Alexander Knaifel: BLAZHENSTVA (ECM New Series 1957)


Alexander Knaifel

Ivan Monighetti violoncello
Tatiana Melentieva soprano
Piotr Migunov bass
State Hermitage Orchestra
Saulius Sondeckis Principal conductor
Lege Artis Choir
Boris Abalian Artistic director
Recorded March 2006 at St. Catherine Lutheran Church and Capella Concert Hall, St. Petersburg
Engineer: Boris Isaev
Recording supervision: Alexander Knaifel
An ECM Production

Just when we ECM listeners had become lulled in the embraces of Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov, thinking no others might widen that door further, suddenly we encountered a new visionary: Alexander Knaifel. Although Knaifel shares the spotlight with other such stars of the Soviet avant-garde, his ability to paint with sound is arguably unrivaled among them. To experience his music is to experience the pathos of life itself: sometimes bumpy, even hurtful, but always rewarding with the tranquility of learning. In it one feels the weight of the world balanced like a feather on the breath.

Lamento (1967, rev. 1987) for cello solo is dedicated to the memory of choreographer Leonid Jakobson. And indeed, one can feel the shapely movements of the stage working their way into every facet of this sometimes-challenging work. From the opening series of attacks, chained by silence, to the heart-stopping double stop that carries us into prayer, we hear in it a promissory refrain. With youthful caution it spins from agitation a thread of such transcendent light that one feels blinded by its tonality. What follows skirts the line of harmony and dissonance, finding the divine without need of the Word. Knaifel’s attentive scoring allows us to hear the true interior of the cello. To accomplish this, he externalizes its full dynamic range. This is not a piece that answers its own question, but one that becomes the question itself.

Blazhenstva (1996) for soloists, orchestra, and choir also bears dedication, in this instance to mentor Mstislav Rostropovich in honor of his 70th birthday. It’s astonishing that such a meditative piece can harbor so much conflict, and yet here it is speaking to us in the sonic equivalent of Psalmnody. The voice of soprano Tatiana Melentieva proves to be one of the most heavenly on land, and one Knaifel does not exploit but rather bows to through his music, such that with the entrance of bass Piotr Migunov it reveals cardinal avenues of possibility. As a sustained piano intones, it flows like the text it engenders (Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5:3-12). This overlaps in unexpected ways while maintaining an antiphonal feeling. Men’s voices make way for altos as a constant sheet of strings forms like ice beneath. Vocal lines stretch before fraying into a holy triad, unwound like Creation returning to its firmament. A cello solo lends finality and grace, as if passing along the wisdom of the Beatitudes through a more terrestrial channel before crossing their vertical transmission.

“Both compositions form a united way,” says Knaifel, and this we can hear without question. If one is death, the other is life, and together they complete a circle that touches us all. The sheer amount of space articulated therein (and on this note one must praise engineer Boris Isaev) envelops the darkness and the light, traveling a way of gray that walks as it breathes.

3 thoughts on “Alexander Knaifel: BLAZHENSTVA (ECM New Series 1957)

  1. A very good review on a very special recording. I also like these pieces of music very much, even though it’s not the best-sounding ECM release of all times, as during the softest parts of “Blazhenstva” a significant amount of noise comes up. On the other hand, there is no better recording of the piece available, as it is hardly ever performed. Again it is ECM widening our horizon, and I am grateful for that.

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