Tigran Hamasyan: Luys i Luso (ECM 2447)

Luys i Luso

Tigran Hamasyan
Luys i Luso

Tigran Hamasyan piano, prepared piano
Yerevan State Chamber Choir
Harutyun Topikyan conductor
Recorded October 2014 at Argo Recording Studio, Yerevan
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Assistant engineer: Armen Paremuzyan
Mixed March 2015 at RSI Studio Lugano by Markus Heiland, Manfred Eicher, and Tigran Hamasyan
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: October 2, 2015

Luys i Luso realizes the dream of Tigran Hamasyan to build an entire album around the sacred music of Armenia. Now based in Los Angeles, the prodigious jazz pianist has held on to the melodies of his homeland with solemnity and patience for this project. The antiquity of much of the repertoire—hymns, sharakans (chants), and cantos, some of which date back to the fifth century—leaves room for improvisation, which evidence suggests has been a part of its living tradition for centuries. Hamasyan takes to this freedom like a wing to wind, using his polyphonic arrangements of monophonic melodies as runways for spontaneous flights. He has intentionally left the piano parts unwritten, so that by following only skeletal structures he is free to move about the score.

Hamasyan 1
(Photo credit: Vahan Stepanyan)

The album’s title (Light from Light) is primarily descriptive, revealing the process of pulling out an interpretive glow from contemporary compositions, and from the older ones embers of bygone devotions. It also signals themes of variation in a program built around multiple incarnations of the core melodies. The preludinal “Ov Zarmanali” (Oh this Amazing and Great Mystery) by 12th-century catholicos and composer Grigor G. Pahlavuni, for example, illuminates the listener’s ears first through a solo piano treatment, like snow falling from the branches of a godly tree, and later in the album in a veritable river of voices. The Yerevan State Chamber Choir’s balance of raw technique and rhythmic precision indicates a vulnerability diminished by numbers. Hamasyan’s pianism takes on a regular role here, sounding its arpeggios with veracity. The modal changes speak to something deeper than beauty, to the heart within it darkened by neglect. Midway through the singers fade and leave the piano to move jazzily through their afterimages, only to return like objects of worship polished smooth over centuries of devotion. “Sirt im Sasani” (My Heart is Trembling!), a canticle by 13th-century canonical writer Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi (c. 1230-1297) also reveals its mercies through two iterations, the second of which is a piano variation of Trinitarian dimension, while the first professes faith through the distant mechanisms of exile. Bass soloist Seiran Avagyan renders a flower of textual identity shedding petals in favor of bodiless light.

Hamasyan 2
(Photo credit: Vahan Stepanyan)

No such project would be complete without Komitas (1869-1935), because of whose efforts much of Armenia’s sacred music has been preserved. His “Hayrapetakan Maghterg” (Patriarchal Ode), a hymnal request to be heard and absolved, takes three forms. In two Hamasyan-only versions, the pianist attends to the words between notes. He is keenly aware of these spaces and gathers strength through their collective presence. Like the pages of a thumb-worn Bible, its gilding has faded through absorption, finding in its choral life a treasure of grace and, in soprano soloist Jenni Nazaryan, a dove clutching sprigs of gratitude. From Komitas’s Armenian Holy Mass we encounter two sections, “Surb Astvats” (Holy God) and “Orhnyal e Astvats” (Blessed is God), each based on melodies from the seventh century. Where the former is driven by forward-thinking improvisation, the latter looks backward by sampling tenor Armenak Shahmuradyan. This 1912 archival recording, made in Paris in the presence of Komitas, defines the palette from which the choir draws its colors over a century later.

Medieval theologian and hymnologist Mesrop Mashtots (c. 362-440) is represented in two chants and a canticle for Fasting Days. The first of these, “Ankanim araji Qo” (I Kneel Before You), is where the choir makes its album entrance—or should I say “in-trance,” for such is its state of being. Therein, singers descend to the bottoms of their linguistic wells, making dervish circles until the shadows are cleansed. Each is a powerful statement of redemption, of the will to drown in transgression so that one might be reborn into sobriety.

For the singly rendered, Hamasyan offers two cantos of the Resurrection, both chanted during Divine Liturgy. “Nor Tsaghik” (New Flower) by Nerses Shnorhali (c. 1102-1173) strikes difference through its use of prepared piano, at which Hamasyan uncovers hidden voices behind the voices, while “Havoun Havoun” (The Bird, the Bird was Awake) by Grigor Narekatsi (c. 951-1003) pairs soprano and piano in the name of faith. Nazaryan’s lone singing barely grazes the belly of the nearest cloud until the nourishment of Heaven comes raining forth, leaving us to drink in what we can.

Those who would write off this recording on the sole basis of its description—Do we really, they might say, need another jazz musician improvising over a vocal ensemble?—may be pleasantly surprised at the level of integration achieved on Luys i Luso. Like Misha Alperin, Hamasyan recognizes the dedication of knowledge required to mesh with equally disciplined singers. Whether broken or healed, each of his selections embodies the fragmentary nature of things as a path to wholeness. The sheer love pouring from that wholeness is proof of concept.

An unexpected masterpiece, and one of ECM’s most astonishing in years.

(To hear samples of Luys i Luso, please click here. Further information about the project is available here.)

Giya Kancheli: Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442)

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Giya Kancheli
Chiaroscuro

Gidon Kremer violin
Patricia Kopatchinskaja violin
Kremerata Baltica
Recorded December 2014 at Lithuanian National Radio and Television, Vilnius
Engineers: Vilius Keras and Aleksandra Suchova
Mixing and mastering at Emil Berliner Studios, Berlin by Rainer Maillard, Manfred Eicher, and Vilius Keras
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 6, 2015

“Despite the world’s obvious achievement, our planet is still torn by bloody contradictions. And no progress in artistic activity can withstand the destructive force that easily cancels the fragile process of construction. (…) I write for myself, without having any illusions that ‘beauty will save the world.’”
–Giya Kancheli

The words of a composer-in-exile who lives so deeply inside time that he creates outside of it. Kancheli speaks them not in the interest of putting forth a mission statement, but to assess the measure of his art against the metric of history, the last century of which has birthed some of its brightest galaxies and darkest nebulae. In the context of his personal astronomy, Kancheli seeks out vestiges of indifference in a world built on denial of the same. On this disc you will find no healing but the honesty of a mixed spirit. Surely, the music not only abides by such sentiments but also thrives on their shadows.

The 2010 title composition, first in a program of two, is scored for violin and chamber orchestra. Despite its perennial format, it reads neither like a concerto nor a tone poem, but rather a procession led by one who follows his own invisible nature. The feeling of inseparability is strong as these figures—nodes in a pathway of nerves—bond and separate. The bass drum rumble that opens their 23 prosaic minutes of communication signals the subterranean heart of it all, which by virtue of the shimmering strings that follow sews its raiment anew. As in the music of Valentin Silvestrov, the piano here adopts a commentary role. Its very involvement reveals an internal expanse rivaled in scope among his previous works perhaps only by Trauerfarbenes Land.

Violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica handle every note with the admiration of a curator. Kancheli opines humbly about the musicians’ contributions and recognizes that the simplicity of his thematic moon shines by the light of many suns. In this recording, he dubs Kremer the “true author” of Chiaroscuro and he himself its “co-author.” The level of integration and respect achieved from both is something to behold with awe. Likewise, the distance and birdlike liquidity of Kremer’s high notes in the final phase.

Kancheli and Friends

At a slightly longer duration of 25 minutes, Twilight (2004) is scored for two violins and chamber orchestra. Kremer is joined by protégé Patricia Kopatchinskaja, last heard on ECM playing the music of Galina Ustvolskaya. Although it is Kancheli’s first piece for this instrumentation, and written at Kremer’s behest, it will feel familiar to the Kancheli initiate. Inspired by a row of poplar trees outside his Antwerp studio, whose significance became clear to him after a brush with death, it treats life as a gift twice given. The addition of a second leading voice emphasizes this metaphor and changes the landscape considerably, collapsing the former procession into a molecule of new rotations. Merest hints of Kancheli’s past thematic staples whisper through the overgrowth, speaking through the photosynthesis of the present. Interrelationships of soloists and orchestra are gnarled and rooted, each pouring out from the last in the manner of a divided cell. Melodies and atmospheric changes occur with such aching force that it is all one can do to keep the skeleton from trembling.

Twilight abounds in prismatic effects. Like an enhanced chamber music, it magnifies the immediacy of smaller forces with implications of unwritten futures. A direct emotional line takes shape from motif to motif until a naked mystery prevails. Kancheli is therefore correct in his self-assessment: This is not an album in which to seek sanctuary. That being said, one may discern a ray or two in the bleakness of its canvas, for to the interpreters’ authorship must be added the listener’s own.

As is always the case with the Kancheli experience, moments of apparent eruption are in fact the opposite. Nowhere truer than in this program, where the occasional outburst is, if anything, an “inburst,” pushing the focal point ever farther toward forgetting. Cavernous engineering thus allows the orchestra’s solitude to come spilling out in consumption of tension. We do well to see these dynamic affordances, like album’s title, as variations on a grander theme—in this case of mortality, and the parentheses that are its beginning and end.

Kancheli’s most important recording since Exil.

(To hear samples of Chiaroscuro, please click here.)

Dino Saluzzi & Anja Lechner: El Encuentro (ECM 5051)

El Encuentro (1)

Dino Saluzzi
Anja Lechner
El Encuentro: A film for bandoneon and violoncello
Directors: Norbert Wiedmer and Enrique Ros
Camera: Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer
Editing: Katharina Bhend
Sound, sound editing, and sound mix: Balthasar Jucker
Production: PS Film, Biograph Film
Co-produced by SRF
Post-production: Recycled TV

In Sounds and Silence, Norbert Wiedmer produced a rather fleeting portrait of ECM Records and its head Manfred Eicher, leaving viewers with, at best, vague sketches by trying to do too much in one go. But with El Encuentro, glimpses of which one might remember seeing in the former documentary, he has given us the film that should have been. Along with co-director Enrique Ros, Wiedmer touches more of the label’s ethos by following only two of its major artists than Sounds and Silence does in profiling many more besides. Despite being from opposite sides of the Atlantic, gentle giant of the bandoneón Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner have bridged waters of their own making since 1998, when they first collaborated in the Kultrum project that featured the Rosamunde Quartett, of which the cellist was founder.

What makes El Enceuntro such an insightful window is the relative clarity of its narrative glass. At its core is a trip taken by Dino and Anja—so one feels compelled to call them after getting to know them so well by the end credits—to Salta, Argentina, where the bandoneonista absorbed the tango that would become central to his life. It’s an art form that would become increasingly important for Anja, who cites her own deep knowledge of, and respect, for the tango as a motivation for forging this intergenerational partnership with Dino. She recalls learning these rhythms for the first time in Argentina, where signatures rendered cut and dry through classical training now blossomed at her fingertips, reinvigorated.

El Encuentro 1

Dino meanwhile looks back on memories of his father, who after working a long day at the factory would sing for their village. Dino took to his father’s love of song like a sunset to ocean and, as the film makes clear, has passed that spirit on to Anja in kind. Indeed, the cellist says that even though Dino is always more comfortable playing with his family, she feels she has become a part of it. Whether dancing with the locals or navigating a recording session with Dino and his brother Felix, she adapts with chameleonic precision—which is to say: unthinkingly.

El Encuentro 2

But Dino’s story is as much about leaving home as finding it. He regales us with stories of putting his home country behind him to support his family, and of finding an unexpected brother in the late George Gruntz, who in 1982, as president of the Berlin Jazz Festival, traveled to Latin America in search of musicians and recruited Dino on the spot. No one in Gruntz’s band had ever seen or heard a bandoneón before, and this opportunity would prove career-defining.

El Encuentro 5

The past, however, is never too far behind. As Dino admits, “I compose with memories and hopes,” and in so doing kneads the passage of time into desired shapes. In this respect, the film is as much a meeting of lives as of minds. Anja lets us in on her own past: playing with rock bands at age 12, among whom she learned to improvise in the heat of the moment; hearing Dino’s music for the first time in Munich, where she’d so dutifully immersed herself in classical music of the European masters, even while surrounding herself with the melodies and forms of other places. And for her that’s the key. You have to go to these places to experience the emotional core of their music. Location is vocation. It’s something that cannot be substituted or recreated.

El Encuentro 4

None of this is meant to suggest that Lechner has abandoned her classical foundations. Far from it, as evidenced in her interactions with composer Tigran Mansurian in Armenia, the country dearest to her after Argentina.

El Encuentro 3

The cameras are there again for conversations with Levon Eskenian, who explains to her the sacred music of Armenia, and how when playing folksongs on the duduk one must always convey a sense of improvisation. Anja thus characterizes life in Armenia as more immediate, whereas in Argentina people truly engage and look into you. Such is the balance of her traveling life.

El Encuentro 6

On Dino’s own travels, no companion has been more constant than his trusted bandoneón. “I can’t conceive of life without the bandoneón,” he says. “The instrument has spoken with modesty since its conception. It doesn’t raise its voice, it only speaks with calmness, simplicity, and directness. All of the words are written here. All of the thoughts are here. All of the difficult equations are here. You only have to serve to bandoneón and understand that you’re letting the human experience pass through other channels.” But he also believes that bandoneonists should explore beyond the tango and create new forms of music. As if his recordings weren’t already ample proof of this advice in action, excerpts from concerts with drummer U.T. Gandhi and singer Alessandra Franco, and with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam’s Musiekgebouw under the baton of Jules Buckley, show just how catalytic the instrument can be.

El Encuentro 7

But it is in combination with the cello where channels of communication open their hearts to the vastest possibilities. Just as Anja says, “Music is a world in which all emotions exist,” so are emotions a world in which all music exists. And at their center, we can feel these two souls creating a third for the listener to inhabit at will.

Saluzzi and Lechner
(Photo credit: Juan Hitters)

Early on in the film, Dino wonders how people can connect at all to his melancholic music, even as he recognizes something that meets the listener halfway. “For me,” he goes on, “doubt is driving force. It’s like gasoline. You use gasoline to run a car. And for us to work, we need doubt. Because if doubt is a driving force, then it can’t become a paralyzing problem. On the contrary, it’s a generator of ideas and desires, of searches and answers to the great questions we have.” And if we must be the electricity that powers this generator, how fortunate we are to be swept up in its current.

Feldman/Satie/Cage: Rothko Chapel (ECM New Series 2378)

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Morton Feldman/Erik Satie/John Cage
Rothko Chapel

Kim Kashkashian viola
Sarah Rothenberg piano, celeste
Steven Schick percussion
Houston Chamber Choir
Robert Simpson conductor
Cage and Satie recorded May 2012 at Stude Hall, Rice University in Houston
Feldman recorded February 2013 at The Brown Foundation Performing Arts Theater, Asia Society Texas Center
Programme: Sarah Rothenberg
Tonmeister: Judith Sherman
Engineer: Andrew Bradley
Editing assistant: Jeanne Velonis
Mastered at MSM Studio, Munich by Judith Sherman and Christoph Stickel
Produced by Judith Sherman
An ECM Production
U.S. release date: October 23, 2015

To encounter a painting of Mark Rothko (1903-1970) is to stand not before but within it. The more one gazes, the more blended one becomes into its borderless horizons. This dynamic is duly obvious in Rothko Chapel, a nondenominational space hung with his canvases and where visitors, observes pianist Sarah Rothenberg, “actually inhabit the paintings from the inside.” After the chapel’s posthumous opening, composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987) was asked by philanthropists Dominique and John de Menil to pen a tribute, and thus the centerpiece to Rothenberg’s carefully assembled program was born.

Said program was originally presented by Houston-based Da Camera, an organization that Rothenberg has lead since 1994, and under the auspices of which she presented a 40th Anniversary Concert at Rothko Chapel in 2011. Translating the energies of this event into a studio experience transcends the qualities of a reproduction, for the musicians’ raw talents move so organically as to yield an original work of art with immersive qualities all its own.

Rothko Robinson

From the rumbling timpani that opens Rothko Chapel alone, one already knows that the composer must have been both admirer of, and friend to, the artist. That he was, and their penchant for debate and banter codes its way into every click of aperture as the nearly 30-minute piece unfolds. Then again, it might be more accurate to say that Feldman’s masterwork “infolds,” for like a thought compressed into pigment, it colors the mind with simple yet deeply planar contrasts. Other percussive elements shine as the underside to a viola’s burnished top. These two might seem oppositional, were it not for Kim Kashkashian, in whose rooted bowing one may hear the spirit of hues and forms that put Feldman’s cells in an inner tandem not unlike that of the Rothkos themselves. The presence of choir, then, surely manifests the darkness into which Rothko’s angles seem to forever recede. Feldman’s sounds are thus every bit as painterly as Rothko’s applications were sonic. Each follows its own frequency toward a common endpoint—which is to say, a point without end. Individual voices, bowed and throated alike, constitute not “solos” but single bands of fuller spectra. As Rothenberg details in her beautiful liner notes, Feldman recognized the logical impossibility of expressing stasis in music, even if one may feel an illusion of it, for as the choir ends in mid-impulse, leaving us suspended in the void of those permeating rectangles, it is all we can do to inhale the illusion before it leaves us.

In this context, the soundings of Erik Satie (1866-1925) and John Cage (1912-1992) are drops in an ever-expanding pond. Satie was a focal point of Cage’s contemplative life, and much like Rothko to Feldman served to enhance a diffuse and intimate science. Satie’s obsession with time, as Cage saw it, surely helped both composers to recognize the value of space. Cage’s Four2 (1990) and Five (1988), both for choir, train the ear on a different field of overlaps. The bleed-through of these voices is that of watercolor, touching the paper’s edge as if it were a new beginning all the same. Higher voices ring out with the announcement of a barely-risen sun, soaking the clouds with generative power and carrying over denominators of motivic cells until they are stretched beyond recognition. The multiplicity of singers yields a selfless quality, which finds fullest expression in ear for EAR (Antiphonies). This 1983 piece for choir and tenor soloist transmits wordless impulses into a meditation on emptiness.

The latter, in being framed by the first two of Satie’s four Ogives for piano, seems even more an exercise in balance: between flat and sharp, loud and quiet, inner and outer. Nos. 1, 3, and 4 of Satie’s Gnossiennes similarly daub the program, each spread until it touches another. Their appearance is all the more vivid for their gentle persuasions, touches of the wrist leading us down a path that crumbles behind us as we tread. Rothenberg’s approach to the keyboard assures that these famous pieces feel familiar on their own terms.

It has been fascinating to watch Cage’s 1948 In a landscape evolve through the New Series. This is its third appearance on ECM’s classical imprint, marking programs by Herbert Henck and Alexei Lubimov. Ending an album as it does here, it feels all the more natal. Its arpeggios are as profound as the C-major prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, and here absorb the resonance of that canonical past with hints of an unknown future.

These composers, and the artists from whom they gathered inspiration, may have been the avant-garde, but in them was also something far older, as primal as it was primary, that spoke to creation as the lotus of ego and its sonorous destruction.

(To hear samples of Rothko Chapel, please click here.)

Dino Saluzzi: Imágenes – Music for piano (ECM New Series 2379)

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Dino Saluzzi
Imágenes: Music for piano

Horacio Lavandera piano
Recorded October 2013 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. Release Date: September 25, 2015

For a musician whose heart pulls so much blood from the tango and folklores both longstanding and personal, bandoneón master Dino Saluzzi is a composer in the same way that a poet is a writer. Every syllable takes on note value, which in the grander scheme of a finished piece yields shape and color. Whereas through his standby instrument he actualizes breath by way of a smaller “keyboard,” here Saluzzi bows to the interpretation of young Argentine pianist Horacio Lavandera at a much larger one in a sonic Decalogue of epic intimacy. The piano’s classical associations do nothing to obscure Saluzzi’s idiosyncrasies, which in this context mix two parts atmospheric to each melodic.

In his German-only liner notes, Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich characterizes Saluzzi’s piano music as speaking in “fragmented images.” From the rolling arpeggios that begin the 2001 title composition, we encounter a sound world that surely privileges fragments: of memory, of place, and of time. The proximity allowed by ECM’s longtime engineering ally Jan Erik Kongshaug assures listeners that the music is speaking not only to, but also into, them. Here is where the darkest hours of Saluzzi’s timekeeping are to be discovered, where every sweep of the minute hand is the arm of a shadow piecing together in slow desperation a coherent narrative of who it used to be. Moods and techniques vary accordingly, one moment rhapsodizing in sunshine while the next sinking into the depths of some forgotten, nocturnal lake.

Lavandera and Saluzzi
(Photo credit: Juan Hitters)

Although Los Recuerdos (1998) would seem to unfold at higher elevations, its plumbing is no less subterranean. With resolute sporadicity, Saluzzi-via-Lavandera (that the composer was present at the recording session is obvious, even without the candid liner photos confirming this) dabs from a psychological palette. A colorless abyss provides the backdrop for streaks of yellow and brown, splashes of red and lavender, and the occasional sparkle of gold. But the default is something far cloudier, a hue that cannot ever seem to settle on one constitution. In a supplemental liner note, guitarist Pablo Márquez, who like Saluzzi grew up around the mountains of Salta, confirms this: “Dino never allows himself to become trapped in one aesthetic; he is always somewhere unexpected.” Said genre-defying style only adds water to the composer’s stream of consciousness. His notecraft oars its way into the moonlit inlet of Media Noche (1990) and docks at the misty way station of Vals Para Verenna (1987) with equal attention to detail. Even the minute-long etude Moto Perpetuo (2000) is no less rich in imagery and association. Márquez’s sentiments further emphasize Saluzzi’s affinity for storytelling. In such pieces as La Casa 13 (2002) and Donde Nací (1990), one can feel his thick approach to description. Others, such as Romance (1994), which in its tuneful brevity relates the oldest story of them all, and the Satie-like Claveles (1984), come across as songs in search of words, even as they content themselves with mere hints thereof.

But as the program evolves in self-conscious order, slender shards of nomination cohere into wider scenes by the glue of minimal vocabularies. The majestic peaks of Montañas—which, having been composed in 1960, is the earliest of the ten—reach skyward with resolution of a younger soul, one who carves with fists over chisels yet who in doing so affords through the grime of experience that much more to consider.

From these portals of reflection, Lavandera emerges as a storyteller in his own right with pianism at its most impressionistic—which is to say: indelible.

(To hear samples of Imágenes, click here.)

John Potter: Amores Pasados (ECM New Series 2441)

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John Potter
Amores Pasados

John Potter voice
Anna Maria Firman voice, Hardanger fiddle
Ariel Abramovich lute
Jacob Heringman lute
Recorded November 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: July 17, 2015

In his liner note to Amores Pasados, former Hilliard Ensemble tenor John Potter puts forth the notion that perhaps the wall between popular song and so-called art song, which even just a century ago were one and the same, is an arbitrary one. Such is the contradiction behind his latest project, as inevitable as it is unusual. In a musical climate where singers shackled by marketing to particular genres branch out into others at their peril—a climate in which “world music” still rings like a derogatory term for non-professional, non-western curiosities—it may be difficult to conceive of a time when melodies we take for granted as part of the classical soundscape were once “popular,” belonging as much to the theatrical stage as to the troubadour’s lips. Contrary to the pop songs of the 20th century, by which the roles of lyricist and composer have all too often ridden divergent streams of commodity, songs once fell fully within the purview of laypeople at a time when notions of artistic integrity had yet to hammer a wedge between “professionals” and “amateurs.” This dynamic would now seem to have undergone a dramatic reversal via singing competition shows like The Voice, but even there the purpose is to produce the next generation of underdogs, whose underlying ambition is to buy into the professionalism they seek, often at the expense of at least one vital organ of their creative bodies. They must be the complete package: looking and acting the part into which they will be groomed if they are to succeed beyond the ephemeral glory that makes them visible. Amores Pasados, then, represents a rare—and all the more so for being successful—attempt to blur the lines between the old and the new, performing modern folksongs with an antique spirit and older songs afresh, along with more recent balladry by pop/rock legends John Paul Jones (bassist of Led Zeppelin), Tony Banks (keyboardist of Genesis), and Sting.

Amores portrait

The arrangements are Potter’s own, and find a choice companion in Swedish soprano Anna Maria Friman. Friman’s journey as part of the vocal ensemble Trio Mediaeval has since 2001 graced ECM with a series of eclectic recordings, all under the mentorship of Potter himself, and so their rapport is duly felt here. Joining them are lutenists Ariel Abramovich and Jacob Heringman, making for a multi-national roster.

The album’s first three songs comprise its titular suite, featuring Spanish Golden Age poetry set to music by Jones. It begins with the full quartet in “Al son de los arroyuelos.” As Potter and Friman harmonize over interlocking lutes, it’s clear that a new age of song has begun. The haunting “No dormiá,” for its part, has what Potter calls an “Arvo Pärt-like sparseness” which “defies categorisation of any sort,” and indeed reminiscent of the Estonian composer is its organic evolution from single-note chants to polyphonic blossoming. These give depth to a droning horizon, brushing in trees, mountains, and setting sun. Should it fall under any generic label, let it be: haunting. “So ell encina” finishes the triptych with a relay of understated power between the two singers.

Much of the album is, however, clearly in the tradition of that most famous purveyor of Elizabethan love songs, John Dowland (1563-1626). And while his music is nowhere to be found here (leave that to Potter’s earlier Dowland Project, also well documented on ECM), Dowland looms large, especially in this album’s closer, “Bury me deep in the greenwood,” by Sting. Sting’s 25-year obsession with Dowland led him to take up the lute and to release the Dowland-centered Songs from the Labyrinth on Deutsche Grammophon in 2006. Although “Bury me deep” is commercial in origin, having originally been written for director Ridley Scott’s 2010 reboot Robin Hood, it best captures the spirit of its influences through an exquisite sensitivity of both melody and lyric, being the only of the modern songs herein in which both come from the same pen.

For context we are presented with three specimens by Dowland contemporary Thomas Campion (1567-1620). “Follow thy fair sun” and “The cypress curtain of the night” are both heard in their original versions, and again with new music by Banks. The former glide off the tongue of Friman (what a joy to hear her as a solo artist), whose shaping of imagery is as evocative as the verses themselves. “Oft have I sighed” completes the Campion tour with quintessential languishing. As for Banks’s “Follow” and “Cypress,” they express the balance of self-loathing and -resolution of the original lyrics through soulful composing. The second song, with its lilting changes and Potter’s melodious diction, is especially memorable for its arpeggios (recalling the Prelude of Bach’s first cello suite) and unexpected ending.

Also unexpected are the chord changes of two early 20th-century songs: “Sleep,” with words by John Fletcher (1579-1625) and music by Peter Warlock (1884-1930), and “Oh fair enough are sky and plain” with words by A. E. Housman (1859-1936) and music by E. J. Moeran (1894-1950). Both work seemingly within the Dowland frame, but color outside the lines like the roots of a tree that grows wherever it will. Moeran’s is the most surreal of the album, sprouting leaves in winter and dropping them in spring.

Two versions of “In nomine,” the lone surviving composition of one Picforth, beyond whose 16th-century flourishing hardly anything is known, regale with their circularity and Celtic knot structure. Each is something of a palate cleanser for the ear, a baptism by hearth after the rain along the way.

To the seasoned ear, the distinction between older and newer songs will be rather obvious. This does nothing to undermine the integrity of the project. If anything, it strengthens that integrity, because the goal here is not to disguise itself as the past by way of compositional pantomime, but to own up to the trends of the present while paying respects to what has informed it. Whichever direction it may ultimately choose in the listener’s mind, one can hardly walk away from Amores Pasados without feeling its communal heartbeat. And perhaps this is the album’s truest goal—namely, to invite all who wish to sing, regardless of elitist approval, to enjoy the gift of creation (and creating) together, yielding a unity of voices across all lines drawn.

(To hear samples of Amores Parados, click here.)

András Schiff: Franz Schubert (ECM New Series 2425/26)

Franz Schubert

András Schiff
Franz Schubert

András Schiff piano
Recorded July 2014, Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Production coordination: Guido Gorna
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

While András Schiff has reinforced the worthiness of Bach and Beethoven at the piano over a sprawl of recordings for ECM’s New Series, he has also carved out a hallowed space for the music of Franz Schubert, beginning in 2000 with a recording of the C-major Fantasies and now deepened with this composer-titled collection. In his liner text, “Confessions of a Convert,” Schiff discusses the transition to “authenticity” via historically minded performance, a movement that popularized use of period instruments and, ironically enough, the newness they brought to canonical repertoires. “There is an astonishing wealth of old keyboard instruments hidden in museums, foundations and private collections, many of them in prime condition,” he writes, speaking after his transformation from skepticism to advocacy. “Getting to know them is essential for the student, the scholar, the musician: it is a condition sine qua non. Playing on fortepianos—and on clavichords—should be compulsory for all pianists. Their diversity is amazing.” Even more amazing is the diversity of Schiff’s willingness and ability to adapt to these changing colors, to treat each as having equal value in the keyboard spectrum. For this recording he plays a fortepiano, built by Franz Brodmann in Vienna around 1820, which Schiff has owned since 2010. Attentive listeners will recognize it as the very one employed for the second version of the pianist’s Diabelli traversal, also for ECM. Once again, engineer Stephan Schellmann underscores the intimate life of this instrument.

Schiff

The Sonata Nos. 18 in G major and 21 in B-flat major serve as centerpieces. An overall translucence pervades the first, and the opening movement, marked “Molto moderato e cantabile,” gains purchase by the fortepiano’s immediacy, which ensures that even the greatest leaps never forget where they came from. Schubert’s propensity for quietude is on full display, contrasting fragile highs with muddier lows. And while Schiff’s Brodmann might at first seem better suited to the Andante, it proves itself to be just as capable pulling off the half-tucked rolls of the Minuet. And the concluding Allegretto? Let’s just say that, if the sound, in combination with Schiff’s artful handling of it, hasn’t won you over by this point, then the album just might not be for you.

The Sonata in B-flat major, widely considered to be the pinnacle of Schubert’s writing for piano, feels not so much new as renewed, given access to muscles it might not otherwise exercise on a modern grand. If the G-major Sonata felt at best quasi-Beethovenian, then this one begs a more genuine comparison. From the low trills that interrupt with periodic hints of foreboding in the first movement to the flexion of the final Allegro, there’s more than enough for the comparatist to savor. Nowhere else, with the possible exception of the Four Impromptus (op. 142), is the fortepiano’s potential so evident. The seesawing between minor and major in the Andante and the spirited undercurrents of the Scherzo, and all the subtleties required to make those dynamics felt, come naturally to the instrument, which I daresay adds a boldness all its own by virtue of its focus.

Schiff’s reckoning of the op. 142 proves there’s still much to discover in these robust pieces. Each impromptu has its own charm, but the second, an Allegretto in A-flat major, proves the need for a tactful performer. Schiff balances its understated seeking with immediacy, all the while through his pacing lifting the music beyond an exercise in mere pathos. Some of the most dramatic moments of the album can be found here, barely eking out over the captivations of the Andante that follows it to round out the center.

Even in the shade of these gargantuan sonatas, the popular Moments musicaux hold their ground. In Schiff’s handling, they come across with spontaneity and breadth. Each has its own captivation, but the Andantino in A-flat major is a most remarkable vehicle for the fortepiano’s middle register. By the final movement, these beauties are swimming in fresh disclosures.

Not to be outdone, however, are two chosen miniatures. The Ungarische Melodie (Hungarian Melody) in b minor introduces the program with evocative subtlety, while the Allegretto in c minor, written for the departure of a friend, populates more spacious melodic tenements. Both contain a wealth of emotional pigments. Between the azure flash of a dramatic pause and the rusty ochre of hindsight, not a single piece piece of the puzzle feels out of place.

If this is your first time encountering Schubert’s piano works, it may just become a reference recording. If you come to it with familiarity, especially by way of Schiff’s nine-course feast on Decca, then you will want to keep it for comparison and discovery with all the rest. And to be sure, even putting aside questions of instrument, this recording is by nature historically informed, because it is itself history in the making.

(To hear samples of Franz Schubert, please click here.)

Wolfgang Rihm: ET LUX (ECM New Series 2404)

Et Lux

Wolfgang Rihm
ET LUX

Huelgas Ensemble
Minguet Quartett
Paul Van Nevel director
Recorded February 2014, Augustinus Muziekcentrum, Antwerpen
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Mixed January 2015 in Lugano by Markus Heiland and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

ET LUX is an hour-long composition for vocal ensemble and string quartet (2009) by Wolfgang Rihm that situates fragments of the Latin Requiem Mass in cells of sustained chords and spectral wanderlust. Although originally written with the Hilliard Ensemble and Arditti Quartet in mind, the performance here is in more than capable hands. The Minguet Quartett, approved interpreters of the composer’s string quartets, and the Huelgas Ensemble (which doubles the scored voices to eight) illuminate every fiber of this tapestry like sunlight through a castle window.

For a composer so prolific (with over 400 works to his name), it’s only natural that again Rihm should cast once glance backward for every two forward, ending up suspended somewhere between the poles of question and answer, and proving them to be the event horizons of an arbitrary dichotomy. It is music that neither invites nor rejects, but places the listener (and composer) in a space where choices are the only true materiality. Hence the cellular nature of the piece, in which selective phrases serve as requiems unto themselves.

As Paul Griffiths observes in the album’s liner text, “What we have here is not music remembered but music remembering.” Attribution of such sentience to notes on a page is no metaphorical trick. It speaks, on the surface, to the music’s body of antiquity and clothing of modernity, and beyond that to their entanglement among the bramble of performance and the flourishing of listening. In the manner of Alexander Knaifel, the instruments sing as much as the human voices. This, of course, requires a human touch. Still, the inner life of ET LUX is not provided but enhanced by that touch.

The keyword, in both the writing and the playing, is “tactile,” as if both forces were bound by flesh and spirit alike. The quartet breathes, close to silence yet pregnant with words all the same, bringing its own voices to bear upon the passage of time. Each instrument must treat the space as it is treated: as an element of malformed crystal, whose light exists only for as long as it is uttered to be. The effect is such that, even when punctuating the darkness with spikes of pizzicato flash, harmonies merely disperse and regroup, taking on semblance of something newborn.

An astonishing amount of variety pervades a work so slow-moving yet which bypasses pathos toward the development of deep, if sometimes tense, relationships. Moments approaching beauty are inevitably peeled away from expectation, leaving us to reckon with a more true-to-life distortion of textual fantasy. Instead of treating the Mass as a poem or liturgical given, it retraces shards of it until each is self-reckoning. The mystery of faith becomes a reflection of itself.

As the piece goes on, the dynamic between voices and strings becomes mutually divergent, at once developing inward and outward. A prayerful mode gives way to fire, and further to snowy textures. Pulses emerge, morph, and overlap, but disclose little of their intentions. The clearest answer, then, is in the dark, sublime ending; a movement into new beginning, but in which direction is left open to interpretation.

Keller Quartett: Cantante e tranquillo (ECM New Series 2324)

Cantante e tranquillo

Keller Quartett
Cantante e tranquillo

Keller Quartett
András Keller violin
János Pilz/Zsófia Környei violin
Zoltán Gál viola
Ottó Kertész/Judit Szabó violoncello
Alexei Lubimov piano
Recorded 1995-2012
Casino Zögernitz, Vienna
Stadttheater Eichstätt
Radiostudio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Mastered by Christoph Stickel at MSM Studios, München
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 2 June 2015

Cantante e tranquillo grew out of a conversation between producer Manfred Eicher and violinist András Keller, who envisioned an album of slower sections divorced from longer works. In true ECM fashion, this idea developed into a project all its own, framing previous recordings of Knaifel, Schnittke, Ligeti, and Bach by the renowned Keller Quartett with newly recorded selections from Beethoven’s opuses 130 and 135, and between them shorter pieces by Kurtág. The result is not a compilation but a sculpted entity with shape and sentience.

The concept alone is haunting enough; more so in execution, as ghostly appearances begin to sing once the third movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s F-major quartet (from which the album gets its name) whispers into life. This rustling of the heart, slowed to feverish pathos and drawn as a brush across absorbent paper, embodies a yearning that, over the course of its awakening, resolves into a style of slumber in which the depth of life is surpassed only by that of death. Unlike the Adagio from the quartet in B-flat major, in inhales rather than exhales, holding all it can before expiring.

György Kurtág is known for his ability to pack surprising amounts of information into minute forms, but the Kellers give us examples of pieces that, despite their characteristic brevity, are spacious and expansive. At times parabolic (cf. the Officium breve in memoriam Andreæ Szervánszky), at others misty (Flowers We Are – for Miyako), and at still others pulsing like a geographic lay line (Aus der Ferne V), his music has no need to seek anything because it is starting point and destination all in one. The final movement of György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2, by contrast, sprouts in leaf-like structures that tremble to the rhythms of nervous winds. Unlike Narcissus, its reflection is being constantly disturbed, so that the illusion of a second self never clarifies. By yet further contrast, the stillness implied by “An Autumn Evening” (from Alexander Knaifel’s In Air Clear and Unseen), along with the Moderato pastorale of Alfred Schnittke’s Piano Quintet, breathes with lucidity. The latter’s pianism filters an unrequited dance which, like something out of a Tolstoy novel, twists until it bleeds music.

Anchoring all of this are two selections from one of the Keller Quartett’s finest recordings: Die Kunst der Fuge. Johann Sebastian Bach’s final masterwork is alluded to twice in the program, cycling between gradients of lost and found before ultimately falling in love with exile. A variation of Beethoven’s “Cantante” closes the circle with urgent, pregnant emotion, outlining a keyhole that only shadow can unlock to access the light beyond it.

Listening to this album is like watching the moon rise: if you focus on it long enough, you begin to detect its movement through the sky as if it had a mind of its own. Haunting, yes, but then again this music has no ghost to give up. It has one only to acquire.

(To hear samples of Cantante e tranquillo, click here.)