Thomas Zehetmair: Sei Solo (ECM New Series 2551/52)

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Thomas Zehetmair
Sei Solo

Thomas Zehetmair Baroque violin
Recorded August 2016, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Hannelore Guittet
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 15, 2019

The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo, inked by Johann Sebastian Bach under the trim title of Sei Solo (pseudo-Italian for “Six Solos”), are often lumped among his “secular” instrumental works, albeit as the crowning achievement of their kind. Yet they are every bit as spiritual as his cantatas and just as glorious in their ability to activate metaphysical particles in the listener. That said, they are more than illustratively hagiographic, for they are their own acts of transcendence.

We know little of the genesis of the Sei Solo, though Bach was accomplished enough as a violinist that he would have possessed requisite understanding of the instrument’s inner life to write them. And where some violinists—wittingly or not—take to obscuring the bodywork required of the interpreter, Thomas Zehetmair broke new ground in this regard with his recording for Telefunken in 1983. Said recording came to me by way of Teldec’s 1992 reissue (which I purchased on CD after wearing out my vinyl copy) and has been my benchmark ever since. Only later, once I saw that Zehetmair was being featured on an increasing number of ECM productions, including accounts of the solo works of Eugène Ysaÿe and Niccolò Paganini, and especially in light of ECM’s other takes on the Sei Solo by John Holloway and Gidon Kremer, I hoped he might one day think to revisit Bach’s masterworks. Imagine my elation when I saw the press release for this recording in my inbox. It was eminently worth the wait.

Now playing on period instruments that, by sheer coincidence, date from Bach’s birth and death years of 1685 and 1750 (along with two bows from around 1720) and recording in the priory of St. Gerold, a location known well by ECM aficionados as a favorite of the Hilliard Ensemble, Zehetmair brings more than thirty years of bonus experience to these personal interpretations.

Zehetmair’s use of gut strings, combined with the immediacy of playing without a shoulder rest, is palpable. As before, he eschews demonstrative pitfalls, lets endings exhale, and understands the architecture inherent to each movement, but this time brings the wisdom of life itself to bear on music that is, too, life itself. His ornamentation has grown in both detail and control—drawing from within rather than adding from without—and emphasizes the importance of reflective surfaces to give light meaning.

The Sonata No. 1 in G minor moves across his strings with the grandest of gestures, as if in that very sweep he describes the fullness of an entire village with all the histories, triumphs, and tragedies it has seen. Standing in the center of that village is a church where Bach himself can be seen praying for a world that is increasingly turning its ears away from the beauty it was designed to preserve. The initial effect is so inwardly focused that when extroversions like the Allegro emerge, they do so with light in their grasp. Zehetmair’s pacing is as magnificent as it is organic, swimming with the currents of time as a fish fearing neither hook nor net. His dynamics are also noteworthy, holding back with artful righteousness. Even in the briefer Siciliana, he ensures that every note has its say among a congregation of voices lifted high. Even the urgency conveyed in the final Presto is tempered by faith. Its balance of legato and rhythmic scraping is crepuscular.

The Allemanda that opens the Partita No. 1 in B minor is one of the most heroic passages of the entire collection (and, incidentally, where Zehetmair began the first recording). It is rendered here like an erratic brush painting. In moving through its narrative, cycling back to its repeat mark as if to confirm a memory before leaving it behind, Zehetmair allows previously glossed-over double stops to resonate a touch longer, speaking in a voice that can only resonate through hair and string. He plays the Double with such grace as to be its own hymn; the Corrente likewise. The Sarabande and its own double are hauntingly exquisite, as is the Tempo di Borea, which dances its way through the heart as if it were a springboard into doctrinal truth.

As Stanley Ritchie writes in his book on interpretations of the Sei Solo: “There is no such thing as ‘unaccompanied’ Bach.” This statement, I imagine, refers not only to the fact that the violinist must have an intuitive command of multiple strings and arpeggios (the connections of which bleed richly into one another in St. Gerold’s acoustics), but also to the music’s own self-referentiality. The Grave that begins the Sonata No. 2 in A minor, for instance, is certainly a ghost of the Allemanda that began the preceding Partita, and sets up the Fuga as if it were a closing statement from a pulpit. But then the tenderness of the Andante weaves its threads like a shroud for a glorified body and prepares to receive the sacrament of the final Allegro. Played at an initially conservative tempo, it escalates—as the flesh is wont to do—in abandonment of a rhythmic ideal, shifting from one phase to the next as if each were born of its own tempo.

The Allemanda of the Partita No. 2 in D minor breaks the chain of its cousins and forms a more rounded and contemplative sonic sculpture. Jumping over to the Giga, we encounter another wonder of the arpeggio in its ability to converse with itself. All of which brings us to the mighty Ciaccona. Despite taking on a life of its own as a self-contained performance piece, it is best heard in context. Zehetmair’s bowing comes across with sentience, as if compelled to communicate by something far more powerful than words: namely, melody. So, too, must we read carefully the Adagio opening the Sonata No. 3 in C major that follows as a continuation of that restless fatigue, and the organ-like Fuga that follows it as the beginning of a revival taken to fullness of joy in the concluding Allegro assai. What the exuberant Preludio of the Partita No. 3 in E major lacks in duration it makes up for in Zehetmair’s purity of interpretation. His mixture of the royal and the rustic is uniquely his own, as is true also of the Gavotte. And because the two Menuets feel like such snapshots out of time, the final Bourrée and Gigue are surely recreations of the past.

For me, at least, the bar has been set even higher by the one who placed it there to begin with. In so doing, Zehetmair has left us with a document unlike any other. The transformation he has undergone in a matter of decades—the same to which we are granted access over the span of two CDs—puts me in mind of Verses 1-7 from Psalm 102:

Hear my prayer, O LORD, and let my cry come unto thee. Hide not thy face from me in the day when I am in trouble; incline thine ear unto me: in the day when I call answer me speedily. For my days are consumed like smoke, and my bones are burned as an hearth. My heart is smitten, and withered like grass; so that I forget to eat my bread. By reason of the voice of my groaning my bones cleave to my skin. I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone upon the house top.

So, too, does the lone instrument gaze upon the world from its vantage point, waiting for grace to show itself. But one also knows that goodness is never far behind wherever evil treads, and that divine protection is ours for the taking because it is offered freely against enemies whose melodies reign dissonant and unsweet. Bach gives one such set of armor, and here it has been tempered to mirror shine.

Cyrillus Kreek: The Suspended Harp of Babel (ECM New Series 2620)

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Cyrillus Kreek
The Suspended Harp of Babel

Vox Clamantis
Jaan-Eik Tulve conductor
Marco Ambrosini, Angela Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Anna-Liisa Eller kannel
Recorded April 2018, Transfiguration Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Margo Kõlar
Recording supervision: Helena Tulve
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 8, 2020

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
Psalm 137:1-4

Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) is the latest member to be welcomed into ECM’s congregation of Estonian composers, and on this album we encounter a program of his choral music. Though a teacher by trade, Kreek spent decades transcribing nearly 1300 folk songs, three quarters of which he arranged for choir. These settings comprised a choral touchstone in Estonia and inspired such composers as Veljo Tormis and Tõnu Kõrvits in their own creative pursuits. Interpreted by Vox Clamantis and guided by director Jaan-Eik Tulve, these pieces constitute a worthy introduction for listeners outside Estonia to a composer who dedicated his life to the revitalization of local cultures. Joining these voices are Marco and Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa) and Anna-Liisa Eller (kannel), whose preludes, postludes, and intertextual commentaries render just enough connective tissue to channel our attention into the meaning of every word we hear.

The tender clarity of Kreek’s style lends itself authentically to the album’s many folk hymns, thus establishing a sacred baseline for all else that surrounds. Structures vary from the dancelike Mu süda, ärka üles (Awake, my heart) to the supplicating Kui suur on meie vaesus (Whilst great is our poverty), from the flowing Kes Jumalat nii laseb teha (He, who lets God prevail) to the prophetic Ma tulen taevast ülevelt (From heaven above to earth I come), in which the nyckelharpa shines through verses like the light of Bethlehem’s star. To my ears, however, the most powerful of these is Jakobi unenägu (Jacob’s dream), an Estonian runic song from Kanepi parish that moves through visions of crucifixion and lamentations of persecution by way of two solo voices: one singing, the other chanting in prayer. Such division mirrors the battle of flesh and spirit that every believer knows all too well. It also transitions into the Psalmnody of Kreek’s Õhtune jumalateenistus (Orthodox Vespers), from which two blessings are offered. His combined treatments of Psalms 135 and 136 show both his ability to restructure texts with humility of consideration and to compose by inspiration.

Beyond the Vespers, other Psalms emanate from his scores with supernatural purpose. The album’s title can be pieced together between the lilting hallelujahs of Paabeli jõgede kaldail (By the rivers of Babylon), thus hinting at God’s infinite nature through its picturing of the ephemeral. Another wonder to be cherished herein is Issand, ma hüüan Su poole (Lord, I cry unto Thee), a deep dive into Psalm 141 that enhances the folly of David’s doubting heart. As through the ache of Kiida, mu hing, Issandat (Bless the Lord, my soul) and the women’s voices of Päeval ei pea päikene (The sun shall not smite thee), images are born with an apparent age: a universe without precedent destined to prove the existence of eternity.

After the lively yet reflective Viimane tants (The last dance) from the Ambrosinis, we end with another Estonian hymn, Oh Jeesus, sinu valu (O Jesus, Thy pain), along with the song Dame, vostre doulz viaire by Guillaume de Machaut of 14th-century France. While the latter may seem an unexpected suffix in theory, in practice it is seamless. Moving backward, as if to remind us that time has neither beginning nor end, it pictures death, burial, and resurrection by the most fundamental element of them all: breath.

Konstantia Gourzi: Music for piano and string quartet (ECM New Series 2309)

Gourzi

Konstantia Gourzi
Music for piano and string quartet

Lorenda Ramou piano
Ensemble Coriolis
Heather Cottrell
violin
Susanne Pietsch violin
Klaus-Peter Werani viola
Hanno Simons violoncello
Recorded July 2012, Himmelfahrtskirche, Munich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 10, 2014

Greek composer Konstantia Gourzi’s approach to time plus ECM’s approach to space equals the most whole of sonic numbers. Said whole consists of intimate minutiae, each the corner of a photograph otherwise hidden by the downturned palm of history. The transubstantiation of Eine kleine Geschichte, op. 25 (2005) for solo piano epitomizes this feeling of obscurity. Notes fall neither like rain nor like teardrops, but more like a maple copter in slow motion, yearning for the touch of soil. After such a liminal experience, the opening proclamation of the String Quartet No. 2, op. 33/2 (2007) indeed feels like a bear hug of gravity. Titled P-ILION, neun fragmente einer ewigkeit (the latter meaning “nine fragments of eternity”), it is a fitting description of the molecules that inform Gourzi’s atmospheres. A powerful river in which to drop one’s ears like stones, its currents teem with reminiscences and fantasies alike. Whether groveling in a heavenly day or dancing in a pagan night, the sheer breadth of evocation herein is staggering. As the cloth of familiarity frays at the shards of stories yet to be told, this piece elicits a lyricism so deep that it can only end where it began. Moods are darker in the String Quartet No. 1, op. 19 (2004). Bearing the title Israel, it begins with the mortal urgency of Henryk Górecki and the playfulness of Claude Debussy before morphing into a lone voice, orphaned but for its spiritual genealogies traceable back to Abraham’s near-sacrifice.

The program gives us a cross-section of Gourzi’s writing for piano. From the seven miniatures that make up „noch fürcht’ ich”, op. 8 (1993), an early opus that is her first for the instrument alone, to the similarly aphoristic Klavierstücke I-V, op.24 (2004) and the eclectic Aiolos Wind, op. 41 (2010), we encounter jazz, folklore, and hypermodern cartographies. The moment we find something to hold on to, it slips away and offers a substitute made of an entirely different material. When piano and string quartet combine in Vibrato 1, op. 38 (2009/10) and Vibrato 2, op. 38 (2010), Gourzi creates the soundtrack to a tracking shot, one footstep at a time.

I cannot fathom how this album slipped past my radar for so long. Though of only recent discovery, it has already earned a top spot among my favorite New Series discs. And while these compositions may sit comfortably beside those of György Kurtág and Helmut Lachenmann, there’s something distinct about Gourzi that is to be found not in her last name but in her first. Konstantia, which means “steadfastness,” is precisely the quality of which her music is possessed, moving ever forward as a way of polishing us like mirrors held up to the past.

Jan Garbarek/The Hilliard Ensemble: Remember me, my dear (ECM New Series 2625)

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Jan Garbarek
The Hilliard Ensemble
Remember me, my dear

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James
countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Concert recording, October 2014
Chiesa della Collegiata dei SS. Pietro e Stefano,
Bellinzona (Switzerland)
In the series “Tra jazz e nuove musiche”
by Paolo Keller for RSI Rete Due
Tonmeister: Michael Rast
Engineer: Lara Persia
Mixed at Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
by Manfred Eicher and Michael Rast
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 18, 2019

When the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist Jan Garbarek first recorded for ECM in 1993, they opened as many—if not more—forces than they joined. It was a collaboration not only between each other, but also between them and engineer Peter Laenger, the Austrian monastery of St. Gerold, and producer Manfred Eicher, whose vision was so attuned to the possibility of it all that he would seem to have heard it in his head before those five breaths intertwined in reality. Twenty-five years after the release of their self-titled debut, the Officium project resurfaces with this document of their final performance in 2014.

The roots of this program’s oldest branches may be traced to the soil of past albums. In the opening “Ov zarmanali,” a hymn of Christ’s baptism by Komitas that was likewise our doorway into Officium Novum, Garbarek’s keening soprano is unmistakable in shape and color. In this setting he plays with the decay of notes, sharing more with sitar virtuosos than other reed players and taking into account every incidental effect as physical material for expression. It is the Hilliards, then, who enter into his delineation—not the other way around—and who plow a field just as ancient in preparation of a hybrid crop unlike any other. This progression is reversed in “Procurans odium,” one among a handful of anonymous medieval pieces that finds its seeds, split with time, restored in the nourishment of resuscitation. Garbarek’s role is nevertheless fully dimensional, drawing out from within rather than applying from without. Other unattributable turns, such as the wondrously ambient “Procedentum sponsum” and more lilting “Dostoino est,” speak to the power of memory. And in the “Sanctus,” not heard since their debut, we find a folding inward rather than expansion of concept.

Beyond the category of performer, Garbarek’s contributions fall under composer and arranger, finding solace all the same in this sanctuary. In the latter vein is “Allting finns,” wherein his exploratory nature is particularly evident, as one can feel Garbarek roaming the church in search of stone and warmth, while his setting of the Passamaquoddy poem “We are the stars” draws an unbreakable thread from one corner of the earth to another, likewise itinerant in spirit.

From the liturgical, as in the light-through-stained-glass effect of Nikolai N. Kedrov’s “Litany,” to the repentant shading of Guillaume le Rouge’s “Se je fayz deuil” (gazing back to Mnemosyne), the vocal nature of Garbarek’s saxophone and the reed-like qualities of the Hilliards have perhaps never been so dimensionally interchangeable. For even when the saxophone is absent, as in a most intimate rendition of Arvo Pärt’s “Most Holy Mother of God,” its soul lingers—a dream upon waking. The effect is such that, even when turning the brittle pages of more familiar material, like the “Alleluia nativitas” of Pérotin or the “O ignis spiritus” of Hildegard von Bingen, we are welcomed in the spirit of newness. And so, in the 16th-century Scottish folk song we find more than a title, but a poignant reminder that our minds are at once the tenderest and most robust vessels for honoring the past. For how can we not remember the impact this quintet has made on modern music, and the love with which listeners will continue to fill its crater for ages to come?

Lusine Grigoryan: Komitas – Seven Songs (ECM New Series 2514)

Seven Songs

Lusine Grigoryan
Komitas: Piano Compositions

Lusine Grigoryan piano
Recorded February 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

Armenian pianist Lusine Grigoryan makes her ECM debut with a program of music by her homeland’s most respected composer: Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935). Seven Songs is a companion to the Gurdjieff Ensemble’s Komitas, led by her husband Levon Eskenian, and was recorded during the same 2015 sessions. Where that previously issued album expanded upon the sonorities of Komitas’s piano music, here we encounter said sonorities nakedly. In each are shades of traditional instruments and dances, motifs regarded beyond time yet grounded in the familiar by their immediacy of offering.

Komitas was intensely interested in Armenian folk music, which he collected, studied, and arranged throughout his life. If not for the efforts of Grigoryan and likeminded artists, his music might remain sequestered in Armenia without ever transcending its borders. As Paul Griffiths writes in his booklet essay, “His is a torn page waiting to be sewn back into music history.” The eponymous heptad of 1911 is a veritable notebook of ideas, each the memory of a fleeting moment, dutifully bound at Grigoryan’s fingertips. Like an ancient soul seeking solace in modern sprawl, where physical contact—once the glue of the human volume—has now dissolved in a landscape of storm-blown leaves. Komitas-via-Grigoryan’s interpretations of innocence and sin, perfection and corruption, death and life are all here for us to examine. Their happiest moments, such as the last (titled “The water comes from the mountaintop”), are also its briefest, and speak of the honesty with which Komitas viewed the world around him. The latter’s geological inevitability is, like the music itself, indicative of his earthly pilgrimage and points to a perennial theme of landscape echoed in the painterly Toghik from 1915 and even in the twelve Pieces for Children (1910-15). Nowhere so vividly, however, as in Msho Shoror. Inspired by the mountainous region of Sasun, its rocky qualities indeed require deft footwork—or, in this case, handwork—to navigate. The shoror, or “sway dance,” is a navigation unto itself, every step woven into what the composer called an “ancestral” experience. Whether vigorous or reflective, each of its seven variations is spiritual in nature, reflecting upon the relationship between flesh and fate, and the connective tissue of experience between them.

The Seven Dances further nuance this sense of bodies in space and time. Komitas calls upon the performer to evoke timbral qualities of particular instruments, such as the daf and duduk. Grigoryan renders these with intimate attention to detail, deeply aware of the flow within them. The second of these dances, of Yerevan extraction, is a standout for its delicate pointillism. Likewise the fifth of Vagharshapat. Heard against the somber reflection of the final shoror, they remind us that vigor means nothing without the stillness awaiting its exhaustion.

Because this music feels at once so near and so distant, I conducted an email interview with Grigoryan, who kindly offered her own reflections…

Tyran Grillo: Can you tell me, in your own words, what Komitas means both to you and to Armenians in general?

Lusine Grigoryan: For me, Komitas is first and foremost a marvelous composer. His compositions are extremely valuable and give pianists the opportunity to discover and express their performing peculiarities. This music forces you to think, endlessly: its character can change from one bar to the next. In addition, it requires you to evoke Armenian traditional instruments through the piano. Komitas helps the performer with his meticulous indications (the approach of Baroque music to folk imagery has been a big help in this regard). For me, and for the Armenian people, Komitas is the founder of our national music. He preserved and defined what Armenian music is, setting the foundation for our approach to composition. The reflection of sacred music in his piano repertoire is more obvious in “Msho Shoror” (Shoror  of Mush), a dance in which 300 pilgrims would take part at the Monastery of Saint Karapet in Mush. In the first part, the zurna and the drum would sound the call and gather the dancers, then a large circle would be formed and the prayer would start. This is a significant part of the cycle and has motifs that have been passed down orally for generations, going back to pagan times, as expressed in the leitmotif of the sun in Komitas’s “Pieces for Children.” We come across this theme also in our church hymns and in Armenian national music more broadly.

TG: I believe the music of Komitas has a uniquely timeless quality. Do you agree? If so, where do you think that quality comes from?

LG: Yes, Komitas’s music truly has a timeless quality to it. Listeners are frequently confused and think he is a contemporary composer. I believe this has to do with his minimal approach, his ornaments and motifs, all of which have their origin in folk music. It is also a manifestation of how powerful Komitas’s thinking as a composer is, of how he is able to transport a simple song to a classical instrument—the piano—while preserving its genuine rustic condition.

TG: How did you prepare yourself for this recording?

LG: The recording was done in parallel to that of the Komitas CD recorded for ECM by the Gurdjieff Ensemble. I sometimes would take part in their rehearsals and practice sessions. I would listen to how national instruments resounded and search for ways to achieve those sounds through the piano, because Komitas often indicates “in the style of tar,” “in the style of dap,” “in the style of nay,” and so on. Despite being an ethnic Armenian, what I had pictured as the performance style of these instruments was not always accurate. So taking part in the rehearsal and practice sessions of the ensemble was very informative. As a matter of fact, it was Manfred Eicher who advised me to do this and he who insisted that the recordings be carried out in tandem.

TG: How much do you know about Komitas as a person, and does your knowledge of his social and spiritual beliefs help inform the way you play his music?   

LG: Komitas was a very down-to-earth, straightforward man with an immediate and uncomplicated personality, but at the same time deep and sensible; much like his music. He gave a lot of thought to these pieces before writing them down. He worked on them extensively, often producing many versions of the same piece. The more I play his music, the more I discover.

TG: If you could ask Komitas one question, what would it be?

LG: I would be reluctant to ask a question. But I know that he had a clear view of the Armenian school of composing, that he had started to work on his opera Anush, was composing string quartets, and thinking about the symphonic genre. But because his creative life was cut short, he wasn’t able to bring these projects to fruition. I would love to know: Had he had the time to lay the foundations, what direction would our composers have taken? Armenian composers have tended to write more in the European mode, using folk themes only occasionally. Maybe in Tigran Mansurian’s music we can find can find something more attuned to that cultural spirit. I am very much interested in this question.

Komitas

Heinz Holliger/György Kurtág Zwiegespräche (ECM New Series 2665)

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Heinz Holliger
György Kurtág
Zwiegespräche

Heinz Holliger oboe, English horn, piano
Marie-Lise Schüpbach English horn, oboe
Sarah Wegener soprano
Enresto Molinari bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Philippe Jaccottet recitation
Recorded June 2018, Radiostudio DRS Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Philippe Jaccottet was recorded August 2017
in Grignan by Nicolas Baillard, Studios La Buissonne
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.
–Philippe Jaccottet

If it comes as no surprise that Heinz Holliger and György Kurtág, perennial names in the ECM New Series roster, studied composition under Sándor Veress (cf. ECM 1555), then neither should the inevitability of blending their artistry in one of the most seamless programs to grace the imprint in recent years. Holliger, for his part, found a kindred spirit in Kurtág from day one: “Every note he writes is essential; there is never an idea of small talk…of wanting to please somebody or an audience.” The overarching title Zwiegespräche (“dialogues”) accurately describes the music. For indeed, when their works are placed side by side, a distinctly conversational rapport grows. These dialogues, however, extend beyond the composers themselves and into realms of texts, other musicians, and spaces of interpretation, so that in the listener’s walk from one end to the other, it becomes difficult to tell where Holliger’s terrains end and Kurtág’s begin.

If both are melodic composers, a memorial heart distinguishes a significant portion of Kurtág’s output. Most poignant in that regard is his …Ein Brief aus der Ferne an Ursula (2014) for oboe solo. Written just days before the death of Holliger’s wife Ursula (see, e.g., Lieder ohne Worte), it’s a loving tribute that wants to dance but instead curls into itself. The follow-up …für Heinz… (2014) is scored for piano, left hand, thus symbolizing Ursula’s absence. Its dissonances rest in brief catharsis.

A brighter pairing finds itself represented in both composers’ settings of the same text by 17th-century mystic and poet Angelus Silesius. Dating from 2010, they feature soprano in the leading role. Where Holliger adds oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet, Kurtág pairs the voice with English horn only. Holliger’s version was written while in hospital, where he challenged himself to write a madrigal each day during his recovery. Kurtág’s likewise pulls on inner filaments of mortality.

A standout of the album is Holliger’s Berceuse pour M. (2015), performed on English horn by his pupil Marie-Lise Schüpbach. Like her teacher, Schüpbach displays immaculate breath control and a balance of light and shadow. Holliger’s interpretations of seven poems by Philippe Jaccottet are equally moving. Each is read by the poet himself, and the words, written beneath corresponding notes in the score, are matched by oboe and English horn in extractions of hidden messages. The piercing altissimo of “Dans l’étendue…” and vocal inflections of “Je marche…” are especially visceral. Even the programmatic touches of “Oiseaux” feel more than reactive: they are cocreators in an extra-linguistic process.

Back in Kurtág’s world, a sequence of dedicatory aphorisms unfurls. Of these, the most naked are those written for contrabass clarinet solo. Schatten makes delicate use of key clicks and barest breath, and Kroó György in memoriam, written for radio editor and music critic György Kroó, rarely transcends a whisper. At more than six minutes, the latter feels like a novel compared to the short stories that surround it. The Hommage à Elliott Carter (for English horn and contrabass clarinet) and In Nomine – all-ongherese (Damjanich emlékkö) for English horn solo are vibrantly noteworthy as well.

Holliger finishes with his solo oboe Sonate. Composed in 1956/57 and revised in 1999, it is recorded for the first time here, after 63 years of sitting on paper since he penned it for Veress’s composition class. In it we can hear Veress’s influence on the younger composer, if not also Holliger’s on the older. From the leaping Präludium to the virtuosic Finale, ponderance of nature outweighs the nature of ponderance, leaving us with nothing short of a masterpiece.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity (ECM New Series 2612)

 

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Anna Gourari
Elusive Affinity

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded January 2018, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Water equals time and provides beauty with its double.
Part water, we serve beauty in the same fashion.
–Joseph Brodsky

In the wake of Anna Gourari’s first two ECM New Series recitals, the Russian pianist steps more deeply than ever before into dreamlike repertoire. That said, there’s actually very little in the way of fantasy in the present disc, reconfiguring as it does experiential fragments into an anagram of reality. The album begins and ends with arrangements by Johann Sebastian Bach of slow movements from concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello, respectively. Both are skeletal at first but soon burgeon into a tangle of nerves, veins, and tendons. As fundaments of an ever-growing monument, through whose windows shines a future sun, they send out their pulse as a signal to the unborn. And as a plush interior takes shape, hands lay themselves down as if to sleep and never wake, holding on to melody as a tether to this world before moving on to the next. Elusive, perhaps, but also infinite.

Between these walls, furniture reveals itself to be the seat of our listening. The most prominent sectional is Alfred Schnittke’s Five Aphorisms (1990), which in its cerebral upholstery offers respite for the weary self. Like a tour of a stroke-ridden mind, it holds fast to memories even as it struggles to lasso the words to articulate them. All we emerge with instead is a series of notes, chords, and mosaic rhythms. The central Lento carries its dissonant flesh up a staircase from which gestures leap ahead of the body they describe before finding in the final Grave a double meaning of mood and physical location.

In the shadow of this tower, Giya Kancheli’s Piano piece No. 15 (his theme from Robert Sturua’s adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht) dances like a child without a future, just as his Piano piece No. 23 (theme from Sergei Bodrov’s 2002 film Bear’s Kiss) gilds the frame of recall with harmonious alloy. In kindred spirit, Arvo Pärt’s Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977) finds Gourari aligning her emotional y-axis with the score’s x. Each note seems pulled from the keyboard, spinning polyphony into a chamber of prayer.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Diary – Seven Pieces (2002) bears dedication to Gourari herself, and by that association turns friendship and respect into audible communication. Darkly inflected yet chiseled in light, each piece is a window into the otherss, a symbiotic aesthetic given wings by sensitive performances. There are stories to be told here, but not in the manner of linear narratives, for hints of jazz and freer associations assure us that beauty, urgency, and proclamation all share the same oxygen. This leaves only Wolfgang Rihm’s Zwiesprache (1999), which occupies a region liminal to the rest, where an archaeological dig is already well underway. These dedications are playful yet morose, touching impressions as if they might bleed on contact. We, however, know that in Gourari’s purview no such wounds will ever be inflicted, because healing is never too far behind.

Turning the Prism: A Review and Interview with the Danish String Quartet

Since making their ECM New Series debut with a program of works by Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård, and Hans Abrahamsen, the young musicians known collectively as the Danish String Quartet have secured a most suitable recording home in the label’s ever-growing annals. Having explored unfamiliar territory as intimately as breathing, they now approach familiar repertoire as distantly as foreign travel. This is, perhaps, something of the meaning behind their PRISM series, which pairs Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets with music of Johann Sebastian Bach and, between them, a modern work that ties the two together. When I caught up with the quartet via email, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard had the following to say about the title of this personal traversal:

“Just as a prism breaks light into different colors, we pass a linear beam of light from Bach to Beethoven. The original beam—in this case, Bach—already contains all the colors and directions of the future. In our interpretation, the late Beethoven quartets, typically considered a point of arrival, function as a prism, a pathway into something else. This puts all of the music into a very unusual perspective: Bach is the oldest, but already contains the future. Beethoven isn’t the end of a road. And the modern pieces are created from the oldest mold imaginable.”

I asked Nørgaard to expand on how Beethoven and Bach came to be the frame around these roving images:

“A while ago we found ourselves slightly bored with much of the classical programming (including our own). Too much randomness, too little connection. If art museums were curated like classical concerts used to be, no one would bother going. Then back in 2012 we had a collective ‘aha’ moment when Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performed in Copenhagen. They started out with Ligeti’s Atmosphères and continued with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin. By connecting these masterworks, he created a completely new framing but with elegance and highest respect. A small trick, but a brilliant way to serve this great old wine in a beautiful new glass. This idea made it into our five-album PRISM project. The specific connection to Bach came after reading Beethoven: The Music and the Life, in which Lewis Lockwood shows a connection between Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier late Beethoven.”

Such tandem dynamics of parallelism and interweaving, of distance and proximity, are particularly evident in the first of the series.

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PRISM I (ECM New Series 2561)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded November 2016, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 21, 2018

Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, as arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the opening bookend of this installment, and by suggestion of its resonance sets the parameters, pours the concrete, and delineates the land for purposes of construction. And what a mighty structure we find built on this foundation in the String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor of Dmitri Shostakovich. A haunting piece in six movements, its opening Elegy, at 13 minutes in length, takes clear inspiration from Beethoven, and with it starts on a journey through some of mortality’s darkest channels, as Shostakovich crafts the quartet’s existence as a body of organs.

The Serenade that follows has rarely sounded so tactile, and finds itself rendered as a dance of understated capture. The DSQ seems to feel so much about what Shostakovich meant to convey, and by that communication flips details inside out. The sonorities of the Nocturne are of especially brilliant subtlety. Muted strings unmute the soul. After a harrowing Funeral March, they conclude with a dynamic Epilogue, whispering a farewell in E-flat minor before its major counterpart is leaked by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.

In his liner note for the album, Nørgaard describes their first encounter with the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven as a humbling experience. What they first approached with academic flair they quickly found to be brimming with possibility and meaning. To them, Beethoven’s Opus 127 in particular felt “as if it had fallen down from outer space onto our music stands, disconnected from music history and tradition.” It begins with huge swaths of chord fabric, unfurled before instruments sharp as a blade yet not seeking to cut. It renders introverted textures in an extroverted language. The lengthy Adagio is its centerpiece, a 16-minute chain of hymnal variations for which the quartet plays, put so precisely by Paul Griffiths in his booklet essay, as “four hearts differently beating, but at the same rate.” A pall of shadows and softest light given fresh nutrients by this performance. The following Scherzo flies off the bows of the quartet with especial providence, while the Finale speaks in a similar language of planes and caesuras, achieving transcendence in the final stretch.

“When you spend so much time with a certain repertoire, you naturally end up having a very intimate relationship with it. On top of that I think we all enjoy digging into the music we play and finding all the little details that are just below the surface. We are just the lucky vessels that get to convey fantastic music. If you pick the good things out there, you don’t need to push all kinds of intent into it. It’s fine on its own as long as you do it justice in the way you play it. That being said, we never intentionally try to play in a very ‘intimate’ way. Maybe what sounds ‘intimate’ is actually our respect for the music.”

I wonder, then, how he might distinguish this album from their first two programs and, similarly, what binds it:

“Our two initial albums on ECM were ‘standalones.’ Everything is connected in the PRISM series, however. It’s a wonderful feeling doing projects like this. It teaches you so much as a musician. We tend to think that masterpieces are ‘otherworldly’ when in fact they were the result of a bunch of human beings inspiring and learning from each other. Like us. They were just exceptionally good at it! What stays the same is the stable ECM sound that we have come to expect. We truly enjoy working with people who are so passionate about what they do. It clearly reflects in the top-notch albums that come out of ECM and inspires us to do better.”

Listeners can be assured of placing this and the second volume squarely within that top-notch category.

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PRISM II (ECM New Series 2562)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded May 2017, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 13, 2019

Bach’s Fugue in B minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Förster, thus ushers us into the project’s continuation in the manner of an old friend, welcoming with an open door and an open heart. Moving with tenderness and spiritual comportment, it touches a window of reflection into unknown futures, tracing patterns of suspension and transcendence.

Following this is Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1983 composition in which ghosts of antiquity are astir. The opening Andante’s sirens move with grace and finality, even as they activate seeds that will one day grow into life. The contrast between stretches of quietude and heaves of mourning are transfixing. The middle movement’s self-refractive allusions are brilliantly examined, rendering Shostakovich-leaning textures and palpable flavors. The final movement, marked Pesante, returns to that keening quality of the first, treating every sonorous shift as a veil to be dyed and worn as a screen through which to view a monochromatic world. It ends off-center, waiting for something to speak.

For me, the Kronos Quartet’s version of this harrowing masterwork on Winter Was Hard has long been my reference recording of choice, and I can say with heartfelt assurance that its throne must now be rebuilt for two.

In light of this darkness, Beethoven’s epical String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major turns night into dawn. The opening stretch of landscape resolves into a jagged dance of joy. Its adjoining Presto even injects a bit of humor into the proceedings.

The three subsequent movements are like paintings in sound, each portraying the same scene from a different angle. The DSQ opts for the quartet’s original version, including the monumental Große Fuge (op. 133) as the finale. After a declamatory overture, it morphs into some of Beethoven’s most boisterous writing for the genre. A superb account in every way.

Holding both programs together as one, it’s easy to ascribe a visual quality to their emerging narrative. First violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen agrees:

“Schnittke and Shostakovich do create very strong images—to me more so than Beethoven and Bach. I guess that the beauty of music is that every single listener and performer can have different images in mind when hearing/performing it: it’s a very open art form in that regard. Of course as a quartet, we strive to project one common story when performing a piece. Often it’s easier to think in images rather than being too concrete—loud, soft, fast, slow—when studying a piece of music.”

And perhaps we can ascribe a cinematic aesthetic by the hand of producer Manfred Eicher, whose touch so often turns sound into physical action. Says second violinist Frederik Øland:

“It’s always lovely to work with Manfred. His presence exudes great authority, and we always feel very committed when he’s around. His overwhelming passion for recording, plus 50 years of experience in the business, gives you a totally unique and very personal touch on the records that I find rare in today’s music industry. I would argue that he is old school, yet innovative. Timeless, in fact.”

The album’s engineering, every bit as beautiful as the playing, confirms an underlying dedication to recorded art. Øland again:

“Luckily, we have great people working ‘behind the scenes’ on our recordings. I’ve often thought that the producer and engineer’s names should be on the front of the cover, just as much as the musicians. We always start with adjusting the sound, so that everyone is happy and can relate to what they actually hear, but from there much of editing and engineering is left out of our hands. It’s really a matter of trust, but with that said, I think our sound is very well taken care of.”

And listeners can feel confident walking into these beams of light knowing they, too, will be very well taken care of.

Duo Gazzana: Ravel/Franck/Ligeti/Messiaen (ECM New Series 2556)

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Duo Gazzana
Ravel/Franck/Ligeti/Messiaen

Natascia Gazzana violin
Raffaella Gazzana piano
Recorded March 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 20, 2018

For their third ECM New Series recital, violinist Natascia Gazzana and pianist Raffaella Gazzana deepen their conversation as soulful interpreters, if not also as interpreters of souls. Presenting four composers of spatial disparity yet creative overlap, they engage music that requires listening, respect, and emotional integrity. I recently asked them via email to talk about the new album, and how it differs from previous recitals.

“It takes us a long time to put together meaningful and organic programs, either for a recording or for public concerts. Usually in our recitals we span the gamut from established pieces of the classical repertoire to contemporary and less commonly performed pieces—or even totally unknown ones, such as György Ligeti’s Duo in this program. Our previous recordings were mostly focused on repertoire from the 20th up to the 21st century. On this album we went a bit further back in time, as we do in live performances.”

The Ligeti Duo is a brief yet narratively rich piece that receives its premiere recording here. Each character of this newly recovered folktale recalls the joys of childhood in exquisite detail, it searches for dialogue but instead discovers a soliloquy split into its component parts. And why, one wonders, did a piece by such an established modern composer get buried for so long?

“We have always loved Ligeti’s music and were wondering how it could be that he had not written any piece for violin and piano, a combination attempted by all composers. Only after looking through his catalogue attentively did we discover the Duo. Written in 1946, when he was only 23 years old, it was dedicated to György Kurtág and languished in a drawer. Most likely it was performed only for an inner circle of friends.”

The Gazzanas expended much effort to secure the rights to record the Duo, and the score, they note, has yet to be published. Heard alongside the 1932 Thème et variations of Olivier Messiaen that follows, it inhales shadow as Messiaen exhales sunshine. The Thème et variations is a wedding gift to the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos, and as such glows with adoration. The piano stretches a canvas for the violin, whose brushwork ranges from ponderous to effervescent.

While these two youthful compositions comprise the program’s second half, the first begins with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata posthume. Although composed in 1897, when Ravel was 22, his first chamber work wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975. Its combination of robustness and delicacy is masterfully recreated here. The initial violin line skitters through underbrush, its movements captured by the piano and rolled into a ball of spirited wonder. Fantastical elements omnipresent in Ravel’s later works are foreshadowed, but sway in and out of frame with the lilt of a windblown branch. Like water taking different forms, some moments drip through open fingers, while others evaporating as if from a distant lake, and still others polish to a reflective sheen. When playing such music, say the Gazzanas, “we concentrate on the sound quality and not getting distracted away from the structure of the work. We would think mainly in terms of sound story more than a visual narrative.” In that respect, sound structures are apparent even when silence is in order.

Because Ravel modeled his Sonata posthume on César Franck’s Sonate for piano and violin in A major, it makes for a natural inclusion. The Franck sonata was, in fact, the album’s seed:

“It is a real masterpiece and has a highly structured, cyclical form. Too often, when talking about French music, you may hear it spoken of in terms of delicate and refined sounds, nuances, and colors. Franck gave an impetus to the so-called French School and this sonata represents a cutting edge in composition that significantly influenced many subsequent composers.”

Originally written for Eugène Ysaÿe, it eschews showiness to spotlight the evocative abilities of its performers, who in this instance regard romanticism with a studied gaze. The second movement is a rolling tide of memory made flesh by the touch of these humane performers, while the third bridges a synapse of utter enchantment. As the profoundest example of communication between the Gazzana sisters, it is rich with unspoken language and metaphysical translations. The final movement walks a high tightrope in the violin, scaling down rocky terrain into an immaculately pruned path.

In combination, these selections offer a cumulative effect of consideration:

“Every piece included on the album represents our present vision. We enjoy immensely the fact that everything we have performed over many years has always sounded fresh to our ears. Every time we approach a work, we look for some new details or aspects to bring out. We are perfectly aware that we still have so much to learn and that every state of mind or stage in life can provide new impulse to our performances.”

Aiding in that process are producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Markus Heiland. Their contributions reveal hidden shades of meaning:

“Every stage of the recording process is important in bringing out the best sound quality possible. Manfred and Heiland were particularly attentive to microphone placement, and even before that to the placing of instruments in the studio. A lot of time was dedicated to finding out how to listen to each other, so as to balance the instruments’ levels. We went back and forth to the control room, listening to the results until we were satisfied with the purity of the sound. The final editing, the choice of the order of the compositions on the album, as well as the pauses between a piece and another also contributed to a lengthy creation process.”

By its end, forged together as a seamless story, the album beckons us like an open book, anticipating with great joy the experiences that await us.