Anna Gourari: Canto Oscuro (ECM New Series 2255)

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Anna Gourari
Canto Oscuro

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded May 2011, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Born 1972 to a family of musical pedagogues, Russian (and, since 1990, Munich-based) pianist Anna Gourari makes her ECM debut with a characteristically unconventional recital…or so it would seem. Two of J. S. Bach’s chorale preludes, as arranged by Ferruccio Busoni, parenthesize the program’s modern heart. “Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” and “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” both come from the incomplete Orgelbüchlein, a pedagogical scrapbook compiled in the earthy 18th century. Busoni’s erudite touch burgeons further in Gourari’s, opening a doorway all the grander for being so austere. Yet here is a Bach that, while adorned, breathes with the minimalism of a single voice. The tenderness of these leaves betray nothing of the fragile limb to which they cling.

From light to brokenness, the program tilts its wings eastward to Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne. Composed in 1962, this deconstruction of a b-minor triad represents an key period in the Russian composer’s development. One may be tempted to read grand philosophical statements of suffering into such music, when really it turns itself inside out for all to hear. This is not an evocation of suffering, per se, but an acknowledgment of its necessity. The effect is such that even the overt references to Bach come across as probing, strangely confident, and spiraled like a unicorn’s horn. Its elegiac impulse is foxed by ragged edges, given light in measured doses. Here is a lighthouse without a vessel to guide, a signal without a flare.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), a prolific composer yet one whose piano works have only in recent years begun to crop up on CD programs, is given plenty of space in Gourari’s ecstatic take on his Suite “1922.” Although its effect would surely have raised a few eyebrows that same year, as was Hindemith’s intention, today his experiment stands as a fascinating cross-section of early expressionism. Over the course of five parts, this jocular, if rigorous, piece takes us on a wild ride. Titles like “Shimmy,” “Boston,” and “Ragtime” transport the listener to a time when said dances still hit the floor, when financial doom was still some years away. Such historical perspective lends poignancy to the central movement, a “Nachtstück.” Like a fragment of title card found in the wreckage of a silent film warehouse, it tells only part of the story that its context makes abundantly clear. Hindemith’s references are seeds for more complexly developed ideas and beg comparison with contemporary George Antheil, whose own “Shimmy” graces Herbert Henck’s fascinating Piano Music. Gourari’s resolute command of, and passion for, the material makes this a benchmark recording.

Anna Gourari

Busoni resurrects Bach again in his supernal arrangement of the Chaconne from the solo violin Partita No. 2. The mighty Chaconne has always been a keystone in Bach’s solo literature. That it speaks with the same colors is testament both to arranger and performer. From the chord-enhanced arpeggios to the requisite drama throughout, Gourari allows the music to resound not by means of surface but interior. If Busoni has given it an elastic quality, then she has stretched it to the limit in an interpretation that promises to open new doorways with every listen.

Were this program a long day, Bach’s e-minor Prélude (transposed here to b minor) would be its longed-for slumber. In a stained glass arrangement courtesy of composer-conductor Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), this relatively small piece from the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach reminds us that duration has nothing to do with density. There is bounty in this music that one discovers through living it.

(To hear samples of Canto Oscuro, click here.)

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