Kremerata Baltica: Hymns and Prayers (ECM New Series 2161)

Hymns and Prayers

Kremerata Baltica
Hymns and Prayers

Gidon Kremer violin
The Kremerata Baltica
Roman Kofman conductor
Khatia Buniatishvili piano
Andrei Pushkarev vibraphone
Marija Nemanytė violin
Maxim Rysanov viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Sofia Altunashvili voice on tape
Recorded July 2008, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, Lockenhaus
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Gidon Kremer and Manfred Eicher

A recent album released of solo piano music by Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer bears the title Gaps, Absences, which best describes the music of the composer, pianist, and essayist who, born 1963 in former Yugoslavia, has since 1991 called France his home. His life as an improviser has brought him in collaboration with Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, and many others of the avant garde, while on the classical side he has enjoyed fruitful collaboration with violinist Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, having served as composer in residence at the renowned Lockenhaus chamber music festival, where this album was recorded in 2008, and more recently at the Kremerata Baltica’s own festival in Latvia. His Eight Hymns (1986/2004), written in memory of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, begins a tripartite program of monumental works for various ensembles. Scored for violin, strings, vibraphone, and piano, each of Tickmayer’s hymns bears a title of calm strength. His atmospheres are deceptively minimal, at times spectral and at others hovering as mist over a lake at dawn. The instruments interlock in alternating tides and continental shelves. The piano paints evening skies as single notes break off into satellites of a deeper gravitation. The violin is a thin yet utterly present voice, an omniscient myth-keeper whose experiences of assumption, redemption, and remembrance all answer to the same voice. The vibraphone is a pinwheel moved by breath of slumber. Strings move in the draw of a paintbrush from behind a veil of ash and harmonic light. All of this ends in a flower, as fragile as it is trembling, leaving us indeed with gaps and absences of profound resonance.

Such soul-nourishing music finds like spirit by way of Giya Kancheli, who wrote his 2007 Silent Prayer in honor of Mstislav Rostropovich (for his 80th birthday) and Gidon Kremer (for his 60th). The familiar Kancheli themes crystallize in the prerecorded singing of one Sofia Altunashvili. Her pure-toned voice, carried like a feather on exhale, rings authentically for its vulnerability. It’s an unusual voice, an untrained voice, a voice unafraid of a misshapen psalm. As in the Tickmayer pieces, the violin feels thin and unchained, and puts into relief the spaciousness of strings dragging hands across water from methodical vessels. Their occasional interjects feel like proclamations from above, chances to restring the universal lyre. Still, there is a feeling of oppression to this piece, as if the sky had become weighted with death, so that the lively center almost blinds. Even more cinematic in feel than the Tickmayer, Kancheli’s hymnal cast turns wine into water in a single tracking shot.

Equally affecting, if by relatively compressed dynamic force, is César Franck’s Piano Quintet in f minor (1878/79), which occupies program center. A dramatic and chromatically ecstatic work that met with criticism at the time of its premiere, it also makes expert use of its formidable combination of instruments. What appears short and sweet by name becomes epic in performance as Kremer and his colleagues muscle their way through the first movement with heartfelt aplomb, chipping away at the music’s calcified soul as they proceed. Each drift into the major is a barrel over the waterfall of reality. The most genuine passages are the quietest. On that note, the second movement turns an elegiac frame into a window on fertile land. The legato phrasings of the final Allegro, then, are a bittersweet harvest, tempered by the promise of winter’s freeze. In anticipation of that cold, the piano holds a fire in its belly, changing from blue to orange to white as echoes return with nourished grief. For indeed, mourning is the final message of even the brightest day. The tinge of mortality knows no limits of sun.

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