András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Zoltán Gál viola
Judit Szabó cello
Oleg Malov piano
Tatiana Melentieva soprano
Andrei Siegle sampler
In Air Clear and Unseen recorded October 2000 at Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Svete Tikhiy recorded1994/95 at Film Studio Lenfilm and 1997 at St. Petersburg Recording Studio
Engineers: Mikhail Shemarov, Victor Dinov, and Andrei Siegle
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Nature is not as you imagine her:
She’s not a mold, nor yet a soulless mask—
She is made up of soul and freedom
She is made up of love and speech…
–Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (1803-1873)
For its first conspectus of St. Petersburg-based composer Alexander Knaifel, ECM presents Svete Tikhiy (O Gladsome Light). Side by the side, the program’s two works—each a triptych—seem vastly different in scope. And perhaps they are on the surface. But they are also part of an ongoing braid of interest on the part of the composer in what is lifted from the score and held in the spirit of the performers to whom he entrusts interpretation: in essence, the reading of the word. For this recording, the word comes to us both lower- and uppercased.
The former flexes its waking hour throughout In Air Clear and Unseen (1994) for piano and string quartet, peeking from behind the Orthodox veil through which Knaifel’s music is often so diffused. Steeped in the poetry of Fyodor Tyutchev, each tableau reads through gestures of slowly measured time. “In Some Exhausted Reverie” begins in Silvestrov-like fashion: with a piano postlude. It touches the ether with a delicacy so organic it almost falls away by merely being gazed upon. Its stillness may be illusory, but the potential emotional connection it makes with the listener flows into the ribcage and finds room to conform.
If encouraged to compare, one could cite Pärt’s Alina as an analogous atmosphere, if only for its breathing room. Distinct here is the feeling of something titanic, as if an entire history were being grappled with in a single note. All of which makes the opposite point: that there is never just one note, for each is a combination of many more, and those of still others. The air is unseen, yes, but it can be felt. It is a field of touch. Hence the tactility of Knaifel’s performers, whose own lives are filtered through their contact with the music. Instructed as they are to intone that which is ultimately “unvoiced,” the instrumentalists embrace each living moment with their entire being, itself a resounding instrument of warmth and illumination.
The central section, “An Autumn Evening” (for string quartet), finds a more distant analogue to the music of Tavener, whose The Last Sleep of the Virgin is also of Byzantine cast (and, coincidentally enough, composed the same year as the accompanying work on this disc). The lucidities of both shimmer in slow motion. Unique to Knaifel’s aesthetic is the unity of the assembly: the quartet is one flesh, a portrait of humanity drawn through what he calls “chain breathing.” The combination becomes something of a filter through which death renews life. It is the dreamed-of ribbon still in hand upon waking. The final section marries these two impulses, pulling childhood memories like a hood against blasphemy and lighting many candles from a single, originary flame.
The title composition, Song of the Most Holy Theotokos, is composed for soprano Tatiana Melentieva and sequencer. The eponymous hymn, which appears only at the end of the piece, is among the oldest Christian hymns, a folding of light into Christ and both into the world. It is force of life, but also agency of solace. Here the self-reflexivity of the replenished soul is expressed in the electronic manipulations and multi-tracking of Melentieva’s voice. The result is a ponderous, overtly crafted chorus of the self, giving way to echoing caverns of implosion. These, in turn, impart life to the openness of God. From mantra-like quivers and resonant tongues to the rounded grace of the central unaffected voice, it turns lullabies into dust and dust into starlight. And as the final fragments blur skyward, worship becomes a shroud for the ears.
On the whole, Svete Tikhiy is also a master class in engineering. Were the content not afforded the spaciousness it deserves, its inner voices might never reach us. This is not to say that technology adds something not already there, only that it brings out inherent tendencies toward infinite expression. The echo becomes a primary signifier of its referent, but also something more: a reference in and of itself to yet another echo, ad infinitum.