Shinya Fukumori Trio: For 2 Akis (ECM 2574)

For 2 Akis

Shinya Fukumori Trio
For 2 Akis

Matthieu Bordenave tenor saxophone
Walter Lang piano
Shinya Fukumori drums
Recorded March 2017, La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 16, 2018

When the sun shines, birds sing,
the oak woods here and there
grow hazy,
I’ll have dirty palms
that make a gritty noise.
–Kenji Miyazawa, “Spring” (trans. Hiroaki Sato)

For 2 Akis presents the ECM debut of drummer Shinya Fukumori. Born and raised in Osaka, he learned to play violin, piano, and guitar before relocating to the United States at 17 to pursue the drums. Yet after graduating from Berklee College of Music and immersing himself in the jazz canon, he became so inspired by classic ECM recordings, including Eberhard Weber’s Silent Feet and Keith Jarrett’s My Song, that he resolved himself to one day record for the label. Toward realizing that goal, he moved to Munich—a risky decision encouraged by this album’s dedicatory Akis, both affiliated with Osaka’s Interplay8 jazz club. In a categorically unmatched trio with fellow itinerant spirits Walter Lang (piano) and Matthieu Bordenave (tenor saxophone), Fukumori reimagines history as a process of ongoing revision.

Much of that revision is drawn through evocation of Japan’s Shōwa era (1926-89), a time marked by economic collapse on either end, between which unthinkable traumas transitioned into golden-age prosperity. Although his own life overlaps it a mere five years, he understands its nostalgic power as if through firsthand experience, expressed in his introverted approach to virtuosity. Such restraint indicates an artist unafraid to humble himself in silhouette against the movie screen of time on which montages of compassion flicker by. Thus, each tune of Fukumori’s selected corpus extends a narrative devoid of antagonists and bound by regressive politics of interpretation.

During the interwar period (1918-39), a concerted emphasis on delineation and preservation of folk customs infused all aspects of Japanese cultural life, including crafts, farming, and music. And it is perhaps with this timeline in mind that Fukumori begins his artful set with “Hoshi Meguri No Uta” (The Star-Circling Song). Written by literary icon Kenji Miyazawa, its original lyrics depict Polaris guiding readers on a tour of the visible universe. Fukumori likewise takes listeners by the gentlest of hands on a journey through bygone eras, along the way establishing a precedent of communication with his bandmates. In this context, Lang’s lyrical curiosity and Bordenave’s vulnerable yet integral tone are nothing less than the light to his stardust.

By the 1960s, Japan had recovered from World War II and poured renewed effort into rural development as a means of reforming national identity. It was also a time when nihon-chō kayōkyoku, or Japanese-style popular songs, infused public consciousness with their airs of better times. Presciently enough, the solitude and hardship so commonly examined in those songs foreshadowed the bubble whose burst would mark the end of the Shōwa, ushering in an era of hypermodernism and recovery. Before that key transition, however, songwriter Kei Ogura planted his “Ai San San” in the popular imagination. Its evocation of perseverance through rough times gifted an anthem of recovery before one was even needed. Made famous by actress and enka queen Hibari Misora when she released it as a single in 1986, it continues to feel premonition-worthy at a time when we could use a little calm from the storm.

The oldest song here is Rentarō Taki’s “Kōjō No Tsuki” (The Moon Over the Ruined Castle). Written in 1901, it’s a timeless meditation on the fleeting nature of things. As people and their traces come and go, it seems to say, only their love lingers, reflected in the waters of mortality. Jazz aficionados will recognize the tune by way of Thelonious Monk, who arranged his own version as “Japanese Folk Song” on 1967’s Straight, No Chaser. Says Fukumori of the version at hand: “Every Japanese child learns this song at school. The melody of the song is very Japanese, so it stands out and still sounds very authentic even though I have re-harmonized it and arranged it.” So begins a three-part suite, in which mallets elicit a soft vocabulary from the drums, shifting into pianistic shadow cast by a glowing saxophone before blending into Fukumori’s “The Light.” Like the title track, it showcases his compositional ability to activate dense reactions from delicate chemicals, proving that he and his trio are no strangers to urgency when needed. In that precise regard, the rounded peaks of emotional transference in “Silent Chaos” and “Spectacular” are emblematic of his optimism and gratitude.

All the more reason for listeners to hold in mind the timeline being explored therein. What appears to be another beauty in the form of “Mangetsu No Yube” (Full Moon Night) reveals itself to be a prayerful reaction to tragedy. Composed by Takashi Nakagawa and Hiroshi Yamaguchi in response tothe Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, it speaks the very language of connection that makes this band so transfixing. Lest we forget the potency of said language, we find two offerings by Lang (“No Goodbye” and “When The Day Is Done”) and one by Bordenave (“Émeraude”). All three are memories folded and unfolded, each more soulful than the last, as part of a collective dream.

It’s impossible to regard Fukumori as anything less than the rightful heir to Paul Motian’s legacy. His attention to detail, unflinching musicality, and penchant for understatement are rare in a musician so young (being 33 at the time of this recording). As when encountering Motian, this is music that demands the night. Anything less than total darkness would obscure its poetry against a market too often shouting with exposition.

Easily among the finest albums ECM has ever released. Don’t miss it.

Björn Meyer: Provenance (ECM 2566)

Provenance

Björn Meyer
Provenance

Björn Meyer 6-string electric and acoustic bass guitars
Recorded August 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 15, 2017

Björn Meyer is perhaps best known to ECM listeners as bassist for Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin before leaving the band in 2012, and by his appearances on albums of Anouar Brahem, notably 2014’s Souvenance. But the kaleidoscope he has assembled for this 2017 solo album is as surprising as it is fated. Each of its twelve vignettes acts as a window not into but out of Meyer’s singular approach to his six-string electric and acoustic basses. Through their diurnal dialogues, he elicits a sundial’s worth of possible directions, transforming reveries into grounded experiences.

In the opening “Aldebaran,” exquisite suspensions of disbelief bleed into a space where contact of flesh on metal leaves traces of communication, and where the barest whisper of a string is also its credo. Its evocations of wind and water are shared by “Trails Crossing,” which finds Meyer riding a current of arpeggios, which by their changes of direction imply a crossing not only of trails but also of those traveling along them, as if at that meeting point one might witness souls jumping from body to body in search of blessed purpose.

The title track is a spectrum of emotional transference, a series of genetic equations spliced and sequenced into chains of melodic integrity. Here, as elsewhere along the album’s trajectory, tasteful applications of electronic delays and reverb magnify what is already felt spiritually. Where “Pendulum” and “Pulse,” for example, are linked to rhythms of movement, “Garden Of Silence” and “Three Thirteen” achieve their impact through understatement.

Against such fullness of expression, the acoustic bass provides ever-expanding possibilities, spanning the gamut from funky (“Squizzle”) to descriptive (“Merry-Go-Round”) and, when combined with electric (“Dance”), sonic origami in reverse. Just as the electric resonates through harmonic comet tails in “Traces Of A Song,” so does the acoustic seek an origin story to unite them both. And in “Garden Of Silence,” by harpist and singer Asita Hamidi (1961-2012), to whom this album is dedicated, he activates a trail of molecules from instinct to action that by the end leads us back to where we began, hopeful and with all the necessary gear intact.

Chris Potter: The Dreamer Is The Dream (ECM 2519)

The Dreamer Is The Dream

Chris Potter
The Dreamer Is The Dream

Chris Potter tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute, ilimba, samples
David Virelles piano, celeste
Joe Martin double bass
Marcus Gilmore drums, percussion
Recorded June 2016 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Assistant: Luke Klingensmith
Mixed December 2016 by James A. Farber, Manfred Eicher, and Chris Potter
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 21, 2017

Chris Potter’s third leader date for ECM reshuffles the reedman and composer’s deck into yet another brilliant stack. This ace of spades is joined by brothers of hearts (pianist David Virelles), clubs (bassist Joe Martin), and diamonds (drummer Marcus Gilmore) for a set of six road-tested originals that only seem to grow with repeat listening.

While Potter is known for his forthright tenor playing, “Heart In Hand” facilitates a soft landing into hard-won territory. In a relationship with piano that’s almost blood-related, Potter’s primary instrument fits itself into the valleys between the keys while bass and cymbals populate the land with flora and fauna of lush detail. As in the set’s closer, “Yasodhara,” the bandleader’s tone is the voice of a fertile crescent alive with constant invention. Not a breath feels wasted, nor does a single note from Virelles, whose sonic archaeology is equal parts fire and earth.

“Ilimba,” named for the Tanzanian thumb piano heard therein, locks Potter and Martin in step, while Virelles and Gilmore paint crosswise: the water to their wind. Amid Gilmore’s superlative patterning, Potter plants himself in enlightened soil. “Memory And Desire” is another surprise for its artful samples and folk-like soprano. Mind-melding with Virelles, it treats air as a surface to write across. The title track is the willow tree resulting from this natural assemblage. Featuring Potter on bass clarinet in a fronded system of branches, and an extended bass solo from Martin, who dismantles and rebuilds his ladder to the top until its structural integrity is infallible, it regards us from above as the sun dances on its own reflection. Squinting our eyes into its glare is all we can do to open our hearts and minds to its message. Not only is the dreamer the dream; the dream is also the dreamer.

Momo Kodama: Point and Line (ECM New Series 2509)

Point and Line

Momo Kodama
Point and Line

Momo Kodamapiano
Recorded January 2016, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 27, 2017

Four years after making her ECM New Series debut with La vallée des cloches, pianist Momo Kodama returns with a program that is equally adventurous in expectation and inevitable in hindsight, this time shuffling the Études pour piano, L 136 (1915) of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Etude I-VI for piano, SJ 1180 (2011-13) of Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955) into an integrated experience. Having performed both cycles separately, here Kodama imagines them in dialogue with each other. “A number of elements in Hosokawa’s music,” she writes in her liner note, “make me sense a proximity to Debussy. One is the freedom of its formal design; another is its interplay and layering of colors. What I fins especially remarkable in both is a capacity for poetic utterance and ranges widely between lyricism and drama, between meditation and virtuosic display.” As in acts of translation between languages, what separates is also what binds, and Kodama is a masterful interpreter in that regard, fluent as she is in every dialectical nuance at hand.

“Hand” is indeed the operative word, as Kodama’s parallel communicators ride over the intimate cascades of Debussy’s Etude XI before swirling the waters below in defiance of prettiness. Thus, whatever conversational approach we might attribute to process isn’t necessarily between two (or more) people, but rather between different shades of the same musical self. Kodama’s rendering thereof illuminates a cohesive identity, and she, as surely the composers themselves, revels in disruptions, treating each as an opportunity for productive change.

Hosokawa’s Etude II, from which this album get its name, takes its descriptive heading with beautiful literalness, contrasting sustained notes and dotted clusters, the latter as sprays of baby’s breath in a wider bouquet. A spirit of favorable conflict prevails, as also in Debussy’s Etude III, wherein points and lines are converted into poetry. Not that what follows is a series of impressionistic vignettes, but a space in which every utterance counts. As dynamics lob from soft to loud and back again, we are primed for the versification of Hosokawa’s “Calligraphy, Haiku, 1 Line” (Etude III), of which dramatic outbursts amid resonant silences become organic allies.

As the composers continue to seesaw between foreground and background, something surprising begins to happen: we begin to lose track of who wrote what. For while the reveries of Etudes IV and VIII have an obviously Debussean flavor, we might also read distinctly Hosokawan associations into the second and first etudes. And while the tail-chasing details of Hosokawa’s first and fourth etudes reveal a childlike dedication to play (the latter’s subtitle, “Ayatori, Magic by 2 Hands, 3 Lines,” makes reference to the cat’s cradle game), his respect for Debussy peeks from behind the curtains of “Lied, Melody” (Etude VI), a high point that pushes darkness and light through lattices of memory.

Retrospection seems equally vital to sustaining Debussy’s mocking Etude I and Hosokawa’s visceral “Anger” (Etude V), and by the emotional clarity of those expressions turns anticipation into reflection. Like Debussy’s Etude VII, they draw a compass between our ears, for while the notes may go up and down, the hands travel right and left, leaving us with a navigational instrument to cherish as we leave this land behind into uncharted waters.

Tigran Mansurian: Requiem (ECM New Series 2508)

2508 X

Tigran Mansurian
Requiem

Anja Petersen soprano
Andrew Redmond bass
RIAS Kammerchor
Münchener Kammerorchester

Alexander Liebreich conductor
Recorded January 2016, Jesus-Christus-Kirche Dahlem, Berlin
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 17, 2017

ECM’s sixth album dedicated to Tigran Mansurian is a reference recording of his Requiem. Dedicated to victims of the Armenian genocide in Turkey that killed approximately one million people between 1915 and 1917, and composed a century later, it blends Continental and Orthodox traditions in a manner that is as unexpected as it is creatable by no other author. “The essence of the problem,” notes Mansurian of his process this time around, “was the existence of certain differences in the readings of religious texts between the Armenian Church and, say, the Roman Catholic Church. The psychology of a believer who represents a nation that has long been without an independent state differs sharply from the psychology of a believer at whose back stands a powerful religious community and centuries of independent statehood.” In this respect, he isn’t simply composing in a liminal space but also inviting the listener to light a candle in that space and pray in its glow.

A requiem challenges anyone wishing to write one, and for some has been a rite of passage. Mansurian struggled with the form for years, writing a handful of distinct attempts before abandoning them in favor of the one gifted to us here. Although scored for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and string orchestra, its collective spirit renders those solo roles—filled with emotional veracity by Anja Petersen and Andrew Redmond, respectively—in the “Tuba mirum” and “Domine Jesu Christe” as something more than representational; rather, they are two rays in a sun’s worth of individual voices. In humbler terms, their relationship to the larger assembly is as leaves to a tree, crying for acknowledgment with what little water they have left before their severed roots catch up with them. Such acts of violence, themselves stemming from a dark place, nevertheless confirm God’s grace to pull tortured souls from a tragic world into one that never trembles in fear of mortal sin.

Before we tread too deeply into these forests of mirrors, we begin with an airier “Requiem aeternam,” in which unrequited lives hold their hearts in their hands. Strings shift eerily from foreground to background in metaphysical exchange, presaging their playful relationship to choral motives in the “Kyrie.” Dances are brief and unsustainable, flowing like two separate rivers joining to cascade over the cliff of the “Dies irae.” Their urgency is jagged yet interlocking: a puzzle of mortality putting itself together despite our best attempts to upset it. The suspended animation of the “Lacrimosa” is echoed in the meditative “Agnus Dei,” and between them an insistent “Sanctus” which creates its own call and response of spirit, flesh, and remembrance.

Listening to Mansurian’s Requiem is like watching a film that weaves archival footage into freshly choreographed scenes of historical reckoning. It’s as if the cover image, depicting Armenian deportees trekking through the desert toward Aleppo, Syria, were coming to life, every figure contributing to the prescience of the whole, shaking their heads at what we have become.

Barre Phillips: End To End (ECM 2575)

End To End

Barre Phillips
End To End

Barre Phillips double bass
Recorded March 2017, La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 7, 2018

When bassist Barre Phillips began his diaristic exploration of the double bass in 1968 with Journal Violone (the sequel to which found its way onto ECM in 1980), little did anyone know it would reach its destination half a century later. This album’s title, End To End, thus signals the closing of a circle filled by one of the instrument’s most stalwart innovators. Divided into three retrospectively titled sections, the program is reflective of both his ability to say so much with so little and of producer Manfred Eicher’s to understand the grander narrative of which that little is a part.

Quest
From the first pizzicato strains, it’s clear that Phillips is one who thinks not only through the bass, but also from it. Every note belongs. When he applies bow to strings, there’s a confident vulnerability to its pulse. It moves like windblown leaves with just enough sunlight peering through to bring a childhood memory into focus. His breathing, when audible, imbues glissandi with sentience. When not audible, it curls up as if in hibernation for melodic spring. In that dream state, it embraces the possibilities of dissonance, harmonics, and other subtly applied contacts. Part 4, in which he taps out a Morse code of mortality, is especially moving for its urgency. So, too, is his own quest for unspooling page after brilliant page, each awaiting the caress of post-production ink.

Inner Door
Phillips takes out a metaphorical microscope and through it shows his art to be a parthenogenetic wonder. Double stops resound with all the power of a mantra, and by their appearance activate particles of moonlight. Here his bow is the wand of a master storyteller, one whose choice of words is as organic as the imagery they describe. The rhythms of an aging body, creaking joints and all, reveal a greater force at work.

Outer Window
From that introversion we get the sunbeams of this final section. Although similar in spirit to what preceded it, it takes the most intimate turns yet, and by those paths draws an equation of visceral extroversion. Now the microscope is swapped for a telescope. He peers through it, only to see a twin figure with the exact same setup looking back at him. In those last moments, flesh dies and stars are born, never to be captured again by glass and curious regard.

Elina Duni: Partir (ECM 2587)

Partir

Elina Duni
Partir

Elina Duni voice, piano, guitar, percussion
Recorded July 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard (mastering)
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 27, 2018

We are all departing, bound to be torn away,
one day or another, from what we love.
Here are scenes of departure sung in nine languages.
All we are left with is the unknown ahead of us.

So does Elina Duni describe this intimate new collection of songs. As on her previous outings for ECM, if by different register in being alone, the Albanian singer grabs hold of her roots and squeezes them until tears of personal significance drip into the vessels of her guitar, piano, frame drum, and voice itself.

Domenico Modugno’s “Amara Terra Mia” (Bitter Land of Mine) opens as many doors as the song has words. It’s a film reduced to a single camera and actor, a memory that finds its protagonist severing the umbilical cord of her ancestral home in favor of itineracy. But while there’s as much to be gained as lost from this endeavor, the uncertainty of it all looms over her like a cloud of darkness, her only companion the guitar that gives her a ground upon which to place her vocal step.

On the surface of this and all songs to follow there is a fracture, from which issues a ribbon of nostalgic patterns and color schemes, but which in its unraveling signals an end to things. Such mortality is felt with deep urgency in Alain Oulman’s “Meu Amor” (My Love) and Duni’s own “Let Us Dive In.” In the latter, she holds the piano close to her chest, as if to transfer some of her heartbeat to its material assemblage in the hopes of illuminating something common to both. In the fleshly conflict of Muhammad Abd al Rahim al Masloub’s “Lamma Bada Yatathanna” (When He Was Swaying) and solace-seeking litany of Jacques Brel’s “Je Ne Sais Pas” (I Don’t Know), she dismantles façades of expectation to expose the shadows slumbering behind them. With these she dances in defiance of human contact.

The album’s most resonant chambers house its traditional selections, intersecting with cultural touch-points in Kosovo, Armenia, Macedonia, and Albania. From the separation anxieties of “Vishnja” (The Cherry Tree) and “Lusnak Gisher” (Moonlit Night), both of which share metaphorical affinity with Philip Laskowsky’s “Oyfn Veg” (On the Road), to the dolorous strains of “Vaj Si Kenka” (How) and fleet images of “Schönster Abestärn” (Beautiful Evening Star), Duni broadens her wingspan to ensure total protection when night falls. But few beats of those feathers are as powerful as those sung without accompaniment in “Kanga e Kurbetit” (The Exile Song). Therein, her illustration of exile is itself a form of exile, dividing the self into as many components as possible before putting them together anew, minus the broken pieces.

John Surman: Invisible Threads (ECM 2588)

2588 X

John Surman
Invisible Threads

John Surman soprano and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet
Nelson Ayres piano
Rob Waring vibraphone, marimba
Recorded July 2017 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Peer Espen Ursfjord and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 19, 2018

John Surman is one of those rare reed players whose tone is so recognizable that it contributes to an ever-expanding autobiography with every aural stroke. In this unusual new trio, he joins forces with pianist Nelson Ayres, who he met while recording in Brazil, and vibraphonist Rob Waring. The program consists largely of material written for this studio occasion, and by its dovetailed aesthetic renders one image after another of cinematic integrity. The most vivid tracks in this regard include “The Admiral” (a dream of maritime proportions), “Pitanga Pitomba” (the marimba of which reveals a Southeast Asian influence), and Ayres’s folky “Summer Song” (the only track on the ballot not written by Surman). The pianist adds even deeper grooves to “Autumn Nocturne,” a picturesque scene that glides easily into the soul. He dashes Latin flavor into the music’s broth, thereby encouraging a fragrant symbiosis of ingredients.

The interplay of the band is cosmic, as in the airy “Within The Clouds” and the more haunting “On Still Waters.” From the latter’s bowed vibraphone, Surman’s bass clarinet emerges as lava in search of a place to form an island, while the former spans the gamut from amphibian sermon to avian reverie and compresses the most beautiful parts of summer into five minutes of bliss. “At First Sight” is one among a handful of diurnal excursions in which Surman’s soprano cuts the air like a bird threading the needle of time. Both this and “Another Reflection” are built around the harmonies of “Byndweed,” an album highlight for the communion of Ayres and Waring, and Surman’s lilting poetry. His baritone (viz. “Concentric Circles”) flexes the broadest muscles of all and, not unlike “Stoke Damerel,” lushly reimagines memories of what came before.

As the album’s title implies, these threads may be invisible, but they’re nevertheless easy to detect in what amounts to one of Surman’s most vital sessions to date. Buy it now, and it will make up for whatever you spend on it a hundredfold in your first listen.

György Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07)

Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

György Kurtág
Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

Natalia Zagorinskaya soprano
Gerrie de Vries mezzosoprano
Yves Saelens tenor
Harry van der Kamp bass
Jean-Guihen Queyras violoncello
Elliott Simpson guitar
Tamara Stefanovich piano
Csaba Király pianino, spoken word
Asko|Schönberg
Netherlands Radio Choir
Reinbert de Leeuw conductor
Recorded March 2013–July 2016 at Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Amsterdam and Philharmonie, Haarlem
Recording producer: Guido Tichelman
Engineer: Bastiaan Kuijt
Assistants: Matthijs Ruijter, Pim van der Lee, and Isa Goldschmeding
Mastered at BK Audio by Bastiaan Kuijt
Project supervision: Renee Jonker
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 23, 2017

December’s fervor, summer’s flailing hailstorm,
wild bird encumbered with clogs,
this and more I’ve been. Willingly I die.
–János Pilinszky, “Hölderlin”

When immersing oneself in the Four Capriccios that opens this three-disc compendium of György Kurtág’s works for ensemble and choir, it’s nearly impossible to feel that our perceptions of reality can be tactical endpoints of any trajectories through space or time. The Hungarian composer’s Opus 9 for soprano (a role masterfully filled here by Natalia Zagorinskaya) and ensemble—composed between 1959 and 1970, revised in 1993—doesn’t so much set the poetry of István Bálint as rearrange its molecules in a diorama of linguistic play. Hence the atmosphere of the program as a whole, which by ironic virtue of its cohesion unrolls a narrative of unfinished thoughts, micro-images, and instincts. Like the title of its third part, “Language Lesson,” it is as instructive as it is destructive. Kindred echoes further haunt the interstices of such quadripartite settings as Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Op. 41 (1997-2008) and Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op. 11 (1975). The latter’s performance by bass Harry van der Kamp treats slurred speech as antecedent to lived experience (if not vice versa), and mortality as an instrument of desire.

Years of careful study, rehearsal, and understanding went into these performances, recorded under supervision-at-a-distance of the composer. Notes conductor Reinbert de Leeuw of this process: “[T]he fact that you can finally witness the happiness of a composer stating that his music has been recorded as he intended it to sound is priceless and meaningful in an historical sense.” To be sure, we can hear Kurtág lurking ghostily throughout these meticulous assemblies, which by their innate desire to be heard reveal what de Leeuw calls “the constant search for the meaning behind what could not be notated in the score.”

It’s especially tempting to read hidden messages into this collection’s centerpiece. The near-aphasia of Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, Op. 30b (1991) reduces utterances to emotional caesura between mockery and exaltation while provoking insectile stirrings in a garden of failed vocabularies. Even the scoring for alto solo, voices and “chamber ensembles dispersed in space” reveals something of the philosophical blood running through its proverbial veins.

“I had the privilege of working with the great composers of our time,” de Leeuw admits, “sometimes even interpreting every single orchestral work of a composer like I did as a conductor with the works of Messiaen. So at one point you think you have a pretty good idea of what twentieth century music is about. And then comes the music of György Kurtág. That was a real shock for me, completely transforming my perception of music.” Case in point is Grabstein für Stephan, Op. 15c (1978-79, rev. 1989), for which guitarist Elliott Simpson strums open strings, as if turning the idea of mastery inside out until bacterial details emerge. In a profound exchange of tenderness and violence, wordless voices descend like ink through water before a grief-stricken explosion rends the air with catharsis.

De Leuww again: “One could say that in a way every note he has written, may have been written before. But merging this extremely rich heritage into one voice that is recognizable and unique is for me utterly fascinating.” We can hear this most clearly in the Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op. 18 (1980-94), of which the brilliantly realized “Crucifixion,” chest-beating Mary Magdalene and all, rubs shoulders with mock folk motifs and other haunting minutiae. The Colindă-Baladă, Op. 46 (2010) for tenor solo, chorus and chamber ensemble also flirts with tradition through its Orff-like interplay. Like a recovered traditional song warped beyond recognition, it struggles to embrace a stable identity.

As Paul Griffiths notes of Kurtág’s music in his liner text, “Crucially important is the brevity of the texts, and their corresponding qualities of intensity and openness, both stimulating to music.” Nowhere is this so artfully evident as in Messages of the Late Miss R. Troussova, Op. 17 (1976-80), which threads 21 poems by Rimma Dalos like beads of internal life. Between the programmatic “Why Should I Not Squeal Like a Pig” and the self-deprecatingly erotic “Chastushka,” distinctions between instruments and soloist are of slightest degree. From the achingly beautiful flute of “You Took My Heart” to the mournful brass of “For Everything,” Kurtág upholds every sound as an opportunity—not a promise—of communication.

Griffiths goes on: “If we want to try to think of metaphors or analogies for György Kurtág’s music, we will likely find ourselves drawing them directly from the human voice and the human body: from what it feels like to be communicating vocally in some specific way, from what it feels like to be making a particular movement.” This is true even of the instrumental pieces. Whether in the descending piano and Ligeti-like meditations of …quasi una fantasia…, Op. 27 No. 1 (1987-88) or the Op. 27 No. 2 (1989-90), a double concerto for piano, cello and two chamber ensembles, pulses suggest a human body and the voice struggling to transcend it. As in the closing ensemble piece, Brefs Messages, Op. 47 (2011), we find ourselves lost not in a miniature landscape, but an entire planet to which we’ve been granted teleportational access.