Christian Reiner: Joseph Brodsky – Elegie an John Donne (ECM New Series 2513)

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Christian Reiner
Joseph Brodsky: Elegie an John Donne

Read by Christian Reiner
Recorded 2014-2017, Garnison 7, Wien
Recording engineer: Martin Siewert
Mastering at MSM Studio, München
Engineer: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Wolf Wondratschek
An ECM and Joint Galactical Company Production
Release date: August 25, 2017

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
–John Donne

Following his acclaimed readings of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Turmgedichte, by turns stark and revealing, Viennese actor Christian Reiner adds as many layers as he peels away in his approach to Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). Although Brodsky was imprisoned in his native Russia as a dissenter, he never explicitly engaged the issue of incarceration until later in life. His lack of self-importance was one of many facets that imbued his verses with microscopic insight into the human condition. Even when awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, he accepted the honor with humility. A vivid chunk of that humility can be found in what Reiner considers to be his masterwork—1963’s “Great Elegy to John Donne”—which is presented here in two German translations among a tract of shorter, life-spanning selections.

It was in prison, in fact, that Brodsky first read Donne, when a writer friend sent him a book by the English poet. Yet Brodsky’s “Elegy” is more than a paean to a kindred spirit; it’s the recognition of a voice caught between its earthly origins and heavenly destination. His litany of mundane objects—crystal, linen, stockings, and the like—read like a perverse genealogy of material lives. For in the same way that we have succumbed to the immaterial promises of recognition, so do the connective tissues of human and nonhuman experiences string the very tightropes along which our deepest anxieties vie for balance. Just as Donne has died, so too is the world drained of life, unable to finish its own diary with that final answer of Heaven or Hell. Everything is sinking in speech: voices whose owners refuse to identify themselves. Archangels and prophets, kings and slaves, martyrs and murderers—all depleting the same oxygen supply of moral spectra. “All things are distant,” Brodsky writes. “What is near is dim.” Endurance is a fantasy replicated in reality, wherein fingertips graze the backs of our necks with demonic tingling, forever unclear.

Reiner’s diction is characteristically architectural in nuance, as heard in the pained urgency of “In Memoriam Fedja Dobrowolskij” (1958). More importantly, he understands the pregnancy of a pause. His recitation of selected “Strophes” (1978) embodies that philosophy to the fullest, making of silence its own vocabulary. In the sensually inflected“From Nowhere with Love” (Aus nirgendwo in Liebe, 1976), the voice becomes the body, bouncing memories of communion off its own burnished mirror of expression. In the brief, morbid “A Polar Explorer” (Der Polarforscher, 1978), 40 seconds is enough to open the jar of hope and let its rancid contents spill out into the cold. “Lullaby” (Wiegenlied, 1992), by contrast, renders shades of redemption through fixation on immaculate maternity. Throughout these and more, Reiner adds weight to Brodsky’s lists and uncertainty to his spiritual invocations, treating words like shingles for a roof, beams for a doorway, and glass for a window. What we end up with, then, isn’t a house of coherence but a chapel of hard-won truths.

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