Anja Lechner/François Couturier: Moderato cantabile (ECM New Series 2367)

Moderato cantabile

Moderato cantabile

Anja Lechner cello
François Couturier piano
Recorded November 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After honing their simpatico relationship at the core of the Tarkovsky Quartet and as part of Maria Pia De Vito’s Pergolesi Project, cellist Anja Lechner and pianist François Couturier step naturally as a duo into a temple of wonders on Moderato cantabile. Over the years, ECM has carved an unparalleled subgenre of cello-piano recordings, notably the collaborations of Ketil Bjørnstad/David Darling and Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Lechner, and it’s impossible to imagine this album having ever come about without those predecessors. Fans of especially the latter project, which shares Lechner’s mellifluous bow, will encounter fascinations galore in Couturier’s deeper impulses. This album takes the very best of those projects and spins it into a world all its own, one in which we are seated as honored guests at the head of the table. Distinguishing the current duo’s music from the rest are the organicity of its approach and blossoming sense of development. The result is no less meditative, but adds to its contemplations the temperance of flame.

Lechner Couturier

Although not arranged in the following way, one may treat the program concentrically, moving from outward from Komitas, one of three composers named on the album’s cover, which neglects to mention Couturier’s own contributions (in keeping, one imagines, with the classical billing as a New Series release). The Armenian priest’s Chinar es has about it a dervish quality, calligraphing hypnotism in the twirl of receptive bodies. Its combination of piano arpeggios and seamless cello threading indicates an aesthetic mind-meld between the two musicians, who are responsible for all of the arrangements heard here.

While the cello is so often thought to be the most vocal of the symphonic strings, making it sing in the way Lechner does is no small task. She is resolute in her approach to the melodies of Greek-Armenian philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff, famously transcribed by way of oral transmission to begin with. Cellist and pianist use their complementary masteries to pair hymns and dances in a tessellation of leaves and sky. Gurdjieff awakens like the sun lifting its eyelid over the horizon and extends his spirit-seeking ways through a magnifying glass. There is, too, the Night procession, in which the cello seems to emerge from the piano itself, whispering of charcoal before there is fire. Gurdjieff’s No. 11 dovetails into Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s Fêtes lointaines no. 3, thus creating a chromatic masterpiece in a realm of shadow so deep that it can only speak in light.

Subsequent Mompou selections feel as much like poetry as song, each with a sense of joy and belonging. Tracing parabolic arcs into dance, the strength of Lechner’s technique brings out the songlike heart of this music as well beneath Couturier’s low-flying melodizing. Whether gracing the streets of the Música Callada or scenes of Mompou’s first published work, the Impresiones intimas, theirs is an ocean of churning memory in which the buoys of experience are many and reliable.

Couturier’s own pieces are as beautiful as they are surprising. Soleil rouge surveys a pointillist field of ideas, switching masks over rhythmic double stops from cello, while the duo scales its highest evocative cliff in Papillons, for which they consolidate their artistic toolkit in service of the image. Voyage finds the composer spinning a helix of chords beneath Lechner’s floating crosshatch before they detour through individual veins of rumination. Lechner’s pizzicati blot out stars one by one, until only the moon is left to dance.

The connections of these musicians are special not only with each other, but also with ECM. The love and appreciation that went into this album’s production is discernible at any given moment, and those fortunate enough to bask in its rewards will not be disappointed.

(To hear samples of Moderato cantabile, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)

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