Giya Kancheli: Magnum Ignotum (ECM New Series 1669)


Giya Kancheli
Magnum Ignotum

Mstislav Rostropovich cello
Royal Flanders Philharmonic Orchestra
Jansug Kakhidze conductor
Recorded December 1997
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Said Mstislav Rostropovich, to whom the opening work of this album is dedicated, of his longtime friend, “His natural element is the deepest mystical sorrow. Olivier Messiaen revealed for me the limitlessness and endlessness of time, and the same is true for Kancheli.” Chronological uncertainty seems to have been a core philosophy for the master cellist, whose sound grew only deeper toward the end of his life. Simi (1995) proves to be an ideal vehicle for his aging, yet ever robust sound. The title is Georgian for “string,” and indeed vibration is its universe. Pauses are left to the soloist’s discretion, and for this performance Rostropovich drew inspiration from Kancheli’s own halted style of speech. The music swirls in a crystal ball that, when occasionally shaken, snows down on a familiar motivic scene. Its imagery is stark and discomforting. A piano opens its chording like the death throes of an unfathomable organism. Brass-laden swells rupture its skin, immediately cauterized by an instrument of divine fire. Yet Simi is not without its hopeful intimations, as in the brief harmonic twinge at the 14’ mark. And while the cello’s presence dominates throughout, it is anything but the self-centered celebrant, comporting itself rather like one in mourning. That being said, the piece’s subtitle, “Joyless thoughts for violoncello and orchestra,” is something of a misnomer, for the cello also presents its own paradox: in the single performer lies the potential for multiple voices, and in the playing one finds undeniable ardor. In this instance, the cello is like a prism through which the composer’s light passes. The orchestra is no longer mere accompaniment, but an unraveling of the soloist’s heartbeat.

Magnum Ignotum (The Great Anonymous), written in 1994 for wind ensemble, double bass, and tape, has become one of Kancheli’s most widely played pieces. The response to a commission for which the composer was asked to incorporate Georgian folk music, Kancheli includes said music unmitigated, except by the technology of tape by which it is deployed. The opening recitation is of an Anchikhati priest, who seems to float above an almost funereal bassoon. Voices return in a 1930s field recording of three old men from West Georgia improvising in a haunting mezza voce called “ghighini.” Despite following a heavy orchestra piece, the modest scoring of Magnum Ignotum brings its own intensity, not least because every melodic line depends on the strength of the breath behind it. Thus invoked, the human body is unfolded through the vocal phenomenon that is the Rustavi Folk Choir, whose heartening rendition of the Trisagion hymn “Tsmindao Ghmerto” (Holy God) folds its hands to a clang of bells.

This is music concerned with its own ephemeral path, always skirting the edge of fleshly existence and the limitations upon which its life hinges. It is a candle flame holding on to its last flickers; it is also the puff of air that pulls it into smoke. An essential release from cover to disc.

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