Dennis Russell Davies conductor
The Hilliard Ensemble
Gidon Kremer violin
Keith Jarrett piano
Meredith Monk voice, piano
Heinz Holliger oboe
Kim Kashkashian viola
Pierre Favre percussion
Shankar double violin
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone, flute
Paul Hillier voice
Stephen Stubbs lute
Erin Headley vielle
Thomas Demenga cello
Paul Giger violin
ECM made history in 1984 with the release of Tabula rasa, the first of the jazz label’s equally influential New Series. Not only did this beloved recording introduce many to the music of Arvo Pärt, but it also clarified producer Manfred Eicher’s classical roots and fed into the likeminded sensibilities Eicher was then bringing with increasing confidence to his groundbreaking approach to jazz. It is therefore appropriate that Pärt, the imprint’s shining star, should be represented here more than any other composer or performer. His Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten, a haunting secular homage to a composer he would never meet, is the disc’s open door. Its quiet sweeps and intoning tubular bell resemble little in all recorded music. Pärt comes to us further through his spiraling Arbos for brass and percussion and through Fratres, a touchstone in his compositional career. Existing in many treatments, here it is given one of its most powerful through the greatness of violinist Gidon Kremer. Accompanied by Keith Jarrett at the piano, his simple yet burrowing progressions capture (and release) the essence of something so physiological that one cannot but help feel it in the veins.
If Pärt is the New Series’ mainstay composer, then the phenomenal singers of the Hilliard Ensemble are its star performers. Since making their label debut with a flavorful rendition of Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations Of Jeremiah, of which the Incipit is given here, they have redefined the art of the chamber vocal ensemble.
Meredith Monk shifts the light considerably in a selection from her Vessel: An Opera Epic. The New York-based composer and performer has established a loyal group of vocal artists, all of whom find in her voice a depth of inspiration all too rarely encountered. One would feel tempted to call her world mysterious, were it not for the fact that it sounds undeniably familiar. “Do You Be” is a representative work in this regard, an aria of sorts that blows her ululations through the branches of a faraway tree.
Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger is another major compositional force in the New Series catalogue, and his Studie Über Mehrklänge for solo oboe is as good a place as any to start for those adventurous enough to wander his musical paths. As the title (A Study in Multiphonics) already informs us, Holliger wrings a wealth of sounds and colors from the single woodwind. Whether unsettling or ethereal, they never fail to enchant and reinvent with every listen.
The peerless Kim Kashkashian gives us the final movement of Paul Hindemith’s fifth Viola Sonata. This 11-minute masterpiece is the first of a smattering of solo pieces on the album, the others being Thomas Demenga’s astonishing Sarabande from the fourth Cello Suite of J. S. Bach and an all-too-short excerpt (only three of its original twenty-two minutes) from “Crossing” by Swiss violinist Paul Giger. The album, Chartres, from which the latter was taken is one of the finest violin recordings ever released and is a must-have for those interested in exploring more of what the New Series has to offer.
Singer, scholar, and early music specialist Paul Hillier gives us “Can Vei La Lauzeta,” a haunting lilt of troubadour stylings by Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. 1145-1180). It is a fitting inclusion in a program that is but a thread in an ongoing tapestry—more than I can say about the album’s filler. Why, for example, do we find not one but two selections from saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Legend Of The Seven Dreams? A fantastic album, to be sure, but not a New Series release. The same goes for “Ballade” by singer Tamia and percussionist Pierre Favre and “Adagio” by Carnatic violinist L. Shankar. Both are lovely sonic constructions yet neither appears under the New Series title. I realize that perhaps these were an attempt to show that the music of ECM proper can sometimes carry over into fuzzier areas of genre, but isn’t that what the far more numerous anthologies from the very same are for?
Another addition—that of actor Bruno Ganz’s recitation of “Vom Abgrund Nämlich” by Friedrich Hölderlein—may also seem curious, if only for its politics, but its opening lines at least ring to the tune of the ECM spirit, which has cast its sonic lessons into the widening sea of listening in which we are all embedded:
We began of course at the abyss
And have gone forth like lions
By and large, this is an adequate introduction to a side of ECM that some may feel hesitant to explore. Yet rather than pay for a well-chosen, if sometimes puzzling, collection, I would instead encourage the curious to get their hands on any one of the above recordings in full.