Alexander Knaifel: Amicta Sole (ECM New Series 1731)

Amicta Sole

Alexander Knaifel
Amicta Sole

Mstislav Rostropovich cello
Tatiana Melentieva soprano
Soloists of Boy Choir Glinka Choral College
State Hermitage Orchestra
Arkady Steinlukht conductor
Psalm 51 recorded September 2001 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmannn
Amicta Sole recorded July 2000 at St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg
Engineer: Semion Shugal
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The text is intoned as if it sounds. These, the simple instructions that composer Alexander Knaifel offers in the score of his Psalm 51 for cello solo. Dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, who also performs it in the present recording, the piece is as skeletal as its source: a sounding of spirit made flesh by mortal touch. While listeners may never hear the words, they will feel them in Rostropovich’s bow, poised as it is on a fulcrum of silence. Says Knaifel, “it is the only one and unique experience in my life when not a note was composed—in the fullest and most exact meaning of this word.” By this he admits no fallacy of the creative process, but instead reveals the divinity behind its cause. The internal is renderable only as an idol to itself, so that every dynamic of the cellist’s articulation seems destined to tremble. A climb into higher registers opens a flame’s pathos into vision and leaves one suspended in Heaven’s basement.

Like the burnt offerings of which the psalm concerns itself in its final stanza, the music scatters easily in the wind. That it holds true to form at all is proof of its spiritual integrity. Although the performer is singular, the incantation is sometimes plural. From piercing bridge crawls and vulnerable downward steps to interlocking pizzicati, every motion signals a diacritical reality. Rostropovich achieves all of this through his decades-long path toward mastery. For while the notecraft is almost as bare as the paper it is written on, Knaifel infuses every nodule with a word. Were we to plot each on an axis of pitch and time, they would form a rainbow arc through the firmament from birth to death. Only at the end does light creep in, pulling ever higher into the cello’s very threshold of audibility.

The papery consistency of Psalm 51 provides absorption of the ink in Amicta Sole (Clothed with the Sun) for soloist (female) of soloists. As a follower of the former’s grace, this starkly glassine piece speaks in angel’s tongue and awakens to angel’s ways. It is also performed here by its dedicatee, the inimitable soprano Tatiana Melentieva, who etches with her voice a denser light against a slow waterfall of strings and choral textures. Now that the texts are consciously sung, there is great movement from above to below, from interior to interior’s interior.

Inspired by the “woman clothed with the sun” who appears in Revelations, Amicta Sole sequences the genealogies of Christ as a helix between new prayer and ancient origins. The instruments perform the same role as the cello in Psalm 51, sounding the texts as if singing them, while the voices sing the texts as if sounding them. Melentieva’s art is so rich that she could very well carry these forces without their cushion, for she seems to summon legions of air before her. Despite the above connotations, what we have here is the full spectrum of earthly care, the weight of human conditions pressed upon our ears with the almost there-ness of a molt feather. And although we are invited to bask in the caesural nature of what transpires, stretched into barest triad, we can never be a part of its cathedral, where vibration and darkness dwell. The feeling of renewal is such that no architecture can stand here for so long as a breath (hear this in the flute’s red thread of color). Only in the harp is the promise of good news made manifest, and with it the uniform face of which our own are imperfect copies.

That the pieces here are from the mid-nineties, shaded by a lingering fog of the Soviet era, is only fleetingly significant. In them is a stillness of heart that reflects on troubled pasts. By the same token, their worth lies not in their politics, bleeding as it does through the reddest of paper with its own hues intact. At once reifying and transcending the corporeal waver that is its mirror, they are but two jewels in an eternal crown. 

Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy,
and according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies
blot out my iniquity.

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