Márta and György Kurtág: In memoriam Haydée (ECM New Series 5508)

In memoriam Haydée

Márta and György Kurtág
In memoriam Haydée
Játékok – Games and Transcriptions for piano solo and four hands
Piano Recital
Cité de la musique, Paris
22 September 2012

Márta and György Kurtág piano
Filmed September 22, 2012 at Cité de la musique, Paris
Directed by Isabelle Foulard
An LGM Télévision production in association with Cité de la musique
Producer: Sabrina Iwanski
Executive producer: Pierre-Martin Juban

In September of 2012, Hungarian composer György Kurtág and his wife Márta gave a concert at Cité de la musique in Paris to honor the memory of a dear friend, musicologist Haydée Charbagi (1979-2008). Their program, as adventurous as it was delightful, combined piano transcriptions for two and four hands, exuding such intimacy that it’s a wonder the audience didn’t just melt away from all the love in the hall. For those not present, this DVD bears witness to the Kurtágs’ unbridled passion for each other and the music that passes between them. The program’s bulk is culled from György’s own Játékok (Games), an ever-growing miscellany of dedications to the living and dead alike. It’s also a tribute to classical roots on the whole, as indicated by the composer’s transcriptions of Bach chorales—each a towering trunk among his otherwise microscopic foliage.

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There’s something dark yet wondrous about the first dissonances that creep from the stage. Saying hello with a farewell, György approaches the score as if it were a poem (such philosophies were, in fact, the subject of Charbagi’s thesis). And perhaps nothing so omnipresent as poetry could express either the compactness or vigor of each brushstroke. As observer, Márta stands like an appreciative statue before joining him at the keyboard. At times, she caresses him on the shoulder after he finishes a solo, an unspoken signal to connect the dots.

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Those very points of light sparkle in pieces like Flowers we are…, which in conjunction with the pantheonic Baroque selections enables a poignant contradiction: namely, that Bach’s music eminently looks forward while György looks backward, leaving us in the middle like the binding of an open book. His own responsory is as much a reflection of the one to whom it is dedicated (Joannis Pilinszky) as the composer who vaulted the form.

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With most at or under a minute, these concert selections are rife with inflection. There are moments of staggering beauty, especially in the Hommages, such as the Hommage à Christian Wolff, with its tip-toed notecraft, the resonant Hommage à Stravinsky – Bells, and the Hommage à Farkas Ferenc in its multiple incarnations, each more nuanced than the last and ideally suited to the composer’s greatest interpreter, Márta.

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Campanule, as with so much of what transpires, expresses the pregnancy of emptiness, and the potential for healing amid broken motifs. This would seem to be the underlying message also of playful asides such as the fierce exchange of single notes that is Beatings – Quarelling and the kindred Furious Chorale. Another elliptical piece, Study to Pilinszky’s “Hölderlin, gives musical interpretation of a poem written for Mr. Kurtág and reinforces the concert’s overarching theme, while the dramatic (Palmstroke) and the programmatic (Stubbunny and Tumble-bunny) trip over one another in search of continuity.

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Director Isabelle Soulard focuses on these passages in close-cropped framings, allowing the tender lattice of Aus der Ferne, written for the 80th birthday of Alfred Schlee, and the confectionary first movement of Bach’s E-flat major Trio Sonata (BWV 525) to shine all the brighter among this crowd of lamentations. For if anything, György’s art is about remembrance—a point driven home by the three encores, all of which reiterate pieces featured in the main program: the Hommage à Stravinsky and two of the Bach arrangements. Were it not for programs and obsessive musical minds, we might not even notice the repetition, as life consists of nothing but.

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Giya Kancheli: Chiaroscuro (ECM New Series 2442)

2442 X

Giya Kancheli
Chiaroscuro

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

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

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

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

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

Kancheli and Friends

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

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

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

Kancheli’s most important recording since Exil.

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

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

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Morton Feldman/Erik Satie/John Cage
Rothko Chapel

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

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

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

Rothko Robinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Potter: Amores Pasados (ECM New Series 2441)

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John Potter
Amores Pasados

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

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

Amores portrait

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Franz Schubert

András Schiff
Franz Schubert

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

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

Schiff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wolfgang Rihm: ET LUX (ECM New Series 2404)

Et Lux

Wolfgang Rihm
ET LUX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cantante e tranquillo

Keller Quartett
Cantante e tranquillo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arvo Pärt: Musica Selecta (ECM New Series 2454/55)

2454|55 X

Arvo Pärt
Musica Selecta
A Sequence by Manfred Eicher

Recorded 1983-2011
Mastered May 2015 from the original recordings by Peter Laenger and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: 11 September 2015

Here is a commemoration not only of the professional and personal collaboration of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and German record producer Manfred Eicher, but also of the creative spirits that guide them both toward shared spatial goals. Beyond that, it is a looking glass of sonic history in which is reflected two souls who’ve welcomed countless listeners on a journey of light. Issued in time for Pärt’s 80th birthday, Musica Selecta divides that light into its spectral gradations, sounding every band in a sequence of hand-selected pieces from his ECM New Series tenure thus far.

In his liner note for the two-disc album, Eicher refers to Pärt’s compositions as “solitary sound-sculptures.” An apt description if ever there was one. Solitary, because they come from the relationship of one man to the divine, but also sculpted because they take in countless aspects of creation into their corporea. What emerges from Eicher’s idiosyncratic sequencing of events here is therefore less the portrait of an artist than a horoscope, as planetary alignments contradict, refract, and inspire one another into a harmony of greater spheres.

Pärt and Eicher

Remarkable about the program is not only the way in which it compresses a 30-year history into two hours, but also the gentle reminders and forgotten facets—if not new discoveries—of the composer’s oeuvre it contains. Of the latter, the Hilliard Ensemble’s previously unreleased performance of Most Holy Mother of God is an astonishing example and proof that, more than meaning, it is the very architecture of words which determines their sacredness. Like a modest, timeworn church, these melodic structures stand before us marked by the passage of time. Astonishing, too, are those textures more familiar to us, such as the chant-like Ode VI from the Kanon pokajanen, one of Pärt’s profoundest medi(t)ations of flesh and sacrament. Architectural awareness is again central to understanding the integrity of this music, miring itself as it does in the rafters and other neglected places where godly light is most needed. It also introduces into the album’s narrative flow the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, whose voices, under the direction of Tõnu Kaljuste, have occupied the central axis of Pärt’s ECM zodiac from almost the beginning. Their harmonies uncover, like a skilled woodcarver’s tools, moments of transcendence as wounding as they are luminescent. Pärt recognizes the scar in every beauty.

This is what we really mean by the phrase “reading between the lines.” Not the extraction of the visible from the invisible, but the knowledge that everything is inherently invisible, except by the illumination of regard. And so, if either of these pieces feels like dreaming, it is only because singing can sometimes be more surreal than anything taking place behind closed eyes. Solitary voices fluctuate like reflections on water, because neither can exist without the other. We might do well to understand Pärt’s compositions in likeminded fashion—that is, to recognize that no simple motif would have grown without the ancestors before it. All the more appropriate, then, that this conspectus should begin with Es sang vor langen Jahren (“From long ago thus singing”) from Arbos. An album that seems to have fallen off the critical radar, but one that is nevertheless a Musica Selecta of its own. It showcases his ability to negotiate a range of atmospheres—from the intimacy of chamber settings (such as this one for alto, violin, and viola) to the inward-looking sweep of his Stabat Mater, which at 24 minutes is the vastest work included here. Its dramas are theatrical in the same way the heart is theatrical.

This collection’s remaining choral pieces are more entangled with non-living, yet somehow sentient, instruments. The Alleluia-Tropus and Beatus Petronius from Adam’s Lament represent organic conversations—one playful, the other somber—between voices and strings. The latter’s addition of winds renders stems for every leaf. Between them is Trisagion (from Litany), performed here by the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra as if it were so fragile that even playing it might break it. In this universe, the value of silence, such as it is, feels especially alive. Wallfahrtslied / Pilgrims’ Song (Orient & Occident) is scored for men’s choir and string orchestra and moves more celestially in a combinatory realm of mysticism and gravity. It is an expression of the itinerancy of faith and the challenges it faces when crossing borders. Sometimes, however, the borders cross us, as in the two selections from In Principio. Mein Weg, scored for 14 strings and percussion, builds a descending framework to move upward, while antiphonal Da Pacem Domine is a righteous summation, a tipping point into the as-yet-unknown future of his flourishing.

Silouans Song brings us to one of Pärt’s most pivotal and defining releases: Te Deum, which in addition to the stirring title work (not featured here) yields the mighty Magnificat. These works—Silhouans Song for strings and the Magnificat for choir—feel their way along their respective paths, finding that the truest epiphany comes not from moments of grace (however one chooses to frame them) but in their aftermath, during which one trembles from the shock of revelation while putting together the pieces of a shattered soul. As strings cry out, so do voices draw their bows, each the inner to the other’s outer.

In the company of such vocal apparatuses, the mechanism of the piano, in all its earthy resonance, comes to us as if out of time. In his rendering of Für Alina (Alina), Alexander Malter removes enough of his touch that the windows of access he finds in the score glow with a light born of need to see itself seen.

In highlighting the spaces in which Eicher and Pärt have forged their friendship, one necessarily emphasizes the care with which they have chosen musicians to transport listeners outside themselves. And who better than pianist Keith Jarrett and violinist Gidon Kremer to play a duo version of Fratres. It is the most significant work of this collection, being the world’s introduction to Pärt via the seminal Tabula rasa. The album was the first of ECM’s New Series imprint, which since 1984 has sailed a discriminating vessel at the fore of contemporary music. Jarrett and Kremer bring a level of sensitivity rarely heard in subsequent versions of this often-recorded piece, a spirit of newness and adventure that can only have come from their unprecedented reckoning with what was then a relatively obscure voice leaping like the violin from behind the iron curtain of Soviet oppression. The Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten is another quintessential selection from Tabula rasa, a vibrant threnody that throbs with passion and memory.

From what is arguably Pärt’s finest release, Miserere, comes Festina Lente. Scored for orchestra and harp, it pairs beautifully with the Cantus, if only for its gradual development and lilting form. It also bears dedication, this time to Eicher himself. The tripartite Lamentate, from the album of the same name, is also included. Pianist Alexei Lubimov and the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, at the baton of Andrey Boreyko, strike a most appropriate balance of lucidity and distortion in this fragile tone poem.

Musica Selecta does more than tell a story. It pulls the beginning and ending of that story together to form a circle, which stands before us like a portal, replacing the suffocation of expectations with an eminently breathable oxygen. Pärt, as only he can, spins our comprehension of it all from elements unseen yet—praise creation—audible. So audible, in fact, that this music might just hear more of us than we ever will of it.

 

Keith Jarrett: Barber/Bartók (ECM New Series 2445)

Barber Bartók

Keith Jarrett
Barber/Bartók

Keith Jarrett piano
Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Saarbrücken
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra
Kazuyoshi Akiyama conductor
Samuel Barber
Concert recording, June 3, 1984 at Congresshalle, Saarbrücken
Engineer: Helmut Fackler
Balance engineer: Helmut David
Béla Bartók
Concert recording, January 30, 1985 at Kan’i Hoken Hall, Tokyo, as part of Tokyo Music Joy Festival
Engineer: unknown
Concert promoter: Toshinari Koinuma
Mastered at MSM Studios by Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

It’s tempting to trace overlaps between Keith Jarrett’s roles as a “classical” and “jazz” musician, but in this archival treasure I for once see the importance of their differences. It is precisely because Jarrett is so well versed, and indebted, to both spheres of influence that he seems to recognize the divergent types of rigor involved. In less uncertain terms: to merely conflate one with the other shortchanges both in the process. Hearing these recordings, now three decades old, we can be sure that many things have changed in the pianist’s approach to style and timbre just as we can be sure that whatever indefinable flame sustains him burns as brightly now as it did then.

What we have here are two recordings—one made in Germany in 1984, the other in Japan in 1985—of piano concertos and an additional encore of improvisation. Beyond that, however, we have a statement of almost divine purpose from a musician who listens to everything before he plays.

KJBB

The Piano Concerto of Samuel Barber (1910-1981) is first on the program and finds Jarrett fronting the Rundfunk-Sinfonienorchester Saarbrücken under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies. Davies is a natural fit, having previously conducted Jarrett on record as composer (see Ritual) and, more than a decade after this recording was reeled, as the featured soloist of Mozart’s own concertos. Written between 1960 and 1962, Barber’s earned him a second Pulitzer Prize and is largely considered to be among his masterworks. The sheer variety of the first movement alone tells us so. The introductory solo might seem spontaneous were it not for the first orchestra hit soon thereafter. Jarrett’s rhythmic acuity is in such fine form that the other instruments almost feel ornamental. The second movement more pastoral, and Jarrett plays it with such flowing intuition that again it sounds like his own creation. Here the very personality of the piano, through Barber’s writing, takes shape, like an infant growing to young adulthood in the span of five minutes. The final movement begins as if through a mysterious screen before stoking its hearth to roaring flame. More pronounced brass and percussion make it a captivating one, even if those faunal winds do creep around the occasional corner with indications of less complicated sojourns. Rousing rhythms from both soloist and orchestra trade places at a moment’s notice, leaving us spellbound.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that Barber’s only piano concerto should be paired with the third of Béla Bartók (1881-1945), as soloist John Browning, who premiered the Barber in 1962, ranked it alongside the very same as a crowning achievement of the genre in the 20th-century. Bartók wrote his in the final year of his life, after having fled to America in the wake of World War II. Jarrett likewise renders it here far from home (in Tokyo, that is) with the New Japan Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazuyoshi Akiyama. The first movement is more soaring than the Barber, filled with minuscule nooks in which to store our fascinations. The denser textures and more overtly “pianistic” writing allow for great variation at the keyboard. Jarrett responds with that trademark touch, building punctuation marks into paragraphs and paragraphs into full narratives. The second movement, though graver, nevertheless achieves crystalline form. Among Bartók’s most profound pieces of writing, its strings emerge like sunrays at dawn. Jarrett coaxes the orchestra, even as it coaxes him, creating a feedback loop of lyrical unfolding. He attends with a patience that is noticeable even in the most percussively inflected portions. An unresolved ending anticipates the finale, a movement of such fitness that it practically leaps away from the musicians of its own accord. Through windswept strings, Hungarian folk dance motifs, and purposeful drama, Jarrett handles that final ascent with finesse.

Following this performance, Jarrett improvised a piece that has since taken the name “Tokyo Encore—Nothing But A Dream.” It’s a balladic jewel that diffuses the energy of the Bartók even while enhancing it, for here is a heart that respects not only the beauty of art, but more importantly the art of beauty, handling both as if they were of the same substance. Anyone else might bungle it, but Jarrett gives it such a genuine connection that we are reminded of his many gifts, not least of all those given to listeners fortunate enough to see their lives overlap with his.

(To hear samples of Barber/Bartók, click here.)