Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden: Jasmine (ECM 2165)

Keith Jarrett
Charlie Haden

Keith Jarrett piano
Charlie Haden double-bass
Recorded March 2007 at Cavelight Studio
Mastered at MSM Studios
Produced by Keith Jarrett and Manfred Eicher

“This is spontaneous music made on the spot without any preparation save our dedication throughout our lives that we won’t accept as a substitute. These are great love songs played by players who are trying, mostly, to keep the message intact. I hope you can hear it the way we did.”
–Keith Jarrett

We sometimes think that the older we get, the more complicated we become, and that in our complexity we have more ammunition with which to defend our individuality in a dying world. This album proves that maturity is about filtering out all that distracts us from being who we are and finding just the right melody, taking comfort in the method over the message. The title of the first track, “For All We Know,” says it all. That two musicians, walking such different paths, can come together and create something so powerfully understated, so viscerally unfettered, is a testament to the creative potential of knowledge and the gift of life that allows it. Recorded in Jarrett’s home studio, this is more than just The Melody At Night, With You with an added bass. It is a heartfelt meditation on the philosophy of experience, a direct statement regarding the lives of its performers. This album might as well be called “Jazzmine,” for that’s exactly what it is: a mine of tried-and-true standards, each plucked carefully from the surrounding rock and arranged in a row of sparkling gems.

The album is generally mellow, but always effective. Tracks like “Where Can I Go Without You” brim with soulful introspection. Others like “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” “I’m Gonna Laugh You Right Out,” and “Goodbye” talk of resignation, filling our cup with unkept promises in the hopes that one final showing will make up for all of them. It is a bittersweet sadness, born from the pain that comes with loving someone who is too far away to requite, much less know of, that same love. “Body and Soul” strikes a delicate balance between recollection and regret and just grazes the edges of dissonance, giving certain traction to the tune. Jarrett sings as he spins a subtle energy. In this track we also get the most unmitigated bass solo, Jarrett merely providing the punctuation marks to Haden’s poetry. “No Moon At All” is more upbeat, a touch more joyful. And yet we come to realize this joy has been lost upon us with the passing of time. Haden’s solo here revels in the simple things that bring it melodic joy. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is one of the shorter tracks, further reminding us that our happiest moments are also the most fleeting. Last but far from least is “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” a comforting ballad that closes the album in near silence.

Over thirty years in the making, Jasmine was already a classic before Jarrett and Haden ever stepped into the studio to record it. It is as if the music had already existed and our dynamic duo merely needed to catch up with it. As Jarrett observes, Haden singularly embodies a “dichotomy between control and letting it go,” laying down righteous melodies that at once support and lead the way. Haden’s renderings are supremely gentle, the subtlest retouches on an already masterful painting. His solos go down easy like good advice, while Jarrett’s gorgeous supporting chords put that advice into action. Jarrett himself adopts a more autobiographical approach that manifests itself in a uniquely laid-back passion. He displays an intuitive sense of rhythm in the left hand, and with his right weaves variegated threads through the four-stringed loom of Haden’s bass. This mesh produces an unmatched synergy: take one variable away and you are left with an unsolvable equation.

The album jacket could hardly express more visually the magic that resides within its sleeve. Each rectangle, separate but also sharing the same line, is like the life of its respective musician. Neither is perfectly straight at the edges; a life drawn in freehand, as all lives are. There is an eternity contained in each, and yet for an indeterminate amount of time these two lives intersect, and from that overlap comes music so transparent that only its borders remain clear. For the musicians those borders are their instruments. Heavy and tangible, they respond only to the touch of those who know them best. For the listener those borders are the song titles, each telling a different side of the same story.

This is an album in the past tense, every sound a memory caught in the branches of our curiosity. Jarrett and Haden would seem to prize nostalgia above all—not by putting it on a pedestal, but by laying it at the pedestal’s feet. And while each track essentially follows the same format—i.e., a democratic entrance, a piano introduction followed by adlibbing, and solos from Haden and Jarrett before the two equalize—the formula never grows tedious, if only because its subtle negotiations speak volumes of an invisible history. And that is exactly the point. They’re not trying to break new ground here, but to see what can still be built upon the old ground before it disappears. And why not, for their materials are still resilient, pliant, and reliable. Listen to Jasmine for its quiet charm, for the way it sings without words, for the tireless care it embodies, but above all listen to discover just how honest music can be. Jarrett puts it best when he says: “An ecstatic moment in music is worth the lifetime of mastery that goes into it, because it can be shared.” How fortunate we are to be on the receiving end.

Paul Bley with Gary Peacock (ECM 1003)


Paul Bley Trio
Paul Bley with Gary Peacock

Paul Bley piano
Gary Peacock bass
Paul Motian drums
Billy Elgart drums
Recorded 1964 and 1968 in New York
Produced by “ECM”
Release date: December 1, 1970

From the moment “Blues” lights the fuse, we’re rocketing through this magnificently swinging album. Pianist Paul Bley proves his comfort in Ornette Coleman territory, easing his way through a series of dexterous detours. His original “Getting Started” follows up with a ballad, its brushed drums giving off a grainy feel, desolate yet comforting. Peacock’s soloing is eager and ever so slightly askew. “When Will The Blues Leave” (Coleman) is a more syncopated affair. Brushes defer to drumsticks, adding delicate punch to the overall sound. Even Bley cannot restrain joyful cries as the mood intensifies. “Long Ago And Far Away” (Jerome Kern) moves forward with locomotive purpose and finds Peacock in an exuberant mood. “Moor” exhibits his soloing and composing, as refreshing as they are restless. “Gary” (Annette Peacock) is a lonely catharsis forged in bass and piano. The bassing here is somber, as if contemplating a jump from a high precipice. When the piano returns, it’s not to pull the bass downward but keep it from falling over. Bley’s own “Big Foot” is a rip-roaring good time. One can feel the lovingness of its creation. Finally, “Albert’s Love Theme” (Annette Peacock) presents us with a new direction as the trio goes its separate ways.

Bley is on point, Peacock hopping with vivacious confidence, as drummer Paul Motian brushes and rat-a-tat-tats his way through five of the eight cuts (the remaining three feature Billy Elgart in his place). The recording, made in 1963 (Motian session) and 1969 (Elgart session), has a classic trebly overlay yet is highly detailed. It’s a listening experience that suggests new focus every time. For this review, it’s Peacock who captures my attention. His fondness for higher registers punches holes in the music and allows the wind to flow through. Considering the time and place this album was cut, and the jigsaw of its talents, it practically recommends itself.

Gavin Bryars: After the Requiem (ECM New Series 1424)


Gavin Bryars
After the Requiem

Bill Frisell electric guitar
Alexander Balanescu violin, viola
Kate Musker viola
Tony Hinnigan cello
Roger Heaton clarinet, bass clarinet
Dave Smith tenor horn, piano
Gavin Bryars bass
Martin Allen percussion
Simon Limbrick percussion
Evan Parker soprano saxophone
Stan Sulzmann soprano saxophone
Ray Warleigh alto saxophone
Julian Argüelles baritone saxohpone
Recorded September 1990, Rainbow Studio, Oslo and CTS Studio, London
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Stepping into the territory of Gavin Bryars is like coming home, so familiar are the morphemes with which he composes his musical language. One of the most significant recordings in the Bryars catalogue, this disc offers a fine condensation of his spirited and nostalgic sensibilities.

After the Requiem dates from 1990 and follows his Cadman Requiem of the previous year. After completing the latter, which was written for the Hilliard Ensemble in memory of Bryars’s friend Bill Cadman, Manfred Eicher suggested that Bryars spin an instrumental postlude from the requiem’s latent fibers, thus giving us the title piece of this brooding and gorgeous album. Scored for two violas, cello, and electric guitar, After the Requiem offers a distinct take on the state of mourning it so affectionately recreates. Like the gravelly strings that open the piece, the mood is raw and unbounded. Frisell’s guitar sears the darkness like the northern lights with a slow and lustrous fire, bleeding spectral life force into the evening sky. The strings gather momentum, as if to coax the guitar toward the horizon, chasing the memory of an afternoon that can no longer be recovered. Frisell plays as if he were bowing the guitar, drawing out an amplified sustenance that nourishes the vocal hunger of his accompaniment. Where the strings seem to mimic voices, the guitar mimics the strings, ad infinitum. The piece slows about midway through, burrowing even deeper into contemplative soil, at which point Frisell wrenches out some grinding low tones from the lower register of his axe. What would be but one voice lost in a power chord more forcefully played rings here with the humility of supplication. Before long the guitar lets out more substantial tones and shifts to an aerial shot of the same landscape. The earth recedes, leading into the most beautiful moment of the piece, during which the guitar drops from a soaring high note. One can hear, indeed almost taste, the meticulous care that went into this performance. The music fades, as if sending off a spirit to a realm where life continues of its own accord. The continuity between instruments here is such that there are almost no audible gaps between them. And while all the musicians play with consummate grace, Frisell is nothing short of astonishing. Despite the polished feel of the piece it was the result, as Bryars makes clear in his recording diary, of much refinement and experimentation on Frisell’s part, working closely with the composer to achieve the ideal effect.

The Old Tower of Löbenicht. This piece, composed in 1986, is the early version of an instrumental interlude for a yet-to-be-realized opera adapted from Thomas DeQuincey’s The Last Days of Immanuel Kant. Says Bryars, “It occurs at a point in the opera where Kant is disturbed at the way in which growing poplar trees have obscured the view of a distant tower which ‘he could not be said properly to see…but (which) rested upon his eye as distant music on the ear—obscurely, or but half revealed to the consciousness.’” The music is meant to evoke Kant’s divided response to the tower’s presence and obfuscation, hence the nocturnal bass clarinet and ominous bells that dominate the first half. The music moves like a barge through ice flows. Its signals ring across the waters to the mainland, traversing coastline, steppes, mountainous terrain, barren fields, contaminated pools. A solemn piano appears with a rhythmic and minimal motif, rocking between two-part harmonies, as Balanescu solos beautifully on violin, at times doubled by Roger Heaton on bass clarinet. This progression is landmarked by a plucked bass and vibraphone. Bryars weaves a few audible strands of light into the otherwise requisite darkness, where constellations are but a memory lost to annals of history. The music very much resembles the trajectory of Glorious Hill, another Bryars masterpiece. The sheer clarity of Balanescu’s tone, at once thin and rich with melodic substance, is the binding thread. As the piece ends, a marimba flutters like butterfly wings in and out of our sonic purview, leaving behind a litany of bells while a bass clarinet scrapes the bottom of its available registers.

Alaric I or II (1989) is scored for two soprano saxophones, one alto, and one baritone. “The title,” Bryars tells us, “comes from the name of the mountain, Mount Alaric, in South West France, opposite the Chateau where I spent the summer [composing this piece]. No-one seemed to know which of the two ‘King Alarics’ the name referred to.” Alaric I or II is an exercise in virtuosity, requiring of the players a variety of techniques, including long bouts of circular breathing and controlled multiphonics. As with the rest of the album, this piece builds slowly yet with purpose. After a series of languid dissonant clusters the alto sax sketches a theme in its haunting surroundings. Suddenly, the two soprano saxes launch into a rhythmic arpeggio, lending a Philip Glassian flavor to the palette. Soon this thins out in a more contemplative air, pausing on a resolved chord, further darkened and reformed into a new beginning. Another rhythmic section begins as the baritone sax raises its throaty call. From this point a steady energy is maintained by at least one instrument as the others play over or around it: one lead is immediately switched off for another, typically between alto and soprano. An evocative fluttering technique signals a close as the quartet subsides into quiet agreement, hermetically sealed and indistinguishable from the rest of the rocky cove. The musicianship here is superb, the saxophonic sound rendered with precision. At times this piece shares an affinity with the brief saxophone quartet in Michael Nyman’s soundtrack for The Piano and would be equally suited for some incidental purpose. Although this is a fairly minimal piece, it evokes a range of atmospheres and images. Its energy moves in peaks and valleys, opening the earth’s bindings just a little further to smell its ink-blotted pages. It’s like a captain’s log floating unseen in the wake of shipwreck, plowing the waves for days before the water turns it into invisible molecules.

Allegrasco (1983) is an “operatic paraphrase” of Bryars’s first opera Medea. It is another larger ensemble piece that opens humbly with piano and clarinet. Brooding strings wrap their arms around the central melody. A bell intones; the strings grow louder; the clarinet snakes its way around like a loose scarf caught in a strong but silent wind. A playful passage ensues, a dance in a silent film. The guitar grows into a more supportive voice, dropping remnants of the album’s title piece into this limpid pool. Allegrasco is a series of finely wrought vignettes, each turning like a musical waterwheel. The music is never still, as if at the whim of an unseen narrative force. We graze the shoreline with each musical gesture, sometimes sinking, sometimes floating.

Bryars’s music practically begs for imagery, if only the listener’s own. It is corroded, antique, and accrues value with age. One hears it anew every time, for it holds a world of possibility.

Eberhard Weber: The Following Morning (ECM 1084)


Eberhard Weber
The Following Morning

Eberhard Weber bass
Rainer Brüninghaus piano
Members of Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra celli, French horns, oboe
Recorded August 1976 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The title of Eberhard Weber’s classic 1977 album is as evocative as they come. At once cryptic and expository, the image calls up a host of associations, plays of light and shadow.

“T. On A White Horse” establishes the album’s solemn mood as Weber’s distinctive electrobass springs to life against an aquatic electric piano. A small orchestral section weaves its way in, painting chromatic oboe lines onto a droning canvas of cellos. As the strings intensify, bass and woodwinds share a plaintive synchronicity. The bass holds its breath, cupping its hands around Brüninghaus’s delicate flame. Oboes carry their lilting harmony across the oceans, fading into the bell-like call of sunrise.

“Moana I” feels less like a journey with a goal and more like a testing ground for confluence. The orchestra sprouts like a forest through which Weber must limp on his way toward dawn. The piano’s melodic charge, however, helps to cut this tension. Once the French horns offer their own desultory commentary, morning light pours in. The electric piano buffs the music to a crystalline sheen while horns and winds work their way back into rest. They find their beds and sleep, having reached the summit of their dreams.

The title track begins with indistinct ambient noises: people rustling in a resonant space, musicians shifting in their seats. This impressionistic cloud splits with a piano chord in reverse, loosing an electronic squall. Strings talk among themselves in the background as bowed harmonics trickle like rain down a window. The piano speaks of midnight to the bass, which emerges with a chorused effect. Weber’s keening tone touches the landscape, scratching glyphs into its fertile surface. The scene shifts and grinds, a hurdy-gurdy whispering in slow motion. The appearance of an acoustic bass in this track creates a dazzling effect, as if rising from some bygone era where the immediacy of live performance was a given and not a luxury, and where the communal experience of music thrived in the ears of every listener. The world unravels like a lullaby, revealing just enough of its heart to give us vast internal comfort. With this rupture mended the electrobass returns, laying out its motif over the pieces left behind. The acoustic bass chants the same note as a French horn plays us out.

“Moana II” puts us into an echoing flock of horns that seems to scorn the earth below. This segues into a brief passage of quiet abstractions before blossoming into a conversation between piano and bass, at which point the horns have flown away. Although the acoustic arrangements are wonderful, in this instance the heavily contrived bass feels just slightly out of place and, I think, clashes with the more organic backdrop. Thankfully, Weber reacclimatizes as he goes along, meshing beautifully with the synth effects at the album’s end.

Weber’s sound is instantly recognizable in its solitary function, marking its mission in stillness. With a liquid technique Weber wrings out as much melodic juice from his instrument as he possibly can. Not to be outdone, the epic piano stylings of Brüninghaus are the perfect foil for Weber’s decidedly intimate approach. Every time his fingers touch the keys, we begin to see where this music can really take us. Weber’s compositions constitute a vast sonic kaleidoscope in which one finds a range of moods all strung by the same nostalgic threads. Every detail is a new feather, stitched into the wings on either side of the space-bound fuselage that is his ever-expanding oeuvre. To listen to his music is to feel the state of things change from light to dark and back to light again.

Paul Hillier: Proensa (ECM New Series 1368)


Paul Hillier

Paul Hillier voice
Stephen Stubbs lute, psaltery
Andrew Lawrence-King harp, psaltery
Erin Headley vielle
Recorded February 1988, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I’ll write a song without great force
and not of me or other source
and not of love or youth, of course:
nothing at all.
I’ll write it sleeping on my horse
so’s not to fall.”

–Guilhèm de Peitieus

The title of this fascinating project from Paul Hillier refers to the southern French region of Provence, where the lyric poets of the troubadour tradition from which the album culls its music once flourished. Utilizing extant fragments of Provençal texts and melodies, Hillier and his musicians reconstruct a visceral program of songs.

As the earliest troubadour whose work still survives, the appearance of Guilhèm de Peitieus (fl. 1071-1126) first on the program makes for an intuitive choice. Farai un vers is the fifth of his eleven extant songs. The arrangement opens with a delicately strummed psaltery, stretching and detuning in reaction to Hillier’s narration as Stephen Stubbs’s lute creeps in from some unseen realm. The effect is unsettling, rather like the imminent death related in the poem being spoken. Hillier luxuriates in each word like a story in and of itself. “My song is sung, I don’t know how,” he says in the last verse, walking a path without melody with words that are nothing but melodious.

Reis glorios, by Giraut de Bornelh (c. 1138-1215), is a planh, or secular lament, written in honor of Raimbaut d’Aurenga (c. 1147-1173). Known as the inventor of the trobar leu, or “light” style, Giraut showcases his formulaic precision in this piece. With a refrain of “Fair companion…” he mourns the King’s absence: singing would seem to matter little in a world without him. This song evolves over peaks and valleys, drawing out a luscious voice from their depths, and ends with a beautiful solo from Erin Headley on the vielle.

Raimon de Miraval (fl. 1180-1220) was also a master of trobar leu. Of his extant collection of forty-five songs, an unprecedented twenty-two have retained their melodies. Unlike his contemporaries, Raimon was more interested in the “courtliness” of courtly love than in the love it both ennobled and constrained. In Aissi cum es genserpascors, Raimon is woefully fed up with the ways in which women of the court discourage their mercy-seeking friends, thereby permitting access to the most unworthy suitors. “Thus courtly song falls silent,” he laments, “and out come accusations and mad tumult.” Knowing full well that he could rat these ladies out, he would rather plead for mercy himself “From her who has the savor of all goodness,” thus implicating himself in the vicious cycle he so despises. The music begins softly and pointillistically, condensing into the resonant strum of Andrew Lawrence-King’s harp. From this cloud a voice issues, singing its self-deprecating song. The music is dynamic, if secondary to the language it supports, and fades once the voice has spent its spell.

Marcabru (fl. 1130-1150) is among the earliest known troubadours. His poetry is critical—at times lewdly so—of aristocracy and what he saw to be its twisted concept of love. Of his works that survive there are four melodies, in addition to three possible contrafacta (i.e., melodies interchangeable with more than one text). In L’autrier una sebissa, written as a pastorela (an often humorous Occitan lyric known for depicting knights’ attempts at seducing shepherdesses), the prototypical shepherdess refuses the advances of a knight for reasons of class. He tries a variety of tactics with which to win her over, but to no avail. “I am pained because the cold pierces you,” he says. To which she quips,

“Thanks to God and my nurse,
It does not concern me if the wind ruffles my hair,
For I am cheerful and healthy.”

He offers his company for her loneliness, of which she expresses no remorse. Perhaps she is of noble extraction? But alas, she sees her entire family “going back to sickle and plow.” He chalks up their coupling to the ways of nature, only to be met with the following admonition:

“The fool seeks his foolishness,
The courtly, courtly adventures,
And the peasant boy, the peasant girl;
Wisdom is lacking in any place (circumstance)
Where moderation is not observed,
So say the ancients.”

Whereas moments before the knight had proclaimed her unmatched beauty, he know declares her to harbor the most deceitful heart in the land. This elicits her cryptic final word:

“Sir, the owl promises you
That one man gapes before the painting
While the other expects reward.”

Such songs were a direct commentary on what Marcabru saw as lust’s inherent absurdity. This song has a catchy melodic lilt to it, consisting of refrains interlaced with instrumental interludes. Hillier carries full weight here through a melody that lingers long after its consummation.

Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. 1145-1180), master of trobar leu and formalizer of cansos (standard three-part songs), boasts forty-five extant poems, of which eighteen also have music. Be m’an perdut arises from a gorgeous harp solo. Voice and lute double each other throughout this repetitive lament of lost love. Hillier sings:

“Like some great trout that dashes to the bait
Until he feels love’s hook, all hot and blindly
I rushed toward too much love, too rash to wait,
Careless, till ringed in by love’s flames I find me
Seared as by furnace fires upon a grate.”

These post facto realizations tug at the heartstrings, as relevant as ever in their ability to elicit the listener’s concern. The only way in which one may find joy in this pain, Bernart tells us, is to embrace it:

“In luck and honor, let her still be blest,
And I her lover, liege and servant ever
Whether that makes her joyful or distressed.”

I daresay most of us can hear an echo of our own experience in these words, if not also in the way they are sung.

Can vei la lauzeta, also by Bernart, opens like the previous song, save for the added presence of a vielle droning in the background. The speaker of the poem sees a skylark, whereupon he feels great envy for the rapture the bird so readily enjoys:

“Alas, I thought I’d grown so wise;
In love I had so much to learn:
I can’t control this heart that flies
To her who pays love no return.”

As a result, he swears off women forever. “Now that I distrust them, one and all,” he asserts, “I’ve learned too well they’re all the same,” even as we know he will fall again. The music is in a Dorian mode that captures the destructive spiral of its subject.

Of Peire Vidal (fl. 1175-1205) we also have forty-five songs, twelve with melodies. Pos tornatz sui is a song of contradictions, of finding solace in life’s tribulations:

“Here is joy for all my tears;
Boldness springs from my worst fears;
Having lost, I’ve gained much more
And though beaten, won my war.”

Through every foul turn Peire finds a pathway to change. This is, I would argue, the most spiritual poem represented here, insofar as it acknowledges the impermanence of human concerns over illusionary social allegiances.

By the end of the Crusades the barons of southern France were financially and emotionally drained, leaving no resources for the patronization of song (for more on this, see Robert Kehew’s introduction to Lark in the Morning: The Verses of the Troubadours). It was in this climate that Guiraut Riquier (fl. 1254-1292), considered the last of the Provençal troubadours, composed Be’m degra de chantar (“It Would Be Best If I Refrained From Singing”), in which he signals the passing of the troubadourian era:

“Now no art is less admired
Than the worthy craft of song.
These days the nobles’ tastes have run
To entertainments less inspired.
Wailing mingles with disgrace:
All that once engendered praise
From the memory has died:
Now the world is mostly lies.”

I can think of no more powerful statement to capture the demise of this rich musical art, and Hillier appropriately speaks it without the company of instruments.

If any single word could be applied to this album, it would be “haunting.” This is not to imply that it is a particularly “dark” album, but one that seems to occupy a space uninhabitable by the living. This music breathes at the very edges of our consciousness, which is perhaps why it is so vocally driven, for only through the frailty of the voice can its strengths be expressed. The language is similarly peripheral, with its shades of cognates and other etymological minutae. The arrangements get under the listener’s skin, evoking an atmosphere at once so antiquated as to be unrecoverable while also so modern that it could exist at no other time but the (recorded) present. The spirit of the music is easy to see, if difficult to place, for it is something felt on a physiological level, residing in our sense of collective history. The music unfolds in a way that is always aware of its origins, leaving us to question our own.

Paul Giger: Chartres (ECM New Series 1386)


Paul Giger

Paul Giger violin
Recorded at summer solstice 1988 inside the crypt and upper church of the cathedral of Chartres
Engineer: Peter Drefahl
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Describing the music of Paul Giger is like trying to draw with one’s eyes closed: one can only go so far before the shapes begin to break down. Of the violin Giger possesses an unparalleled understanding, which he brings to every interaction with it. Melodically these pieces are mature, singing and shouting and praying their way through a virtuosic lifetime of exhalation. Giger paints a veritable image of the cathedral, hollowing from the inside out with the edge of his bow, respecting the space that gives the music life.

Each section of this chiefly improvised work was recorded in respective titular areas of the cathedral at Chartres. “Crypt I+II” arises from a breath, played sul ponticello at the threshold of clarity. Occasionally these whispers vocalize into declarations of a chromatic and hymnic theme, the overtones of which Giger molds with great skill. After this introduction the violin trembles as Giger grazes the strings with his fingertip, coaxing multiphonic echoes from their solace. In “Crypt III” he presents the theme more straightforwardly and with pronounced regularity. A touch of vibrato and a hint of vulnerability add color to this sacred song. Giger lays down a sort of bass line to his melodizing as the atmosphere takes a liturgical turn. This is followed by “Labyrinth,” a superbly played dance akin to Irish fiddling that lapses just as quickly into a keening lamentation. This bipolarism continues as Giger puts his extended technique to work midway through the piece, playing the violin percussively on the fingerboard while tapping the strings with his bow for a harmonic overlay. This passage requires careful attention to appreciate the “micromusic” being performed. In “Crossing” we encounter the same material that began the album in ascendant reformation. Giger runs his fingers through the octaves, halting at regular intervals to relate the theme underlying them at every turn. Each pass travels higher, stretching the possibilities of the violin’s harmonic register. Additional voices offer dense harmonies that seem to depend from the cathedral’s lofty rafters for as long as they can in order to convey the ecstasy of their desire. Strings pull at one another, one wishing to rise and the other to remain earthbound, so much beauty is there to tempt them in either direction. Ultimately we are left in a space neither terrestrial nor empyreal. The theme returns, a bird circling overhead, eyes always on the ground below, locking on us, the lowly observers. This crosses over into aching reverie. The final movement, “Holy Center,” is also the most mysterious. Locking into the cathedral’s “key note,” its resonance is self-nourishing, and builds in vocal density through soul and body.

As gorgeous as it is, we can never forget that such sounds exist solely in the realm of the human, and that perhaps only mean something to those who inhabit it. This is also what imbues it with spiritual significance. Here is music created for its own sake, if not forsaken for its own creation.

Paul Giger at Chartres (photo courtesy of Giger’s homepage)

Hindemith: Viola Sonatas – Kashkashian/Levin (ECM New Series 1330-32)

Paul Hindemith
Sonatas for Viola/Piano and Viola Alone

Kim Kashkashian viola
Robert Levin piano
Solo sonatas recorded 1985-86, Kirche Seon, Switzerland and Karlshöhe, Ludwigsburg, Germany
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Sonatas for viola and piano recorded 1986, Feste Burg Kirche, Frankfurt, Germany
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“The viola is commonly (with rare exceptions indeed) played by infirm violinists, or by decrepit players of wind instruments who happen to have been acquainted with a stringed instrument once upon a time.”
–Richard Wager

If ever a recording could put Wagner’s infamous statement to rest, this would be it. Simply overflowing with musical brilliance, it remains one of the finest examples of what the viola is capable of. Kim Kashkashian’s technique and passion are almost palpable and one can only marvel at the humble respect she brings to both. The viola doesn’t simply exist somewhere between violin and cello, forever doomed to be second rate to both. It is, rather, an utterly dynamic and rich musical object, and the ways in which Hindemith unravels its subtler intonations in these sonatas is nothing short of monumental. Every chapter tells us something new, until the linguistic possibilities of the music represented in this eclectic set are exhausted.

Sonate op. 31,4
The first movement is a virtuosic leap through microtonal harmonies and energetic flights of fancy. Kashkashian negotiates these with such conviction, they sound spontaneously composed. As evocative as the music is, it is difficult to picture anything while listening to it, existing as it does in a sound world fashioned from the innards of its own body. And in this fashion it proceeds, drawing from its ligaments, veins, and arteries a broader musical circulation that extends one’s sense of self beyond the instrumental and into the metaphysical. Kashkashian ends with a dramatic flourish, as if to punctuate the ineffability of belonging. The second movement is a mournful monologue. This, Kashkashian plays with heartfelt sensitivity, much in contrast to the raw strength with which she attacks the opening movement. She extracts from her instrument sounds and emotions that are deeply ingrained in the wood itself, brought forth through the strings just as breath is spun into voice through the throat. She does this not so much with the “effortlessness” often ascribed to virtuosi, but rather makes audible her long hours of dedicated practice, her struggles to wrench from this neglected instrument an entirely orchestral palette of atmospheres. The third movement opens with double stops and a linear introduction of the theme before venturing off into beautiful variations and idiosyncratic counterpoint. Again, Hindemith shows a fondness for tight harmonies, for the spatial potential between adjacent notes. The theme is a fascinating melody, devoid of context and therefore unbounded. As Kashkashian builds her energy, the music regresses into its constituent melodic parts before taking pause. The next section of the third movement is marked “Langsam,” and is an accordingly pliant interlude that hangs in the air like a piece of windblown pollen. Kashkashian plays it as if sharing a new discovery. The final passage springs from the solace of the tangential middle with almost Pan-like exuberance. We see in this music a certain quality of “understanding,” a mischievous surrender to the will of compositional potential.

Sonate op. 25,1
This second sonata erupts with a series of portati, which are dissonant enough to catch our attention with discomfort but which eventually resolve themselves in airy double stops. Here we find beauty not only in those moments that provoke consonance, but perhaps even more so in those moments swirled like knots in a tree. The second movement is another earthy meditation that allows the listener to focus on every sound contained in the lone string. We find in this movement a robust patience. There is no sadness here, only the room in which to deal with our own faults. Through these singular notes we are given a glimpse of what such a process might look like. The third movement is a violent dance that climbs the ladder of its own expression before hurtling itself into a vale of doubt. It is a short foray that dies as quickly as it is born. The final movement begins slowly and with a beauty that is only heightened in the aftermath of the previous display of suicidal vigor. Kashkashian draws out each note into a linear phrase before accentuating it with another. This kind of lilting pattern continues throughout, lending a dirge-like quality to a fitting conclusion.

Sonate 1937
This sonata is like a lesson in biology, highlighting the fluidity between skin and the musical score. The first movement is a convoluted organism indeed. It undulates with its own respiratory rhythm, shaping itself as a voice might in a debate or argument, and in doing so perfectly captures the details of its own fallibility. This is followed by another heartfelt slow movement, as nocturnal as it is bright. The mood changes quickly as the playing erupts into a more frenzied exhibition, plying the listener with forced resolution and the impatience that drives it. The ensuing calm segues into a beautiful pizzicato passage, which exploits all the resonance residing within the viola’s, and the performer’s, body. Soon the bow is returned to the strings, laying out a delicate tessellation of finality. We finish with a somber and somewhat indecisive third movement.

Sonate op. 11,5
This sonata begins with a rather terse opening statement, both in length and in mood. It is as if we have been given a contentious opinion that we can’t quite figure out, but which we know is fraught with danger. The movement has a touch-and-go quality that comes to a head with an obligatory and theatrical exit. The second movement climbs even as it descends, a Jacob’s Ladder toy in sound. As gripping as Hindemith’s faster movements are, it is in these downtempo moments that he displays his greatest deftness, so engaging are they in their fortitude, in their ability to imply the inexpressible, in their wantonness for melody and articulation, and in their remarkable ability to highlight the joys of self-discovery. The Scherzo is a stone changing directions in mid air as it skips across water. It is playful; not in the sense that a child might play, but in the sly intelligence of social agency that is part and parcel of adulthood. A masterful miniature, to be sure. The 11-minute epic that is the last movement also moves very organically. It dances and glides—opening its melodic gills to whatever might pass through them before erupting into gorgeous runs across the fingerboard that simply revel in the melodic possibility they so artfully carry—and moves like a folksong.

After such an exposition of prowess on the viola alone, the gentle introduction of a piano changes things considerably. While a certain level of restraint is to be expected from the accompanist, Robert Levin draws his playing through the viola’s almost vocal cartography, astutely aware of the dialogic nature of their music-making. The recording from hereon out is strikingly different. The viola remains quite present while the piano seems far away, as if playing on the other side of the room, thereby opening the spatial possibilities of the music and further contrasting the intimate pointillism of the solo sonatas with the broader strokes of the accompanied. At times the piano and viola would seem to be talking to themselves, as if after a long argument between a couple that has been together for so long that, no matter what they say, their voices blend with an exacting harmony.

Sonate op. 11,4
The opening Phantasie is stunningly beautiful, lapsing into moments of passive romanticism even as it unravels more overblown threads. The second movement is comprised by a jaunty theme with variations and fleshes out the sonata form in uniquely ecstatic ways. The finale with variations brings itself even closer to the inherency of the first two movements, only to lower into mysterious asides that seem to hover around the edges of its introduction.

Sonate op. 25,4
This sonata brims with a Bartókian jouissance, at once sylvan and nomadic. The viola enters, a dancer waiting for just the right moment to let loose her footwork. The piano responds with a playful challenge, which the viola answers wholeheartedly and with due respect. This rhythmically dynamic and challenging movement ends with a light touch of pizzicato. The second is full of tragedy, proceeding at a crawl through an indefinable wreckage that, while familiar to us, is also something we can never experience because it is not our own. The finale is filled with drama and screeching tremolos, and sings with the conviction of a mountaineer. The third movement is a boisterous exposition that ends with a few lines in unison and a soaring high note to finish.

Sonate 1939
This last sonata begins as if in mid-phrase, jumping right into its melodies with careful abandon. The piano and viola play off each other rather explicitly, holding fast to connection and release. Whereas this movement is filled with playful moments, plucked diversions, and pianistic revelry, the second plants its feet firmly on the path and rushes toward its finale. The third movement, another Phantasie, ruptures the music’s icy surface like the sticks on the album’s cover. As we come to a close, the sound cracks like an egg.

Of the many solo sonatas for various instruments composed since the time of Bach, it is Hindemith’s that most concretely capture a likeminded spirit. While Paganini’s caprices, for example, model Bach on the surface, they are essentially showstoppers meant to test the technical limits of whoever dares perform them. The solo violin works of Ysaÿe are also closely allied with Bach. Ysaÿe draws more specifically and overtly, and in doing so pushes away from Bach in the process. By contrast, Hindemith chose colors from his own palette. In the same way that Bach revitalized the violin and the cello, Hindemith forged a space for the viola. I hear no evidence in these sonatas to suggest that Hindemith was in any way attempting an imitation. He was, rather, exploring his own territory with unbridled honesty. Thankfully, Kashkashian has given us this landmark performance to enjoy to our hearts’ content. Her playing is by turns robust and delicate, her tone impeccable, her technique assured and minimally adorned.

It has been said that, as a performer, one develops a certain appreciation for a given piece of music that the listener can never access, for the performer learns a piece from the inside out. What separates Kashkashian from the rest is her willingness to let the listener in on the performer’s appreciation, and on the different levels of which such an engagement is comprised. We feel every detail as we would feel our own.

Valentin Silvestrov: Sacred Works (ECM New Series 2117)

Valentin Silvestrov
Sacred Works

Kiev Chamber Choir
Mykola Hobdych conductor
Recorded 2006 and 2007, Cathedral Of The Dormition, Pechersk Lavra, Kiev
Engineer: Andrij Mokrytskij

ECM’s New Series has a love for living composers, of which Valentin Silvestrov is a personal favorite. While already highly regarded in the former Soviet Union, Silvestrov has seen a revival of sorts through his substantial representation on the label. This selection of choral music showcases a recent turn in the Ukrainian’s compositional path, written as it was at the urgent behest of conductor Mykola Hobdych. Easily worthy of a place alongside Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, these pieces abound with moments of aching profundity.

The album opens like a flower, shedding a petal with every new voice that enters. A bass intones, navigating the complex shape circumscribed by the reverberant space, as the choir responds to the soloist’s articulations. The latter sings in a subdued manner, stripping the basso profundo aesthetic down to its core, much in the spirit of Silvestrov’s Silent Songs. The choir lifts, leaving our entire landscape changed: season, time of day, climate—all of it falls away for just a few moments before we sink back down into the density of our own being. Buoyant women’s voices spiral like galaxies; an ambrosial tenor solo gives way to broader considerations, tightening like knotwork before being wrapped in the gauze of redemption; an alto transcends the hush of the choir, carrying with it the existential kindling that sparks its emotive nature.

Silvestrov’s music exists in a state of perpetual ascent, and perhaps nowhere more so than here. The choir acts as one organism, lending the frequent solos a recitational air. These are not unlike Christ’s words in red in a modern Bible: somehow distinct from their textual periphery while also constitutive of it. After listening to this album it’s difficult to recall the gaps between pieces, flowing as they do into an extended statement. By the same token, each is its own icon suspended, safe among the clutter of our anxieties. Bid to choose, I would single out “Christmas Song,” “Bless O Lord,” “The Creed,” and the two deconstructions of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria (especially the first, with its haunting whispers) as particularly moving examples of Silvestrov’s craft. The Kiev Chamber Choir sings with passionate restraint and intuition, its dynamics fluid and under beautiful control. At moments the singers practically break at the seams, inhaling and exhaling the space of their recording venue, where every nuance of breath is amplified in its union with others.

Those wanting to warm up to Silvestrov’s “metamusical” style may adjust more easily to these melodically rich miniatures. Yet there is still so much alluded to here that never reaches fruition. Rather than being a distraction, however, this technique adds depth and honesty. This is music of the night, streaked as if with time-lapsed stars, a mise-en-abyme of divine reflection.

Those who like what they hear may also want to check out the enchanting Twenty-Seven Choruses by Bartók, of which the original Hungaroton Classic recording is still the benchmark.

Thomas Demenga plays Bach/Holliger (ECM New Series 1340)


Thomas Demenga
plays works of J. S. Bach and Heinz Holliger

Thomas Demenga cello
Heinz Holliger oboe
Catrin Demenga violin
Recorded September 1986, Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Jakob Stämpfli
Produced by Manfred Eicher

With this disc Swiss cellist Thomas Demenga inaugurated a five-album series, each of which pairs a different Bach cello suite (the last contains two) with more contemporary material. While one might easily see the Bach as “filler” in an otherwise intriguing series of modern selections (or vice versa), there is something refreshing about Thomas Demenga’s project that pushes it far beyond the realm of gimmickry.

First is a tripartite selection of works by the inimitable Heinz Holliger, who along with the likes of Kaija Saariaho is, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, one of the more important composers of our time. From its opening bars the Duo für Violine und Violoncello exhibits Thomas and sister Catrin Demenga’s superb dexterity and dynamic control. The music jump-starts immediately with a forceful pizzicato from the cello as the violin swells from silence like an automaton whose siren is slow and sure. After this intro the duo begins a subtle interplay of trembling leaps, foreshadowing the timid Trema soon to come. The regularity of the opening is buried here, the execution more melodic. The instruments remain relatively stationary, looking up through a canopy of notes at a vast sky. But then the violin circles above, the cello arising with it before both descend into silence, at which point they are resuscitated by the same linear melody in slightly different scales, like a transparency bumped ever so slightly out of alignment. This process is quiet at first, but suddenly accelerates, as if drawn to an invisible source of inspiration. The journey grows ever higher before reaching its plateau: an aerie of vultures whose scavenged collection lies heaped on the forest floor. The piece ends with a brief series of false starts, ending on the third escape.

Studie über Mehrklänge für Oboe solo is a classic for the instrument, and one of those rare pieces that is firmly rooted in the conceptual yet which is also “musical” and a joy to listen to (I have seen apparently conservative audiences mesmerized by its effects). The piece requires of the oboist—in this case Holliger himself—to engage not only in circular breathing almost throughout, but also to overblow the instrument, creating an array of multiphonics, which Holliger shapes into a highly compositional palette. The highlight comes with Holliger’s fluttering technique toward the end and the series of weaving tonal lines that follow, gathering speed as they are jostled from one side to the other in a wilting exploration of the woodwind’s demise. The piece fades in a single high tone, briefly exposing its constituent harmonics.

Trema für Violoncello solo is, as its title implies, a traumatic piece. Demenga handles it studiously, bringing an intensity to the playing that seems to grow from the notes themselves. The piece shivers, running even as it stumbles, hoping and waiting for that moment when all else has expired, leaving the moonlit night to carry its secrets into the dawn, when nothing but art is alive. Demenga has managed to pull off an extraordinary feat here, implying through sound and technique the entire narrative of which the music is composed. There is nothing wasted in Trema, as every note seems to connect to the last and to the one forthcoming, collapsing as a figure who can no longer face the world.

After such a draining piece we arrive at Bach’s Suite No. 4 in Es-Dur für Violoncello, and hear its counterpoint as if for the first time. Regardless of one’s familiarity with the suites, in the context of such pairings they take on a host of new colors. Demenga plays competently and without flourish, interested only in drawing out the music’s inner darkness. His playing of the Sarabande is particularly beautiful and speaks of a musician not lost, but found therein.

Of course, it is only when human involvement and intervention brings such music to our ears that we feel inclined to see it as a part of us. The trajectory of performance is determined by many choices on the part of composers, musicians, and listeners. Nothing is achievable for the solo artist without some awareness of these gaps. What distinguishes performers are the ways in which they seek to fill them. Thus, with every nuance, Demenga gives a great gift not only to us but to the composers, whose work multiplies with every listening experience.

The recording is top-notch overall, but particularly crystal clear in the Bach. We hear every finger tap and sympathetic effect, every rustle of movement that goes into its steady sound. This is a New Series classic in my book and a prime example of ECM’s often bold programming choices.