Boris Yoffe: Song of Songs (ECM New Series 2174)

Song of Songs

Boris Yoffe
Song of Songs

Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner violin
Diane Pascal violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner violoncello
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2009 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The limitations of words tend toward failure in expressing the breadth of any creative endeavor. Describing the music of Boris Yoffe is an exceptional case, for here words risk expressing too much. Yoffe himself has lived a life of cutting to the chase. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1968, where he composed and premiered his first works just shy of his 15th birthday. He emigrated to Tel Aviv, completing a degree in composition, and then to Karlsruhe, Germany to study with Wolfgang Rihm. Rihm was struck by Yoffe’s individuality from day one, and includes an affectionate note to that effect in the CD booklet: “His music has great beauty. Can it be misunderstood? Oh yes. But it doesn’t complain. Stays beautiful and giving. Unmisunderstandable. With time also hardened, pointed.”

Yoffe writes one string quartet a day (each just a page long), as if it were scriptural meditation. Of those culled for the present disc, he notes, “For me this recording is a handwritten collection of verse, in which the quartet poems are accompanied by the tenderly coloured miniatures of the sung pieces.” Yoffe’s scores are bereft of dynamics, tempi, and directions, and so the Rosamunde Quartett and Hilliard Ensemble are to be commended for tending to them with so much heart.

I sought him but I found him not introduces the program with ashen strings before the Hilliards’ voices, after a pause, break through the gloom with their palatial moonlight. So does their antiphon continue in meditative interaction with the Rosamundes, whose occasionally sharper gestures merely emphasize a fundamental contemplation. Both registers exist in mutual exclusion, bonded in a reality where contact and surface are one and the same, and the experience of language turns in on itself. My own vineyard I did not keep, by contrast, reflects a less syllogistic approach to text and melody. Brief chains of overlapping voices grow like a vine along brick: filigree to a hardened exterior.

Yoffe allows fragrance to waft through the lattice of his notecraft and opens its interstices to further interpretation. I sleep, but my heart waketh takes this philosophy furthest in a veritable calligraphy of air, born of flesh and thought yet writ large on the wind. Pizzicati in this quartet-only piece feel not plucked but pulled, as if by gravity into a watery hermitage. Death as transfiguration.

My head is filled with dew, my locks with drops of the night is a river run so long that it births a canyon. It is a particularly affecting vehicle for countertenor David James, in whose throat resides angelic hues. This is the most contemplative piece on the album. Its heartbeat folds into strings in My soul went forth when he spoke, for which the body’s connection to a life divine charts an altogether deeper anatomy, one of which veins and arteries are spun from the Word and through which the blood of deliverance dreams like a promise kissed into cognizance.

Yoffe’s elastic sense of proportion confirms the sentiments of Paul Griffiths, who in his liner text characterizes this recording as “a sampling of eternity.” The only possible end result is another beginning.

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