates a veritable ecosystem of harmonics, glissandi (produced by sliding a fingernail along a string), and timbral variations. One can almost feel the quiver of leaves shedding the weight of raindrops in the afterglow of a storm. From this scene, flute and viola emerge not like the fauna of stereotypical impressionism, but rather like the flora drinking in all the nourishment. The viola becomes, then, a natural navigational instrument, a magnetized sliver in a forested compass. Despite sounding sometimes like a single player, for the most part Kashkashian and Piccinini walk their solitary paths. Like some bucolic dream gone dark, however, not all is sunshine and roses, as emphasized by the distinctive pathos of their interpretation. Here is the leaf magnified, revealing infinite others within.

Given Takemitsu’s admiration for Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the latter’s Sonata for flute, viola and harp makes for a most suitable companion. As Debussy’s penultimate composition (succeeded only by the Sonata for violin and piano) before he succumbed to cancer, it shows both maturity and vulnerability. Over the course of three distinct yet interconnected parts, it develops with such tactile beauty that one is hard-pressed to find a hook of any size from which to hang an ornament of criticism. Part I opens in a river’s flow such as only Debussy can devise. With their unpretentious, relaxed treatment thereof, Tre Voci quickly overturn the notion that impressionism equals lack of clarity. The flute blends into the viola, and together they empty into a vivid ocean. Part II is recognizable by its cyclical motifs. If the first was an awakening, this is nature in the raw. Part III rests on a fulcrum of harp, teetering atop some of the trio’s subtlest descriptions, and the tipping point of its sportive, declamatory ending would be echoed 11 years later (1926) in Manuel de Falla’s Concerto for harpsichord, flute, oboe, clarinet, violin and cello. If anything, this sonata is about physics, as is the piece that follows.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Garten von Freuden und Traurigkeiten (Garden of Joys and Sorrows) is this album’s crowning achievement. The progression of its introductions quivers with sobering anxiety until the trio’s dynamic range is nearly exhausted. The viola tends toward harmonic whispers, while harp and flute take more direct routes toward their melodic destinations. This is not to say that the piece is a goal-oriented one. Rather, it thrives on the value of distortion. Much like Gubaidulina’s quartets it favors skeleton over muscle, and through the creaking of its joints seeks harmony in ashen reveries and broken things. It ends with a recitation, in German, of a poem by Francisco Tanzer: not the universe in a raindrop, but a raindrop in the universe.

(To hear samples of Tre Voci, click here.)

Galina Ustvolskaya (ECM New Series 2329)

2329 X

Galina Ustvolskaya

Patricia Kopatchinskaja violin
Markus Hinterhäuser piano
Reto Bieri clarinet
Recorded March 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) may not be a household name, but the Russian composer’s work speaks with a truth that is rare in modern music. As the favorite student of her famous teacher, Dmitri Shostakovich, she was destined for greatness. However, personal politics seem to have gotten in the way of her ascent to prominence. Shostakovich was quite taken with Ustvolskaya, twice proposing marriage. Her lack of reciprocation seems to have embittered him, and as a result her work was scarcely published or performed. According to her book, Shostakovich in Dialogue, however, author Judith Kuhn cautions against buying into Ustvolskaya’s personal mythology, as her claims of creative independence (“There is no link whatsoever between my music and that of any other composer, livind or dead”) might have been just as reactionary, and allusions to Shostakovich inevitably creep up in her work.

But life and art do not imitate one another in her music, which like the cover photograph of this ECM New Series album dedicated to it speaks to the broken pieces as much as those intact, for they also have songs to sing. Because it was she who said, “All who truly love my music should refrain from theoretical analysis of it” (though even this might have been a defensive statement), we do better to approach it not as an excuse for analytical thinking, but as a spiritual experience that demands undivided regard in return for its outpouring.

The beating heart of all three works featured here is Moldovan-Austrian violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, whose rendering of the Sonata for violin and piano (1952) alongside Markus Hinterhäuser is alone worth the acquaintance. The violin begins on a teetering, pianistic bridge in which just enough slats remain to grant full passage. On the other side, Kopatchinskaja must hold the music’s fabric together, frayed as it is. This requires an unusually pristine tone, and this she possesses, along with a variety of extended configurations. She can darken or brighten, be rough or smooth, and moves through the body of this music like creation itself. Notes devoid of vibrato stand out for their clarity and help temper the piano’s inclinations to dance. What emerges from all of this is an internal clock, marking not time but space. Its pulse is not mechanical, but shifts with every blush of mood. Kopatchinskaja takes up that pulse at the end as she raps the body of her instrument with a knuckle.


The 1949 Trio adds clarinetist Reto Bieri to the duo for a tripartite work of artful design. Bieri’s own purity of tone enhances Kopatchinskaja’s, and vice versa, while Hinterhäuser stretches every filament into even consistency. The violin writing is more insistent and razor-like this time around, cutting the obvious relationships within the trio in favor of the implied. The second movement is a lullaby in shadow, walking a tightrope into a warped deconstruction of a Bach-like motif in the third. Here the jagged and the linear become a third, metaphysical category: a blueprint of a blueprint, in which the piano barely hangs on to life.

In his cultural history of St. Petersburg, Solomon Volkov writes, “Ustvolskaya’s chamber works are as monumental as a symphony, and her symphonies are as translucent as chamber music,” though I find it hard to believe that many would hold such an opinion had the composer not put it forth herself. We may see this dynamic operative in the 1952 Sonata, but the Duet for violin and piano, written in 1964, is an intimate cartography of resistance. The distinction between Sonata and Duet more rightly speaks to the composer’s defiance of the chamber music category. The violin’s unassuming introduction turns to flint as flashes ring out. Dissonant, romping scales in the piano, combined with the violin’s half-step faints and distant alarm calls, prime us for the expectorations to come. Yet within each crashing wave curls an invisible grammar, to which pizzicato periods dot arco exclamations. And in a ghostly finish, the violin scrims the line between Heaven and Hell, blending until there is no difference between the two.

And so, rather than simply compare these chamber works to symphonies, it would be more accurate to emphasize their repurposing of scale. It’s not that Ustvolskaya’s sound-world is so big as to engulf us, but that we shrink to such a size that what was once microscopic now seems cosmic. Biographical apocrypha aside, her work is vital for its staunchness of both vision and blindness to the listener. This is not to say we are ignored, but neither are we patronized. We must reckon the music as it is.

(To hear samples of Galina Ulstvolskaya, click here.)