Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Violin Solo (ECM New Series 2705)

Gidon Kremer
Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Violin Solo

Gidon Kremer violin
Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2
recorded December 2019
at Studio Residence Paliesius, Lithuania
Engineers: Vilius Keras and Aleksandra Kerienė
Sonata No. 3 recorded July 2013
at Lockenhaus Kammermusikfestival
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

When Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) fled his homeland to escape the Nazis in the early stages of World War II, little could he have known the fate that would befall those left behind. It was Dmitri Shostakovich who eased his way into Russia, where the Stalinist regime would surely have killed him again had not the despotic leader died a month after Weinberg’s arrest for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” in 1953. With more than a decade separating those events and his composing of the three solo violin sonatas recorded here, by which time his entire family had long perished in the concentration camps, there was yet room in his battered heart to amplify the need for humanity.

Violinist Gidon Kremer, who has championed Weinberg’s music on two previous discs with his Kremerata Baltica, offers the present program in reverse chronological order, starting with the Sonata No. 3, op. 126 (1979). Dedicated to his father and ostensibly taking form as a single movement, it is marked by borders that, like those in his life, were blessedly surmountable. It sharpens its blade of experience, forged in the fire of history, across stone-hard double stops before carving its way delicately through softer actions, snaking high lines, and bruised leitmotifs. Kremer navigates every chamber as if it belonged in his home, describing the furniture, curtain, and artwork hanging on the wall down to the last detail.

The concentrated sections of the Sonata No. 2, op. 95 (1967) take on descriptive titles. “Monody” digs up bare bones, while “Rests” shines a light on Weinberg’s brilliant personality. From “Intervals” to “Replies,” we see other sides of his visage—in the former, an angular nose; in the latter, a hair that refuses to stay combed. “Accompaniment” switches acrobatically from pizzicato to programmatic upswings as a magician might shuffle cards. “Invocation” cries for salvation, leaving only “Syncopes” to cut its jagged figure into the air with tactile dissonances.

Last is what came first: the Sonata No. 1, op. 82 (1964). There is a sad ebullience to its opening movement, characterized by alarming calls to action, which then turn on a dime into Bartókian flavors. The Andante is its dark side, churning as sediment in a river, slowed to the pace of a careful hunter. From there, the pointillism of a rotating Allegretto adds more stars to this sky, constellated by pliant bow work. After a multifaceted fourth movement, the final Presto recalls Bartók once again in its soil-scented urgency. Scratching motifs, strummed strings, and insistent harmonies pull each other in many directions, never straying from their handling. They know where they are going, even when everyone else around them is lost or falls behind.

As incredible as these pieces are, they are by no means “pleasant” to listen to. If anything, they listen to us, placing a stethoscope on our collective chest to amplify events we would rather ignore. If Bach’s solo violin works are of heavenly height, then Weinberg’s walk the valley of the shadow of death between them.

András Schiff: Brahms Piano Concertos (ECM New Series 2690/91)

András Schiff
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Johannes Brahms: Piano Concertos

András Schiff piano
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment
Recorded December 2019
Abbey Road Studios, London
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Balance engineer: John Barrett
Production coordination: Guido Gorna and Thomas Herr
Cover photo: Péter Nádas
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 4, 2021

Following his 2020 release of the Brahms clarinet sonatas with Jörg Widmann, pianist András Schiff continues his exploration of this beloved composer by diving into his formidable piano concertos. With characteristic attention to detail, peeling back layers of artifice to get to the heart of what a score is trying to convey, Schiff seeks appropriate companionship in the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a period-instrument ensemble that often performs in the absence of a conductor, as it does here. Leading this entourage alongside Schiff is a Julius Blüthner grand piano built in 1859, from which he coaxes an incredible amount of resonance. Thus, he attempts “to recreate and restore the works, to cleanse and ‘detoxify’ the music, to liberate it from the burden of the—often questionable—trademarks of performing traditions.”

It was with Ludwig van Beethoven firmly in mind that Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) wrote his Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in d minor, op. 15, even as he tried to step outside the giant’s shadow. Despite its poor initial reception, it has since grown into an experimental full-course spread in the estimation of performers and listeners alike. The opening movement betrays the piece’s transformation from sonata to symphony to concerto, bursting into being with a hit of strings and timpani. Such grandeur, however, is only temporary, as the river’s flow evens out beyond the dam’s reach. When the piano makes its entrance, it dances, carrying with it all the memories it needs to fend for itself in the wilderness. The drama returns only to break the proverbial vessel for a much-needed rebuilding in the Adagio. Brahms marked this movement “Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) in response to the death of Robert Schumann. With unwavering emotional veracity, it shifts from dark to light and back again as unconsciously as breathing. Bringing us out of that pall is a vivacious Rondo leading the final movement’s charge. Schiff emphasizes its improvisational qualities, bringing luminous immediacy to every note.

One might not know that the Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in B-flat major, op. 83, is notorious for being one of the most difficult in the repertoire from the pastoral flavor in which it opens. But as the piano’s rubato phrasing proceeds freely over the foundation, pizzicato strings trailing not far behind, the rhythmic complexities become increasingly apparent. The second movement represents some of Brahms’s finest writing. Schiff’s awareness of its textures testifies to his experience and maturity, thus emphasizing the time shift of strings and horns midway through—a resounding call for the future built on the technologies of the past. The wildly inventive third movement (with solo cello lines played by Luise Buchberger) is a lone wolf of expressivity leading us to the momentous Allegretto. The pianism takes striking turns, digging into the lower register before ending on a firmly resolute chord.

Schiff holds these pieces dear to his heart, as should we in being handed the gift of his interpretations.

Carolin Widmann: L’Aurore (ECM New Series 2709)

Carolin Widmann
L’Aurore

Carolin Widmann violin
Recorded July 2021
Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Cover photo: Wilfried Hösl
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 17, 2022

Although L’Aurore represents violinist Carolin Widmann’s seventh ECM appearance, this is her first solo program for the label, making it the culmination of the many potent strands she has woven to get here. Hearing her breathe through the Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita of Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), which opens the program with fundamental monophony, is equivalent to the feeling of recovering from a long illness, taking in mundane details with renewed appreciation. The angular vigor of the Fantaisie concertante by George Enescu (1881-1955) that follows reminds us further of the need to absorb as much of our surroundings as possible if we are to give back more to the world than it has given us. Widmann’s ability to bring verve to the most leaping gestures and quietest rasping of the bow ensconces the motivations of this rarely performed treasure she calls a “sweeping melisma” of improvisational qualities. Contrasts of pulchritude and decay leave us marveling over a gray area where no single impression overwhelms another. Any keen listeners drawing a line from here to the work of Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931) are rewarded by his Sonata No. 5 in G major, op. 27, the first movement of which yields this album’s title. Its multivalence drips from Widmann’s fingers like rain from leaves after a storm, her double stops leaving trails of light as she works her way toward the “Danse rustique.” Here, the mood is somehow airier, despite the denser textures and grounded form, though at no expense of emotional savor. Between these giants are the no-less-powerful Three Miniatures of George Benjamin (b. 1960). With an economy of expression that makes every note count, each tells its dedicatory story in lucid terms. In doing so, what otherwise might seem like fleeting shifts in more florid writing take on a stark significance. The central piece, in particular, stirs the soul with its elasticity.

After revisiting Hildegard’s antiphon, Widmann takes us on a journey through the Partita No. 2 in D minor of J. S. Bach (1685-1750), a piece she felt prepared at long last to present in the studio. And while it concludes the disc, it feels more like a renewal. The minutiae of her caring spirit are immediately apparent in the caressing Allemanda, from which a personal ethos of direct communication shines in welcome. Over the next three movements, she turns the mirror to capture flashes of light, fragments of dreams, and memories of better times. All’s well that ends well in the epic Ciaccona, which for Widmann is “an epitome of life” (as is Hildegard, she is quick to add). Without apparent force yet with total conviction, she renders its details with the control required to wield a feather quill. Every mark confirms the need for ink and paper, without which these leaves of the human spirit might fall from the trees of history, leaving its forest bereft of fruit.

Danish String Quartet: PRISM IV (ECM New Series 2564)

Danish String Quartet
PRISM IV

Danish String Quartet
Frederik Øland violin
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded September 2018, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Cover: Eberhard Ross
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 3, 2022

For this fourth installment of the PRISM series, the Danish String Quartet strikes its boldest combination of light and shadow. By starting with the Fugue in G minor, BWV 861, from Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier (as arranged by Emanuel Aloys Förster), it wears on its sleeve the subtle élan that permeates all to follow. Its textures are those of a piece of clothing one has worn for years, every memory connected with it coming to life in déjà vu. Stepping outside of that outfit and into another embroidered with the name “Ludwig van Beethoven,” it’s impossible to think of the String Quartet No. 15 in A minor, op. 132, as anything less than an unpacking of the gift we have just received. The opening forgoes Bach’s expansiveness, tracing ropes all the same but this time in less of a macrame and more of a sailor’s knot. The second movement, marked Allegro ma non tanto (“Fast, but not too much”), gives ample room for the musicians to spread their leaves in a canopy porous enough to nourish the forest floor with sunlight. The balance of urgency and patience is exemplary. A shift halfway through into sustained harmonies pushes hues of glory between the trees. The 18-minute third movement is like a pond in that while its surface appears tranquil, we are aurally edified regarding the undercurrents and other invisible forces keeping its waterline steady. A methodical seesawing between straight tones and vibrato amplifies a voice of literary dimension, circling clockwise from prologue to epilogue. Only then do we get the retrospective excitement of the fourth movement (a brief march), followed by the shifting plates of the fifth. When pizzicato punctuations from the cello signal the final stretch, a feeling of sadness eclipses the ears. Thus, any happiness we might have found must be returned to sender, leaving us to wonder when we will ever meet again.

It’s poignant to consider that Beethoven was just months from leaving this world behind when Felix Mendelssohn, then a tender 18, composed his String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, op. 13. Mendelssohn’s exploratory ethos was ripe for transplanting the influences of Beethoven’s Opus 132, watering them into a piece that overlapped in technical similarities even as it deviated in extroversion. Such is the spirit of the first movement, in which vertical and horizontal motifs favor parallel paths over common ground, so to speak. The Adagio that follows develops with nondescript urgency. The viola is especially robust as the violins circle overhead, high but never out of sight. The third movement is a delectable exercise in playfulness that foreshadows the pastoralism of Antonín Dvořák. Its abrupt ending gives us pause before the drama of the finale opens the quartet’s thickest curtain to reveal a densely populated scene, likewise open-ended in its resolution.

If any of the above reads evocatively, it’s because these Danes make it impossible to experience this program any other way. Their approach to synergy is as carefully planned as it is spontaneous, and with only one more volume to go, we have much to look forward to as this journey reaches its destination. At that point, however, we are likely to realize how much further we have yet to go in our listening.

Danish String Quartet: PRISM III (ECM New Series 2563)

Danish String Quartet
PRISM III

Danish String Quartet
Frederik Øland violin
Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded November 2017, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Cover: Eberhard Ross
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 12, 2021

Ludwig van Beethoven’s five late quartets must be reckoned with. In the words of the Danish String Quartet, presenting the String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor of 1826, they “changed the game.” In saying as much, we might very well ask ourselves: What was the game to begin with? How far back does it go? With whom did it start? Augmenting the famous profession that “all roads lead back to Bach,” this recording charts as many paths forward as it does retrospectively. As for the game itself, we can say that it involves not only musical idioms but also hints of visual art, literature, religion, war, migration, and, dare I say, hope.

To know Beethoven’s Op. 131 is to take a full view of humanity, with all its triumphs and tragedies. The opening Adagio, the first of seven movements, spins fibers of tenderness into a muscle that flexes in tune with emotional suspensions, thus emphasizing the DSQ’s fitness as much as the composer’s. The Allegro that follows surprises with dance-like energies but may just as easily be interpreted as a coping mechanism against the grief that preceded it. Its extroversions are deeply entwined with introversion. Other movements, like the lively Presto, share their secrets more openly, taking on a litheness of clarity rarely heard in other renditions. The closing Allegro wears its heart on its sleeve just as securely, emboldening (not flaunting) its awareness as a modus operandi of exposition. But it’s in the gargantuan fourth movement, a nearly 15-minute Andante, where most of this vessel’s cargo is tallied in its keep. What begins as a spider’s thread of narrative sweetness morphs, as if in answer to the subtle insistence of the cello’s pizzicato, into a fog of impressions that resolves itself into a dew of urgent memories. All the more fitting that this quartet was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. For while its mixed receptions have morphed into high regard, the music reminds us of the necessarily contrasting organs in its body. As these meticulous musicians remind us, none will function on its own but only when connected to the larger whole.

For his String Quartet No. 1, op. 7, Sz. 40 (1909), Béla Bartók took inspiration from Beethoven’s opus 131. Both open in lament. That said, Bartók evokes a distinct shade of darkness made modern not only by its tonality but also in the interpretation so lovingly given here. The DSQ enhances the piece’s metallic sheen without neglecting the patina it already had when first composed. When the viola announces itself in the opening Lento, it does so not out of desperation but infirmity. At this point, the heart is already so weakened that beating its drum feels like an uphill climb. Somehow, Bartók affords us a view of the valley to show that achievement means nothing without hardship. Even the Allegretto that follows emerges hesitantly, an animal out of hibernation before proclaiming its heritage. The digging cello of the Introduzione that follows sets up the storytelling of an Allegro for the ages. The atmosphere is chiseled in something more durable than stone: an alloy of reinforcement made possible only by the laying of human hands on natural materials. Forgoing any illusion of permanence (everything decays), Bartók recognizes that imperfection is always a reliable receptacle for creative ideas. As the strings move—sometimes in unison, mostly apart—they prove that cohesion isn’t always obvious or visible. Rather, it is born through the message of interpretation. Every gesture of insistence in the violins gives way to glorious resolution, jumping from the edge of a collective inhalation. Is this triumph or just a return to baseline? You decide.

Because Beethoven was deeply inspired by Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, it only makes sense to include a fugue (this one in C-sharp minor, the very key signature used in Beethoven’s 14th quartet), as arranged by Emanuel Aloys Förster. Its tessellated configuration is a breath of higher origin, smoothing over the postmodern cracks with a reminder of what makes beauty earn its name: the scars of our destitution.

Heinz Holliger: Lunea (ECM New Series 2622)

Heinz Holliger
Lunea

Christian Gerhaher baritone
Julian Banse soprano
Ivan Ludlow baritone
Sarah Maria Sun soprano
Annette Schönmüller soprano
Philharmonia Zürich
Basler Madrigalisten

Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded live March 2018
Opernhaus Zürich
Recording producer and editing: Andreas Werner
Recording engineer: Stefan Hächler
Assistant engineers: Alice Fischer and Philip Erdin
Cover sketches by Heinz Holliger / photo by Thomas Wunsch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Co-production of ECM Records/Opera Zurich/SRF 2 Kultur
Release date: April 22, 2022

I am my own echo, but one eternally rigid and pinned down.
An echo nailed to the rock.

Heinz Holliger’s Lunea, described by the Swiss composer as his “dream opera,” grew out of a song cycle of the same name for baritone and piano. By 2017, Holliger had reworked it into its present form for the stage. Based on the demise of Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), who scribbled down outbursts during his years in an asylum, Lunea anagrams his name as a way of illuminating his poetic psychosis, thus hinting at the linguistic fragmentations we will encounter. As noted by baritone Christian Gerhaher, who seems born to sing this role: “Holliger presents these attempts on the part of the stricken poet to record his indescribable yet exquisitely traversed suffering—frightful and vivid experiences incapable of being communicated to another being.” And yet, communicate he does through a characteristically exquisite ear for nuance.

Whether by instinct or design, all of the artists of Holliger’s incidental interest, from Friedrich Hölderlin to Robert Schumann, are bound by the tattered thread of mental illness. His willingness to give them a mouthpiece through the score, of which language is a key instrument, finds a willing accomplice in Händl Klaus, whose libretto contextualizes 23 “leaves” in a space without linear order. Holliger’s approach to the text is microscopic in spirit but grand in scope. And yet, as Roman Brotbeck observes, “[N]othing is blurred; everything is as clear as glass and laid out by Holliger with maximum lucidity.” 

Holliger and Klaus pieced the opera together through fragments written on paper slips, glued with phrases (both musical and oral-motor) into shape. In doing so, they sought to resolve each sentence (or even word within it) through interpretation. If any plot can be discerned in all of this, it is embodied in the character of Lenau himself, whose cogent coterie of family members and acquaintances populates a bare environment like projections of his many sides. Lenau’s alter ego is Anton Xaver Schurz (1794-1859), a constant companion throughout his illness who also married his sister and published a nearly 800-page biography of Lenau in 1855. The women in Lenau’s life, including Sophie von Löwenthal (a platonic lover), Marie Behrends (his fiancée), and sister Therese, lend worldliness (if not also wordiness) to his isolation.

Holliger’s love for speech abounds, as when he incorporates the character of Justinus Kerner, a physician and close friend who, in 1850 (the year of Lenau’s death) began making what he called “klecksographs”—inkblot pictures mirrored by folding pieces of paper into symmetrical images. Following this, the opera is symmetrically arranged around the stroke Lenau experienced in September 29, 1844. Long before that, the opening speaks is as if through a layer of rice paper. Low reeds and an intoning chorus give way to Lenau’s amorous deteriorations. This is the asylum, a space in which the mind has free reign even as the body is contained. Such is the contradiction of operatic space: a stage that delineates mise-en-scène while opening our hearts to its inner flames. Holliger understands this in both the most traditional and postmodern sense.

For Lenau, “Man is a beachcomber at the sea of eternity,” and so might we call the instruments, among which the violin, cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer), and bassoon move as characters in their own right. Each slices mortality at a different angle, offering us unrepeatable cross-sections of emotional sediment. As waves of utterances and choral echoes navigate the scrapheap of a broken mind, we are privy to glimpses of recovery and tension in kind. Some of the most profound moments are shared between Lenau and Sophie. Their wordless breathing in the Fourth Leaf palpitates the ears. And it is Sophie who, in Leaf Nine, brings the most hopeful beauties into focus. Such respite is brief and occasional, as in the skyward harmonies of the Sixth Leaf, whereas the most powerful interruptions (such as that by Sophie again in the Eleventh Leaf) make the morbid grays and charcoals of the opera’s fulcrum that much more morose.

In one key scene, played out in the Fourteenth Leaf, Lenau leaps from the window in desperation before bowing the violin in a cathartic dance of healing. What follows from here to the end is a reversion into childhood (Fifteenth Leaf) before solitary madness sets in. Turning as a revolving door from one state of mind to another, the chorus voices the multiplicity of his demise. The final part is a gravelly expression of death borders that burrows into the reptilian brain.

While Lunea is a chain of intimate fascinations as only Holliger can link, it is best appreciated with the booklet in hand, ready to absorb the fragments at hand and assemble them into your own whole. Its brilliance comes to life through the heartbeat of its concepts. Then again, the disorientation of not knowing where our ears might land next is appropriate enough when scrutinizing a mind that might never have demanded more. Hence the significance of Gerhaher being the only singer who doesn’t perform multiple rolls, at once emphasizing Lenau’s splintered cognizance and his insistence on maintaining an identity through it all. For a man who saw the moon as “a luminous, drifting tomb,” death was, perhaps, the only certainty.

Ferenc Snétberger/Keller Quartett: Hallgató (ECM New Series 2653)

Ferenc Snétberger
Keller Quartett
Hallgató

Ferenc Snétberger guitar
András KellerZsófia Környei violin
Gábor Homoki viola
László Fenyő violoncello
Gyula Lázár double bass
Concert recording, December 2018
Liszt Academy, Grand Hall, Budapest
Engineers: Stefano Amerio and Gergely Lakatos
Cover photo: Atilla Kleb
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 12, 2021

After making his ECM debut with the live recording In Concert and the jazzier follow-up Titok, guitarist Ferenc Snétberger returns to the label with Hallgató. Recorded live in December of 2018, it positions his strings amid those of the Keller Quartett and Gyula Lázár on double bass. The focus this time is on Snétberger as a composer, with three of his works standing as pillars of the program. His Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra (1994/95; arr. 2008) spans three substantial movements. Subtitled “In Memory of My People” and written for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, it balances precise notation with liberating cadenzas. “Hallgató” (a somewhat ambiguous word meaning “listener”) sets the scene with guitar alone before the quintet’s entrance, feeling out the landscape upon which we are about to walk with these fine musicians as our guides. “Emlékek” (memories) is our first waystation. Romantic yet devoid of excess, its nourishment fortifies us for the fancier footwork of “Tánc” (dance), in which the catharsis we have been seeking is realized, reminding us of what vibrancy feels like. Snétberger’s Rhapsody No. 1 for Guitar and Orchestra (2005; arr. 2008) is equally dynamic, if less angular. Like a figure sashaying between historical buildings, it navigates city streets with the nostalgia of experience on its shoulders. In the journey between them, we come across Your Smile for solo guitar, a timely song without words.

Works from other composers fill in the gaps with vital organs. Two songs from John Dowland (1563-1626) are the subject of astonishing arrangements by David Warin Solomons. “I saw my lady weep” and “Flow, my tears,” both from 1600, show the undying spirit of this music, the guitar adding a lute-like touch to the backdrop while strings weave their tapestry in its light. The latter tune, a duet for guitar and cello, speaks in an unmistakable nocturnal tongue. The program takes its deepest breaths in the String Quartet No. 8 in C minor of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Written in 1960 for victims of fascism and war, its opening and closing Largos are played crosswise, lending a graceful urgency to their differences. The second movement, by contrast, is delicate without pulling the punches of its traumatic reveals, while the Allegretto dazzles with its rougher qualities. The Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (1910-1981), taken from the String Quartet, op. 11, of 1936, is also included, rendered with a vocal quality I’ve rarely heard.

All told, this is a superb program from world-class artists. More than the performances, however, Snétberger’s writing scintillates. Such cinema requires no camera and only the heart as a projection screen. What begins with a yearning for peace opens into dance-like wonder, but only briefly before lowering the head in slumber to chase resolutions behind closed eyes. Because, in the end, memories may be nothing more than dreams we haven’t yet forgotten.

Tigran Mansurian: Con anima (ECM New Series 2687)

Tigran Mansurian
Con anima

Varty Manouelian violin
Boris Allakhverdyan clarinet
Michael Kaufman violoncello
Steven Vanhauwaert piano
Kim Kashkashian viola
Tatevik Mokatsian piano
Movses Pogossian violin
Teng Li viola
Karen Ouzounian violoncello
Recorded January-April 2019
Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center
of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Los Angeles
Recording engineer: Benjamin Maas
Cover photo: Jean-Christophe Béchet
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 6, 2020

Although “refined” has taken on elitist nuances over the years, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian cuts to the root by following the true etymology of the word as a return to purity. In this all-chamber program, conceived as an 80th birthday gift by violinist Movses Pogossian and violist Kim Kashkashian, Mansurian’s combination of Armenian and European influences, sacred and secular alike, changes form as if viewed through a kaleidoscope turned in methodical wonder.

In the Agnus Dei of 2006, interpreted here by violinist Varty Manouelian, clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan, cellist Michael Kaufman, and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, one can almost feel his presence in the room. The simultaneous awareness of separation and overlap in the composing and the performing allows listeners to take the opening movement in many ways: as a mirror or opaque surface, liquid or solid, past or future. The clarinet is the glue that binds this scripture, the strings dialects, and the piano keys the pages they call home. The second movement indicates stirrings within, cradling dark exultation, while the third movement barely exceeds a whisper. As in the sonic architecture of Alexander Knaifel, the instruments humble themselves at the feet of the Spirit.

The Sonata da Chiesa (2015) bears a dedication to the priest and composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), whose quiet legacy has permeated a range of previous ECM recordings, not least of all Mansurian’s own. In the hands of Kashkashian and pianist Tatevik Mokatsian, the first movement suspends itself before writhing with historical awareness. Kashkashian’s sincerity and Mokatsian’s energetic approach to even the most delicate gestures draws two lines of flight that gradually become one in the second movement. Like hope and reality, they are distant until something sacred finds commonality in them.

The title piece (2006-2007) is scored for two violins (Pogossian and Manouelian), violas (Kashkashian and Teng Li), and cellos (Karen Ouzounian and Kaufman). Being a meditation on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13, the viola is of liturgical importance. Incredibly, the higher the tones, the darker the sky grows over its catharsis. Next are the String Trio (2008) and String Quartet No. 3 (1993). If Con anima was closer in mood to Shostakovich, the trio is closer in form, moving ever closer to the shaded drawl of its final movement, while the quartet assumes an inverted progression from subterranean fields to aboveground terrains. Finally, Die Tänzerin for violin and viola (2014) shines a light on Armenian folk dance, bringing Bartók to mind.

As convenient as the above comparisons may be, they do nothing to capture the atmosphere of this music. Mansurian, by self-characterization, creates a crossroads of speech and silence that cannot necessarily be articulated by either. Given the honesty and truth with which he fills his cup, not every question he poses demands an answer. Searching without finding becomes its own gift in a world hell-bent on exploiting destinations.

Erkki-Sven Tüür: Lost Prayers (ECM New Series 2666)

Erkki-Sven Tüür
Lost Prayers

Harry Traksmann violin
Leho Karin violoncello
Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann piano
Tanja Tetzlaff violoncello
Signum Quartett
Florian Donderer
 violin
Annette Walther violin
Xandi van Dijk viola
Thomas Schmitz violoncello
Recorded April 2019 at Sendesaal Bremen
Engineer: Christophe Franke
Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 13, 2020

Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.
–James 4:3

Since debuting on ECM’s New Series in 1996 with the inimitable Crystallisatio, the humanity of Erkki-Sven Tüür has revealed itself through score after score in search of a purer distillation of his uniquely “vectorial” approach to composition. With Lost Prayers, his first chamber-only program for the label, he may have found his clearest alloy yet in the grander scheme of elements that informs his far-reaching spirit. No stranger to meshing contradictory elements into coherent wholes without capitulating to monolithic dogma, striking a path between mathematical precision and organic flow, he taps into something familiar that allows us to bypass the pleasantries of getting-to-know-you conversation, going straight into dialogues of faith, reason, and love.

Violinist Harry Traksmann, cellist Leho Karin, and pianist Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann embrace Fata Morgana (2002) as a child in need of comfort. The opening violin arpeggios and piano chords over crunchy cello double stops work into a controlled frenzy, indicative of an inner turmoil such as only a fresher soul could lay bare. As molecules join and separate, time loses all shape. Refrains, each a return to self before disembodiment resumes, stand out for their subtlety. Leaping gestures are quickly sublimated by quicksand motifs, pulling the listener into subterranean spaces where notes cease to matter, giving way instead to textural authority. The ending tremors hint more at glory than physical compromise. And while something about this piece leaves me feeling homesick, the same musicians close with a sense of family in Lichttürme (2017), a veritable lighthouse in sound. The violin is the glassy lens through which its glow is magnified, the cello the tower housing it, and the piano a tickle of awareness in the sailor’s cerebral cortex.

Between those poles, violinist Florian Donderer and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff chart points of continuity between night and day in Synergie (2010) before the Signum Quartett’s sensitive rendition of the String Quartet No. 2 (2012), from which this album gets its name. Like a conversation between epochs, it shifts from empathetic and coherent to cross-wired and fragmentary, its answers only becoming clear when taken in the aggregate. At its loudest moments, the notecraft soars; at its quietest, it scuttles along the ground toward agitations of light. 

Tüür’s music is never content with endings. It dwells not in our bodies but in the natural materials our bodies partake of, harvest, and transform. Even as the instruments dip themselves in a font of inspiration, the water’s surface has been sprinkled with the lycopodium of honest self-reflection, leaving them dry. This is Revelation as Genesis: the potter’s vessel of our century broken into pieces and refashioned in the image of revival.