Mieczysław Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet (ECM New Series 2538/39)

 

Weinberg Chamber Symphonies

Mieczysław Weinberg
Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet

Kremerata Baltica
Gidon Kremer principal violin
Andrei Pushkarev timpani, triangle, percussion
Yulianna Avdeeva piano
Džeraldas Bidva violin
Dainius Puodžiukas violin
Santa Vižine viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Mate Bekavac clarinet
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conductor (Chamber Symphony No. 4)
Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1-3
Recorded live June 13, 2015 at Musikverein Wien
Piano Quintet, Chamber Symphony No. 4
Recorded June 9/10, 2015 at Latvian Radio Studio, Riga
Tonmeister: Vilius Keras, Aleksandra Kerienė
Engineer: Varis Kurmins (Riga)
Mastering by Christoph Stickel, Manfred Eicher at MSM Studio, München
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

Following his first examination of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), violinist Gidon Kremer returns with his eponymous ensemble for another album devoted to the Polish-born Soviet composer. “No other composer has entered my own and Kremerata Baltica’s repertoire with such intensity,” writes Kremer in a liner note for the album, citing the four chamber symphonies recorded here as his finest examples. Despite Weinberg’s penchant for chamber music, if not also because of it, in these pieces one finds heartbreaking intimacy.

The Chamber Symphony No. 3, op. 151 (1990), loosely transcribed from his String Quartet No. 5, opens the program’s descending first half. The string orchestra for which it is scored opens in the mode of Lento with such clarity that it feels like a mirror in which every listener is reflected in high definition. Its tactility of history finds purchase wherever it can, clawing its way slowly into the inner ear, where it nests like a dying bird. Its afterlife is marked Allegro molto, lively yet underlined by melancholy, shifting into a tutti passage of chords that teeters on the brink of decay. The Adagio that follows is Weinberg’s default state of mind, giving itself over to thoughts of fog and shadows. The cello arising from shimmering violins gifts us one of the great solos of modern music. Lastly, the Andantino, a macabre dance interspersed with surprising Baroque textures utters a transfixing farewell.

This piece and its predecessor come from a time when Weinberg was fading into obscurity. Sick and isolated, he could only watch as his friends died or emigrated beyond his reach. Still, works like these continued to be premiered and touch the lives of those fortunate as we to hear them.

Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2 and 1 are further reworkings of string quartets and both supplement new movements in their reiterated forms. The Chamber Symphony No. 2, op. 147 (1987) adds to the orchestral milieu a pounding timpani, and with it a layer of storm. It circles, dances, and flirts with romanticism even as it transcends boundaries with the ease of breathing. The second movement shifts from lacey dance to exuberant outpouring, capped by a solo violin that also figures centrally in the final Andante. The strings are gnarled like tree roots, only some of which are visible aboveground. The Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 145 (1986) closes out the first disc, balancing the Tchaikovsky-esque textures of its first movement with the final Presto’s full-on desperation, treading the edges of collapse between them with a strange mixture of glee and fear. Although no timpani is to be heard, it may just be the most percussive of the symphonies.

The Piano Quintet, op. 18 was composed in 1944, a year into Weinberg’s settlement in Moscow, where he would spend the remainder of his life, following a harrowing escape from the Nazis in 1941. By influence of Shostakovich, it takes a five-movement structure, and is presently arranged for piano, string orchestra and percussion by Andrei Pushkarev and Gidon Kremer. The gentlest of persuasions eases us into its sound-world, brittle enough to snap at the merest hint of impropriety. In the interest of its protection, Kremer and company lend it an evenness that never ruptures, except at choice moments of catharsis. That said, there’s very little in the way of redemption. In its place are the anxieties of its faster movements, which in their headlong rushes of detail reveal many possible outs, none of which are taken until the mighty Largo that follows. Over its 14-minute duration, as much urgency as recall feeds into the final movement. Appropriately designated Allegro agitato, the latter mocks the army of time.

Last is the Chamber Symphony No. 4, op. 153 (1992). Scored for clarinet, triangle and string orchestra, and bearing dedication to composer Boris Chaykovsky as a gesture of reconciliation to their waning friendship, it was to be Weinberg’s final completed work. Its opening Lento is his crowning achievement. Here, as in all subsequent movements, the clarinet flows as if through the prism of a traumatized yet resolute soul. The second movement, a fierce Allegro molto, treats the clarinet as a voice among voices, a representative of its community, vying for attention in the push and shove of a politically overwhelmed life. Again, a cello figures sagaciously at the end, tracing wisdom born of conflict. The Adagio is another patient stroke of genius, drawn like an ink-laden brush until every last drop is elicited. The final Andantino is a ballet without dancers in which microtonal plies are front and center before collapsing into a funereal drone.

If Shostakovich, with whom he was a close friend, can be said to be pathos, then Weinberg is the pathos of that pathos. Kremer’s focus on this music is therefore more than a recovery effort, but a philosophical resurrection. Under his direction, the music leads itself, and in that spirit walks crosswise with regard to every expectation, head bowed and hand dashing across the page before the flesh expires.

András Schiff: Franz Schubert – Sonatas & Impromptus (ECM New Series 2535)

Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus

András Schiff
Franz Schubert: Sonatas & Impromptus

András Schiff fortepiano
Recorded July 2016, Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 12, 2019

“Secretly, I hope to be able to make something of myself, but who can do anything after Beethoven?”

In these words, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) at once shadowed himself against his light of inspiration and added to its fiery glow. But because artists of any type are often their worst bêtes noires, the humble interpreter would better judge his place in history, for while this music exuded from the body of its composer, it infuses every sinew and synapse of its performer. In András Schiff, Schubert finds an amplifier both in and out of time. “Schubert’s music,” notes the Hungarian-born pianist, “is the most human that I know,” and only a musician of such humanity could hold true to that doctrine.

In his own day, Schubert was filed prematurely under “recondite,” and so after the publication of his first two early sonatas he dove headlong into his crowning Winterreise, producing also in that period the Moments musicaux (see ECM New Series 2425/26) and the first Impromptus D 899. The latter were never meant to be concert pieces. “And even if we play them in a large hall today,” Schiff insists, “we have to transform that space into an intimate space.” Schiff does that, and more, in his renderings of these mosaics. From the light-footed highs to the surface-level lows and the heavenly mids between them, Schiff achieves a striking balance and dynamic spread on the Franz Brodmann fortepiano, built in Vienna circa 1820, which makes its recording debut here. In the first impromptu especially, one hears a mind thinking aloud in words that can only be captured in their absence. In place of letters, Schubert writes with feelings—not impressions, but fully formed emotional landscapes. As lines diverge, Schiff handles their individuality with surgical care. In both the second and third impromptus, he carries across a sense of water running through a forest, while in the last enhancing the modesty reflected in the epigraph above.

The Sonata in c minor D 958 was written in 1828, just two months before Schubert’s death. Its Allegro plunges us into a world all its own, crafted as much by shadow as by light. Schiff’s rhythmic sensitivity is righteously attuned and reveals a difference of reiteration rarely matched. The mournful Adagio finds its promise fulfilled by asking for no promise to be fulfilled. Its eternal spiral of questioning and answering becomes a private dialogue for composer and performer alike. A Menuett gives us respite from the weight of darkness, turning to a memory as a rift in the fabric of time that cannot be brought closer no matter how far we reach. The final Allegro, which Schiff calls a “dance of death,” is a mad, desperate rush into turbulent night. At any given moment, it threatens to unchain itself, but manages to hold its integrity, even as it unspools to a thread of its former glory.

The Three Piano Pieces D 946, essentially impromptus by another name, are among Schubert’s most adroit. The first of these, in e-flat minor, appeared at Schiff’s fingers previously on ECM in his Encores After Beethoven, and enthralls even more in the present rendition. This piece has it all: drama and introspection, virtuosity and humility, life and death. The second is an inversion of the first, achieving some of its densest textures in the middle between a head and tail of airy resolution, while the final impromptu jumps through one thematic hoop after another until it sticks its landing perfectly.

Schiff is keen to observe that Schubert, even in his brief life, wrote more than 600 lieder for piano and voice, and that even when writing for solo piano “the human voice and the song are always present.” His magnum opus, the Sonata in A Major D 959, is proof positive of this effect and is alone worth the price of admission. Its gargantuan opening is the science of poetry incarnate. At nearly 16 minutes, it floats two images for each one it sinks, and leaves us tenderized for the lachrymose Andantino that follows. If any single movement can be exhibited as proof of the fortepiano’s capabilities, this would be it. From whispers to thunder, it encompasses the full gamut with breadth of mind, and Schiff understands its mechanical heart as his own. The mood is so intense that the Scherzo opens a portal from one end of life to the other, bleeding into the concluding Rondo as if time itself were a physical substance to be waded through on the way to eternity.

As Misha Donat writes in his liner essay, “In the beauty of his material and the magical effects of elliptical key change…it must be said that Schubert actually surpassed his model.” But perhaps their relationship isn’t so much temporal as spatial, for while Schubert had himself buried close to Beethoven, the two would seem to converse from atop distant mountains even as performers of their music try to hang-glide along the currents between them without falling. And while it’s tempting to imagine what Schubert might have written had he lived beyond the tragic age of 31, that his flame caught hold of its worldly wick for as long as it did should be enough to validate the gift of its light.

Thomas Demenga: J. S. Bach – Suiten für Violoncello (ECM New Series 2530/31)

Demenga Bach

Thomas Demenga
J. S. Bach: Suiten für Violoncello

Thomas Demenga violoncello
Recorded February 2014, Hans Huber-Saal, Basel
Engineer: Laurentius Bonitz
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

The Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, like his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, are touchstones for listeners and performers alike. In the latter sense, Thomas Demenga approaches them through an ECM lens for the second time here. Having first fragmented his traversal between 1986 and 2002 through a series of pairings with contemporary works, thereby suggesting exciting new relationships, here he uncovers intra- rather than interrelationships, moving from fundament to firmament and back again with mind and hands sculpted by experience into something unmissable.

Where some interpretations might seek to add something new, Demenga’s embrace something old, always there but too often crucified on the scoreboard of modernism. Here we encounter a return to form, if not also a form of return, in the deepest interest of music that springs eternal from Creator to creator. Referred to in Thomas Meyer’s liner essay as “every cellist’s gospel,” the Cello Suites do more than encourage rereading; they demand it. Having played these masterpieces for more than 50 years, Demenga understands that no one is ever “done” with them and that we’re all born and expire in its swaddling echoes.

In the First Suite, he carries an antique sensibility from first inhale of Prélude to last exhale of Gigue, working shadows into familiar nooks and crannies as if they constituted a physical substance. That same feeling of breath, more than metaphorical, whispers, rasps, and soliloquizes through the Second Suite’s philosophical journey. Its Prélude liquifies the heart and feeds it to another in a cycle of life that cannot be qualified by any other means than the gut strings and baroque bow with which Demenga has chosen to articulate every stroke. The Courante is strangely beautiful in its jagged denouement, while the Sarabande that follows it speaks with haunting urgency and the concluding Gigue with three-dimensional tactility.

The lithe stirrings of the Third Suite’s Prélude and Allemande form a dyad of such emotional integrity as to occupy a realm all their own. As in the famous Bourrée I & II, he dives inward for pearls of wisdom, unpolished and offered in their own shells, glorious specimens of nature whose perfection communicates in the language of imperfection. Demenga’s trills and glissandi are as surprising as they are organic, and flow of their own volition.

Says Demenga of Bach, “His music is detached from personal feelings and dramas or other events to which many composers give expression in their music. That is why his music is so pure and why it possesses, we might say, something divine.” In interest of that expression, this performance is made all the more solitary for its attention to dance-informed structures. This is especially evident in the program’s second half, which through the prism of the Fourth Suite shines a light striated with as much solemnity as exuberance. From the throaty Prélude unspools a narrative of timeless impulses. In the Allemande and Courante that follow, one can feel the soul of a viola da gamba squeezing through the strings, as if the latter were portals of mastery to which our ears must seem as eyes hungry for vistas beyond the known. And in the footwork of the final Gigue, the press of flesh into soil is vivid and alive.

From that sunlit scene Bach pivots into the twilight of the Fifth Suite. Here the modesty of its inception tangles in moral debate with its fleshly Courante—made all the more carnal for Demenga’s intuitive bowing—before finding solace in the blushing Gigue.

This leaves the Sixth Suite to stand as its own Book of Revelation, a scriptural culmination of all that came before it, a fulfillment of prophesies as old as they are indisputable, and which spread the good news of salvation not through words but actions.

As the opening movements—not least of all in the dizzying Prélude—suggest, we must find our own way into this music not by way of deciphering but in the knowledge of receiving a gift in and of faith. And if the finality of its Gigue is any indication, we must treat farewell as the opening of a deeper relationship with life itself, personified in every tremble of the waiting ear and reciprocated whenever we need to be reminded of purpose.

Dénes Várjon: De la nuit (ECM New Series 2521)

De la nuit.jpg

Dénes Várjon
De la nuit

Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 31, 2018

He searched under the bed, around the fireplace,
in the chest: but he found no one.
And he could not understand how the spirit had crept in—
and how he had escaped again.
–E.T.A. Hoffmann, Night Pieces

Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, who last regaled ECM listeners on 2012’s Precipitando, returns with another program of three culturally disparate composers united by the immaterial. Although the blood running through the veins of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) may be genetically dissimilar, in each we find arbitrations of music that, according to the booklet essay by Jürg Stenzl, “far transcended the confines of their time.” The untethered quality of these compositions, each chosen with utmost attention to detail, by virtue of their literary angles interlock in organic conversation. And in rendering them, ECM has found an unparalleled interpreter.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op. 12 of 1837 are comprised of transfixing poetry. In these “character pieces,” linked explicitly to the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul, Schumann eschews sonata form in favor of an emotional mosaic that abides by its own logic. Its foundations support a lighthouse for listeners lost at sea. From the dramatic (Aufschwung and In der Nacht) and tenderly inquisitive (Warum?) to the mythic (Fabel) and dreamlike (Traumes Wirren), Schumann shines his light through one incredible prism after another until, coming to rest after the robust Ende vom Lied, Várjon, too, breathes the sigh of a journeyman closing his eyes with success.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (1908), inspired by a prose-poetry collection of the same name by Aloysius Bertrand, spins those latter impulses into a web of vivid imagery. The lambent Ondine evokes the water sprite of the same name, whose attempts at seduction follow fountain-like trajectories before rejection sends her reeling into the background. Le Gibet (Gallows) is meant to illustrate the body of a hanged man. Morbid yet beautiful, its suspensions take on new meaning. Scarbo returns to folklore in its depiction of the eponymous dwarf, said to haunt nightmares. The sensation of running desperately through a forest of which every tree is a hand tearing at our clothes makes this one of the most astonishing renditions I’ve ever heard of this piece.

The title of Bartók’sSzabadban(1926) means “Out of Doors,” and provides respite in the pastoral truths of its canvas. Some of its many influences include folk songs in the darkly percussive first movement and the harpsichord music of Couperin in the third. Throughout, a sense of comfort is always one step removed, locked in step with the march of a history that has all but left these jewels behind. Like the final movement, each scene is totally committed to its own unfolding, until we’re ready to work it back into shape as a promise to return.

Till Fellner: In Concert – Beethoven/Liszt (ECM New Series 2511)

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Till Fellner
In Concert: Beethoven/Liszt

Till Fellner piano
Années de pèlerinage
Concert recording, June 2002
Wien, Musikverein, Großer Saal
Tonmeister: Gottfried Zawichowski
Engineer: Andreas Karlberger
An ORF Recording (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Österreich 1)
Sonata No. 32
Concert recording, October 2010
Middlebury College Performing Arts Series
Mahaney Center for the Arts, Robison Hall
Tonmeister: Mark Christensen
Mastering: Markus Heiland
An ECM Production
Release date: November 2, 2018

But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?
–Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

After a mosaic of recordings spanning the gamut from J. S. Bach to Thomas Larcher, Till Fellner returns to ECM with a pastiche of live recordings from 2002 and 2010. The first presents the Austrian pianist in his home capital for year one of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Inspired by the composer’s trip to Switzerland from 1835 to 1836 but unpublished until 1855, this aural scrapbook is alive with alpine imagery and motifs, encompassing firsthand memories, friendships, and even political views. It’s on the latter note that the collection begins with La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. This stately introduction to an otherwise flowing work sets a precedent of architectural soundness that infuses all to follow. Contrast this with the watery beauties of Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d’une source, and you already have a sense of the variety to which Liszt had eloquent access, rendered by Fellner with dynamic temperament.

While many sections, such as the sunlit Pastorale and Eglogue (the latter riffing on a shepherd’s song), are built around fleeting impressions, each nevertheless feels complete. This may be due to the fact nearly all of the music is revised from earlier material, an exception being the tempestuous Orage. No matter the duration, emotional integrity is the primary ingredient, so that the descriptions of Vallée d’Obermann’s thirteen precious minutes feel just as thick as Le mal du pays. Both seem to find the composer yearning for home when away from it, if not also for distant travels when in it, lending themselves to a score that only serves to nourish Fellner’s radiance. All the above shades of meaning cohere in Les cloches de Genève, by which the pianist elicits rich yet subtle sonorities.

If Liszt is a photographer, then Ludwig van Beethoven is a filmmaker whose magnum opus is surely the Sonata No. 32 in c minor. His Opus 111 shares its key signature with the Fifth Symphony and other monumental works, and provides a fitting end to his sonata cycle. As suggested in William Kinderman’s deeply considered liner essay, “The pair of movements of this sonata interact as a contrasting duality suggesting strife and fulfillment, evoking qualities which have stimulated much discussion, reminding commentators of the ‘here’ and the ‘beyond,’ or ‘samsara’ and ‘nirvana.’” Such spiritual language is no mere hyperbole, but an activation point of Beethoven’s grander concerns over the effects of art on the soul. As The Art of Fugue was to Bach, so is the Sonata No. 32 to Beethoven with regard to variation.

To be sure, Fellner touches upon those grander narratives, but more importantly keeps his ears attuned to the details. In the opening movement, for example, his arpeggios feel like quills on paper. Balancing stream-of-consciousness impulses with deeply articulated control, he links an unbreakable chain of progression. The second and final movement begins almost timidly, as if sifting through old notes for fear of what one might find, only to be surprised by a joy one never knew was waiting for rediscovery. Urgency compels the left hand while trills in the right signal a transformation of flesh into glory. “The transformational power of this closing music,” says Kinderman, “acts like a utopian symbol, which seeks to neutralize if not dispel the tragic reality embodied in the weighty opening movement of the work.” And perhaps weight is the most appropriate physical property by which to analyze what’s happening here, for regardless of size and scope, the relationship of every note to gravity is meticulously examined, its potential for flight believed in like a prayer.

Yuuko Shiokawa/András Schiff: Bach/Busoni/Beethoven (ECM New Series 2510)

Bach Busoni Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa
András Schiff
Bach/Busoni/Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa violin
András Schiff piano
Recorded December 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

Seventeen years separate the first appearance of Yuuko Shiokawa and pianist András Schiff on ECM’s New Series and this long-awaited follow-up. Here they bring their intimate knowledge and experience to bear on sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Through its sequence and execution, the program reveals as much richness of ideas within the pieces as between them.

Shiokawa Schiff
(Photo credit: Barbara Klemm)

Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1016, dating to his 1717-23 tenure as Kapellmeister at Köthen, is emblematic of a then-nascent genre, and finds both composer and interpreters ordering lines of many shapes and sizes. Schiff’s role at the keyboard is a challenging one, each hand operating independently yet with deep awareness of the other, while Shiokawa must paint with an actorly brush from first note to last. The vulnerability she brings to the opening Adagio is but one example of her ability to take something so lilting, so fragile, and render it impervious to the trampling feet of time. From there she takes us on a journey of inward focus, and by an interactive cartography traces bubbling streams to destinations of delight.

Although Busoni was more steeped in Bach than perhaps any composer before or since, one would be hard-pressed to find Baroque affinity in the first movement of his Sonata No. 2 in e minor, Op. 36a. Towering over a decidedly Beethovenian landscape, it leans toward and away from its historical precedents with fervor. Whereas single movements in the Bach were facets of a larger mosaic, each of Busoni’s sections is a sonata unto itself. The gargantuan final movement, however, is a theme and variations on the Bach chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seelen, wenn ich in deiner Liebe ruh,” as it appears in wife Anna Magdalena’s Clavier-Büchlein of 1725. Busoni’s 17-minute exegesis goes from funereal to exuberant and back again. Between those worthy bookends stand two slim, insightful volumes. Where the Presto is playful yet adhesive, the somber Andante treads over shifting terrain.

In light of these fantastic excursions, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major comes across as non-fiction. As the composer’s last violin sonata, it holds a status all its own, and its details are organically suited to the duo. Where the trills and harmonies of its Allegro yield an enchanting ripple effect, the Adagio holds us suspended as if in need of nothing more than a confirmation of breath. A brief Scherzo scales the highest peak before trekking down into an Allegretto with a joy given life through musicians who care genuinely for everything they touch. It’s therefore difficult to listen to this recording without reminding oneself that Shiokawa and Schiff are partners in both music and life. Not only because they play so lovingly, but also because they listen to each other with rapt attention, inspiring nothing short of the same.

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)

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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.

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.