François Couturier piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Recorded December 2009, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
“What she thought about death was childish, but what could never have touched her in the past now filled her with poignant tenderness, as sometimes a familiar face we see suddenly with the eyes of love makes us aware that it has been dearer to us than life itself for longer than we have ever realized.”
–Georges Bernanos, Mouchette
Forever striking about the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky is its commitment to silence. Whether unfolded in the inner expanse of Solaris or cupped like the candle in Nostalghia, it breathes. For Tarkovsky, the latter sequence was indeed a representation of human existence: birth as inhale, and life as a flame trembling in protracted exhale. Likewise exhaling is this self-titled album from François Couturier’s Tarkovsky Quartet, which completes the pianist’s envisioned trilogy for ECM around the work of the master Russian filmmaker. More than a tribute, it is a tribune, quietly defending the right to sing without words as a way of opening the heart. Flipping through the aortal pages of its namesake, this album treats every concerted pump as a point along a line, from which dangles twelve tracks encased in solemnity.
The title of “A celui qui a vu l’ange” (A person who saw the angel), being carved on Tarkovsky’s tombstone, begins with the end. Couturier’s introduction discloses a ponderous reel of undeveloped film that unspools to the keystrokes of accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier and the threading of cellist Anja Lechner. Soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché completes the image even as he unsettles it, startling the flow like a bird landing on a pond filled with broken bottles, scrap metal, and sharp stones. If such imaginings already feel cinematic, it is because they speak as much in a language of light as of sound—word and image made flesh through the divinity of direction.
That being said, the shape of this Tarkovsky Quartet is primarily rendered through the sculptor’s press of improvisation. Three pieces—“San Galgano” (which names the setting of Tarkovsky’s 1983 film Nostalghia), “Sardor” (a film for which he wrote the screenplay but never realized), and “La main et l’oiseau” (The hand and the bird), which points to The Mirror—are, in fact, entirely adlibbed, each a tangled web of signs stretching tundra for the feather brush. Like “Sardor,” a good portion of the album references people or places that never stood before his camera. “Mychkine” (named for the protagonist of Dostoyesvsky’s The Idiot, a subject Tarkovsky often spoke of cinematizing) is a remarkable dip into psychological pools. Matinier floats over surrounding fields of cello and piano, a lone blackbird lured by distant sparkle. Thomas Mann’s novel “Doktor Faustus” (which, again, Tarkovsky never filmed), on the other hand, remains grounded like a tree in this stark musical treatment. Tarkovsky’s favorite Bresson film, “Mouchette,” inspires an affectionate cordoning of the piano while the other instruments fragment the center. Even the ostinato backing of “La passion selon Andreï,” the original title of Andrei Rublev, would seem to articulate a parallel universe.
Two tracks snap living family photographs. “Tiapa” (a nickname for Tarkovsky’s youngest son) builds a lighthouse as Lechner underlies the waves before giving way to accordion and soprano, the second of which casts its own melodic torch so far that it becomes indistinguishable from the lighthouse beam, traveling far beyond the boats and never once looking down until the glow of a distant noon becomes visible. “Maroussia” (another nickname, this for Tarkovsky’s mother) splits the piano like a branch, connecting footprints toward a fiery clearing.
Throughout the program, musical nods to Bach, Pergolesi, and Shostakovich cut ghostly figures. Yet the deeper nods go to fundament and firmament. “L’Apocalypse,” for one, draws from the Book of Revelations, the cautions of which occupied Tarkovsky’s later films. This jagged yet somehow dancing music is a deconstructed cross. In the same spirit(uality), “De l’autre côté du miroir” opens with a tender solo from Lechner, whose interest in interstices makes for compelling listening. Couturier draws a slow-motion current, a tracking shot across centuries of growth in a single compression. The other instruments are echoes, ciphers lost on their way to salvation.
Here is a beacon for those who have only experience of the night.
(To hear samples of Tarkovsky Quartet, click here.)