Konstantia Gourzi: Anájikon (ECM New Series 2545)

Konstantia Gourzi
Anájikon

Nils Mönkemeyer viola
William Youn piano
Lucerne Academy Orchestra
Konstantia Gourzi conductor
Minguet Quartett
Ulrich Isfort violin
Annette Reisinger violin
Aroa Sorin viola
Matthias Diener violoncello
Ny-él
Concert recording, August 21, 2016, KKL Lucerne,
by SRF Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen,
in collaboration with Lucerne Festival
Engineer: Moritz Wetter
Hommage à Mozart and Anájikon
Recorded March 2018, University of Performing Arts Munich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Cover photo: Thomas Philios
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 30, 2021

These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
–Hebrews 11:13

When searching the scriptures for truth, one is said to be guided by the Holy Spirit. Similarly, when listening to the music of Greek composer Konstantia Gourzi, one is shepherded by the vibrations it produces. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, we who receive these melodies remember the taste of manna but, with enough faith, look past the murmuring toward not only the promised land but also the assurance of someday coming face to face with the one who blessed it. In light of faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), we know that recognizing the value of audible art requires giving up the colonial notion of tangibility in favor of metaphysical awareness. Hence, the theme of angels in Gourzi’s work, here and elsewhere, which, as Paul Griffiths writes in his liner notes, “seems appropriate for a composer whose work is frequently interrogative.” In a world where answers are longed for as rain among draught-stricken farmers, questions might seem like the last thing anyone wants, but without them we would simply recycle the same tired doctrine. In musical terms, there would be no rests to allow the performers room to breathe.

Gourzi, however, deeply appreciates that every piece of music she composes is a landscape with its own topography, inhabitants, and history. And so, regarding the title of her opus 56, Hommage à Mozart (2014), one could be forgiven for expecting a piece filled with (or at least built around) quotations and recognizable motifs. For as many reasons as there are movements, it unravels two knots for each that it ties, by the end loosing myriad possibilities of flight. First, the viola sings as if for no other reason than to hear itself beyond the reach of a towering monolith so distant that even the tip of its shadow is no longer visible. The piano is the parchment to its ink, which renders a flowering garden in shades of gray. Second, its forest of trees provides ample hiding space for children who don’t wish to be found, reminding us of what it felt like to want to disappear before we knew in whose image we were created. Third, in the wake of a storm, damp foliage offers a scene of organic intimacy. A flutter of the bow indicates an animal shaking off the dew and jumping into the river for a nocturnal swim. So begins a snaking trajectory in which the wonders of slumber tremble in anticipation of waking.

Waking is precisely what we encounter in Ny-él, Two Angels in the White Garden for orchestra, op. 65 (2015/16). What begins with Biblical themes—its first three movements bearing the titles “Eviction,” “Exodus,” and “Longing”—ends in the mystical encounter of “The White Garden.” Thus removed from bondage, hearts and minds wander into speculation even as a chosen generation finds its home. Along the way, the aforementioned lead-ins explore percussion-heavy bursts of clarity, the piano dimpling the sands with its passage in a distinctly cinematic atmosphere that turns orientalism on its head and spins it like a top until its colors blend into one. There are still mysteries to be found here, lingering in the air, in the trees, and among the bushes. Shades of Bedřich Smetana invite fractal conversations. Block chords rise with insistence, silhouetted against a cloud-streaked sky as they march toward us without ever reaching out for contact.

The program ends with Gourzi’s String Quartet No. 3, op. 61 (2015). Under the title Anájikon, The Angel in the Blue Garden, it culminates in a triptych within a triptych. Where the first two parts, “The Blue Rose” and “The Blue Bird,” skim away layer beneath layer of watery surface, showing that the air inhaled through every f-hole is transformed upon exhalation, “The Blue Moon” implies a story in every crater and meteoric scar. Throughout, gestures in the violins give way to a flowing undercurrent in the viola and cello without ever feeling the need to divide them. They are at once parallel and intertwined. (Occasionally, the viola pokes its eyes above water, if only for a brief survey of the quartet’s travels.) Like a huntress in the night, pizzicato footsteps speak of careful survival. Dreams are kept at bay but close at hand, as yet invisible. The eyes continue to hold their awareness through the cages of their lashes. They hope to spot a candle in a window, but no such respite is forthcoming. Instead, they hang their lids from the stars, knowing they will no longer be needed in the life to come.

Momo Kodama/Seiji Ozawa: Hosokawa/Mozart (ECM New Series 2624)

Momo Kodama
Seiji Ozawa
Hosokawa/Mozart

Momo Kodama piano
Mito Chamber Orchestra

Seiji Ozawa conductor

Recorded December 2006, Concert Hall ATM, Art Tower Mito
Engineer: Yoshinori Nishiwaki
Balance engineer: Suenori Fukui
Cover photo: Max Franosch
An ECM Production
Release date: April 12, 2021

After making her ECM New Series solo debut with 2013’s La vallée des cloches, followed by Point and Line in 2017, pianist Momo Kodama belatedly presents a finely articulated diptych of compositions. Under the baton of Maestro Seiji Ozawa, she joins the Mito Chamber Orchestra for this live recording from 2006, which saw the premiere of the opening work, Lotus under the moonlight, by Toshio Hosokawa. Written for Kodama, this homage to Mozart for piano and orchestra resulted from a commission that same year by the Norddeutscher Rundfunk, for which Hosokawa chose a favorite Mozart piano concerto and wrote this companion piece. Using the F-sharp minor slow movement as inspiration, it begins suspended before subtle disturbances, like the fluttering of butterfly wings, waft through the air. Paintings in moonlight on watery canvas take shape, turning darkness into speech and speech into song. There is patience gently asked for—and returned—by the willing listener, whose ears may finesse the scene with details unknowable through any other sensory organ. Music like this needn’t ask for breath because it is breath incarnate. It inhales silence and exhales shifts in climate activated by the kind of touch that skin cannot evoke or experience. It is, instead, an experience of the soul, which trembles and prays. There are moments of absolute sublimity, as when the piano scales downward and upward beneath gossamer strings. Siren-like cries reach quietly overhead, linking their verses through the clouds, ending in windchimes of an otherwise forgotten past.

In the wake of that internal gesture, the externality of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488, shines like a blast of refined light, moving through its motifs at the shake of a bough in morning light. With barely a nod to the dream that came before, we emerge onto sunlit pasture, hand in hand with the solstice. Kodama’s entrance is likewise imbued with spectral awareness. Every arpeggio is as legato as it is staccato and points our attention to a time when joy was of central artistic concern. That said, there is great mystery in this music still, coaxing from our hearts an awareness that is anything but chronological. The Adagio flips this world upside down. A ponderous quality pervades. It is cautious yet all the more alive for it. Faith is restored in the Allegro assai, flowing with blessed assurance but also a lightness of step that never fails to smile. Those looking for a thrilling Mozart will not be able to punch their ticket here. Rather, one will encounter a regard for pathos: a worthily prosaic shade to include in the spectrum alongside Hosokawa’s poetry.

Orchestras tend to be seen as the context into which a soloist is placed. Then there is Kodama, who plays with such generosity that this recording feels the other way around: she provides the landscape across which the orchestra may travel. Ozawa makes sure that every nomadic step is faithfully documented for posterity. Despite aging in the ECM vaults for 15 years, we are invited to feel the presence of its creation here and now.

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

2551|52 X

Thomas Zehetmair
Sei Solo

Thomas Zehetmair Baroque violin
Recorded August 2016, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Hannelore Guittet
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
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)

2620 X

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)

2625 X

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.