Momo Kodama: Point and Line (ECM New Series 2509)

Point and Line

Momo Kodama
Point and Line

Momo Kodamapiano
Recorded January 2016, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 27, 2017

Four years after making her ECM New Series debut with La vallée des cloches, pianist Momo Kodama returns with a program that is equally adventurous in expectation and inevitable in hindsight, this time shuffling the Études pour piano, L 136 (1915) of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Etude I-VI for piano, SJ 1180 (2011-13) of Toshio Hosokawa (b. 1955) into an integrated experience. Having performed both cycles separately, here Kodama imagines them in dialogue with each other. “A number of elements in Hosokawa’s music,” she writes in her liner note, “make me sense a proximity to Debussy. One is the freedom of its formal design; another is its interplay and layering of colors. What I fins especially remarkable in both is a capacity for poetic utterance and ranges widely between lyricism and drama, between meditation and virtuosic display.” As in acts of translation between languages, what separates is also what binds, and Kodama is a masterful interpreter in that regard, fluent as she is in every dialectical nuance at hand.

“Hand” is indeed the operative word, as Kodama’s parallel communicators ride over the intimate cascades of Debussy’s Etude XI before swirling the waters below in defiance of prettiness. Thus, whatever conversational approach we might attribute to process isn’t necessarily between two (or more) people, but rather between different shades of the same musical self. Kodama’s rendering thereof illuminates a cohesive identity, and she, as surely the composers themselves, revels in disruptions, treating each as an opportunity for productive change.

Hosokawa’s Etude II, from which this album get its name, takes its descriptive heading with beautiful literalness, contrasting sustained notes and dotted clusters, the latter as sprays of baby’s breath in a wider bouquet. A spirit of favorable conflict prevails, as also in Debussy’s Etude III, wherein points and lines are converted into poetry. Not that what follows is a series of impressionistic vignettes, but a space in which every utterance counts. As dynamics lob from soft to loud and back again, we are primed for the versification of Hosokawa’s “Calligraphy, Haiku, 1 Line” (Etude III), of which dramatic outbursts amid resonant silences become organic allies.

As the composers continue to seesaw between foreground and background, something surprising begins to happen: we begin to lose track of who wrote what. For while the reveries of Etudes IV and VIII have an obviously Debussean flavor, we might also read distinctly Hosokawan associations into the second and first etudes. And while the tail-chasing details of Hosokawa’s first and fourth etudes reveal a childlike dedication to play (the latter’s subtitle, “Ayatori, Magic by 2 Hands, 3 Lines,” makes reference to the cat’s cradle game), his respect for Debussy peeks from behind the curtains of “Lied, Melody” (Etude VI), a high point that pushes darkness and light through lattices of memory.

Retrospection seems equally vital to sustaining Debussy’s mocking Etude I and Hosokawa’s visceral “Anger” (Etude V), and by the emotional clarity of those expressions turns anticipation into reflection. Like Debussy’s Etude VII, they draw a compass between our ears, for while the notes may go up and down, the hands travel right and left, leaving us with a navigational instrument to cherish as we leave this land behind into uncharted waters.

Tigran Mansurian: Requiem (ECM New Series 2508)

2508 X

Tigran Mansurian
Requiem

Anja Petersen soprano
Andrew Redmond bass
RIAS Kammerchor
Münchener Kammerorchester

Alexander Liebreich conductor
Recorded January 2016, Jesus-Christus-Kirche Dahlem, Berlin
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 17, 2017

ECM’s sixth album dedicated to Tigran Mansurian is a reference recording of his Requiem. Dedicated to victims of the Armenian genocide in Turkey that killed approximately one million people between 1915 and 1917, and composed a century later, it blends Continental and Orthodox traditions in a manner that is as unexpected as it is creatable by no other author. “The essence of the problem,” notes Mansurian of his process this time around, “was the existence of certain differences in the readings of religious texts between the Armenian Church and, say, the Roman Catholic Church. The psychology of a believer who represents a nation that has long been without an independent state differs sharply from the psychology of a believer at whose back stands a powerful religious community and centuries of independent statehood.” In this respect, he isn’t simply composing in a liminal space but also inviting the listener to light a candle in that space and pray in its glow.

A requiem challenges anyone wishing to write one, and for some has been a rite of passage. Mansurian struggled with the form for years, writing a handful of distinct attempts before abandoning them in favor of the one gifted to us here. Although scored for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and string orchestra, its collective spirit renders those solo roles—filled with emotional veracity by Anja Petersen and Andrew Redmond, respectively—in the “Tuba mirum” and “Domine Jesu Christe” as something more than representational; rather, they are two rays in a sun’s worth of individual voices. In humbler terms, their relationship to the larger assembly is as leaves to a tree, crying for acknowledgment with what little water they have left before their severed roots catch up with them. Such acts of violence, themselves stemming from a dark place, nevertheless confirm God’s grace to pull tortured souls from a tragic world into one that never trembles in fear of mortal sin.

Before we tread too deeply into these forests of mirrors, we begin with an airier “Requiem aeternam,” in which unrequited lives hold their hearts in their hands. Strings shift eerily from foreground to background in metaphysical exchange, presaging their playful relationship to choral motives in the “Kyrie.” Dances are brief and unsustainable, flowing like two separate rivers joining to cascade over the cliff of the “Dies irae.” Their urgency is jagged yet interlocking: a puzzle of mortality putting itself together despite our best attempts to upset it. The suspended animation of the “Lacrimosa” is echoed in the meditative “Agnus Dei,” and between them an insistent “Sanctus” which creates its own call and response of spirit, flesh, and remembrance.

Listening to Mansurian’s Requiem is like watching a film that weaves archival footage into freshly choreographed scenes of historical reckoning. It’s as if the cover image, depicting Armenian deportees trekking through the desert toward Aleppo, Syria, were coming to life, every figure contributing to the prescience of the whole, shaking their heads at what we have become.

György Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07)

Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

György Kurtág
Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

Natalia Zagorinskaya soprano
Gerrie de Vries mezzosoprano
Yves Saelens tenor
Harry van der Kamp bass
Jean-Guihen Queyras violoncello
Elliott Simpson guitar
Tamara Stefanovich piano
Csaba Király pianino, spoken word
Asko|Schönberg
Netherlands Radio Choir
Reinbert de Leeuw conductor
Recorded March 2013–July 2016 at Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Amsterdam and Philharmonie, Haarlem
Recording producer: Guido Tichelman
Engineer: Bastiaan Kuijt
Assistants: Matthijs Ruijter, Pim van der Lee, and Isa Goldschmeding
Mastered at BK Audio by Bastiaan Kuijt
Project supervision: Renee Jonker
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 23, 2017

December’s fervor, summer’s flailing hailstorm,
wild bird encumbered with clogs,
this and more I’ve been. Willingly I die.
–János Pilinszky, “Hölderlin”

When immersing oneself in the Four Capriccios that opens this three-disc compendium of György Kurtág’s works for ensemble and choir, it’s nearly impossible to feel that our perceptions of reality can be tactical endpoints of any trajectories through space or time. The Hungarian composer’s Opus 9 for soprano (a role masterfully filled here by Natalia Zagorinskaya) and ensemble—composed between 1959 and 1970, revised in 1993—doesn’t so much set the poetry of István Bálint as rearrange its molecules in a diorama of linguistic play. Hence the atmosphere of the program as a whole, which by ironic virtue of its cohesion unrolls a narrative of unfinished thoughts, micro-images, and instincts. Like the title of its third part, “Language Lesson,” it is as instructive as it is destructive. Kindred echoes further haunt the interstices of such quadripartite settings as Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Op. 41 (1997-2008) and Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op. 11 (1975). The latter’s performance by bass Harry van der Kamp treats slurred speech as antecedent to lived experience (if not vice versa), and mortality as an instrument of desire.

Years of careful study, rehearsal, and understanding went into these performances, recorded under supervision-at-a-distance of the composer. Notes conductor Reinbert de Leeuw of this process: “[T]he fact that you can finally witness the happiness of a composer stating that his music has been recorded as he intended it to sound is priceless and meaningful in an historical sense.” To be sure, we can hear Kurtág lurking ghostily throughout these meticulous assemblies, which by their innate desire to be heard reveal what de Leeuw calls “the constant search for the meaning behind what could not be notated in the score.”

It’s especially tempting to read hidden messages into this collection’s centerpiece. The near-aphasia of Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, Op. 30b (1991) reduces utterances to emotional caesura between mockery and exaltation while provoking insectile stirrings in a garden of failed vocabularies. Even the scoring for alto solo, voices and “chamber ensembles dispersed in space” reveals something of the philosophical blood running through its proverbial veins.

“I had the privilege of working with the great composers of our time,” de Leeuw admits, “sometimes even interpreting every single orchestral work of a composer like I did as a conductor with the works of Messiaen. So at one point you think you have a pretty good idea of what twentieth century music is about. And then comes the music of György Kurtág. That was a real shock for me, completely transforming my perception of music.” Case in point is Grabstein für Stephan, Op. 15c (1978-79, rev. 1989), for which guitarist Elliott Simpson strums open strings, as if turning the idea of mastery inside out until bacterial details emerge. In a profound exchange of tenderness and violence, wordless voices descend like ink through water before a grief-stricken explosion rends the air with catharsis.

De Leuww again: “One could say that in a way every note he has written, may have been written before. But merging this extremely rich heritage into one voice that is recognizable and unique is for me utterly fascinating.” We can hear this most clearly in the Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op. 18 (1980-94), of which the brilliantly realized “Crucifixion,” chest-beating Mary Magdalene and all, rubs shoulders with mock folk motifs and other haunting minutiae. The Colindă-Baladă, Op. 46 (2010) for tenor solo, chorus and chamber ensemble also flirts with tradition through its Orff-like interplay. Like a recovered traditional song warped beyond recognition, it struggles to embrace a stable identity.

As Paul Griffiths notes of Kurtág’s music in his liner text, “Crucially important is the brevity of the texts, and their corresponding qualities of intensity and openness, both stimulating to music.” Nowhere is this so artfully evident as in Messages of the Late Miss R. Troussova, Op. 17 (1976-80), which threads 21 poems by Rimma Dalos like beads of internal life. Between the programmatic “Why Should I Not Squeal Like a Pig” and the self-deprecatingly erotic “Chastushka,” distinctions between instruments and soloist are of slightest degree. From the achingly beautiful flute of “You Took My Heart” to the mournful brass of “For Everything,” Kurtág upholds every sound as an opportunity—not a promise—of communication.

Griffiths goes on: “If we want to try to think of metaphors or analogies for György Kurtág’s music, we will likely find ourselves drawing them directly from the human voice and the human body: from what it feels like to be communicating vocally in some specific way, from what it feels like to be making a particular movement.” This is true even of the instrumental pieces. Whether in the descending piano and Ligeti-like meditations of …quasi una fantasia…, Op. 27 No. 1 (1987-88) or the Op. 27 No. 2 (1989-90), a double concerto for piano, cello and two chamber ensembles, pulses suggest a human body and the voice struggling to transcend it. As in the closing ensemble piece, Brefs Messages, Op. 47 (2011), we find ourselves lost not in a miniature landscape, but an entire planet to which we’ve been granted teleportational access.

Stefano Scodanibbio: Alisei (ECM New Series 2598)

2598 X

Stefano Scodanibbio
Alisei

Daniele Roccato double bass
Giacomo Piermatti double bass
Ludus Gravis Ensemble
Tonino Battista conductor
Recorded February and March 2014 at Pitch Audio Research, Perugia, and Studio Controfase, Roma
Tonmeister: Gianluca Ruggeri
Engineers: Daniele Roccato, Luca Mari Burocchi, and Tommaso Cancellieri
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 12, 2018

Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) was introduced to ECM via 2013’s Reinventions. Whereas that program documented the Italian double bassist and composer’s passing of Bach’s Art of the Fugue through a loom of Spanish and Mexican influences, here the focus is on what might just be Scodanibbio’s most personal work. Personal, too, is the liner note by Daniele Roccato, who describes hearing Scodanibbio perform for the first time at a Paris festival in 2008: “For me, it was an epiphany. The performance of a shaman, evoking an unprecedented world of sound, one he commanded with boldness and determination.” So began a mutually respectful partnership between two creative souls who shared a love for the lowest of the strings, and by that love opened doors of perception not simply closed but so well hidden that none even knew where to look until now.

The 1986 title composition for solo double bass is emblematic of an implosion-oriented approach. Its harmonic inventions, drawn from within, expose the willingness of a composer to listen to his instrument in the deepest possible sense. In addition to its organic genesis, it emits an industrial aura: the whine of grinding machinery and a human voice in agony rolled into one. Another solo piece, Due pezzi brillanti (1985), lends crosswise insight into the double bass’s split personality, in which the rhythmic and the textural serve as conduits of emotional stability. Like a microscope through which one may observe the inner workings of one’s own body, it implies an eternal braid of regard. Jagged yet interlocking, it fits into place by questioning the place itself.

The album features two premiere recordings. In Da una certa nebbia (2002), rhetorically scored for “double bass and another double bass,” the latter instrument is seen as, as Roccato puts it, “a sort of ‘misty veiling’ over the suspensions of the main double bass, in a temporal articulation which pays implicit tribute to the musical thinking of Morton Feldman.” In that role, alongside Roccato, is Giacomo Piermatti, whose gentle persuasions are indeed translucent. In this largely arco suspension, pizzicato gestures feel like punches, gentle as they are. The Ottetto (2011) was the result of a dream to write a piece for eight double basses that would unlock even graver secrets. Partly inspired by the ensemble of double basses featured here as Ludus Gravis, and partly by the efforts of two friends to see their muse spread its wings like never before, the piece is a meditative self-examination of sentient objects. Every moment of its 30-minute duration is imbued with intent. Whether conventionally or unconventionally bowed, treated as voice or percussive actor, each instrument takes on an aspect of nature from which it feels indivisible. Sometimes-insectile vibrations breathe the same air as subcutaneous twitches, while aboveground gestures feel like rituals in search of gods. In light of Scodanibbio’s death, which prevented him from seeing its first complete performance, implications of the Ottetto’s final drone exhale with mortal significance.

Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies (ECM New Series 2600)

Pärt Symphonies

Arvo Pärt
The Symphonies

NFM Wrocław Philharmonic
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded August 2016 and October 2015 (Symphony No. 3)
Main Hall of the National Forum of Music, Wrocław
Engineers: Andrzej Sasin and Aleksandra Nagórko
Mastering: Christoph Stickel, MSM Studios, München
An ECM Production
Release date: April 20, 2018

Following the release of his Symphony No. 4 in 2010, it was perhaps only a matter of time before a compendium of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s symphonies would also come to light on ECM. And what a light we can enjoy through the prism of all four, newly recorded by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonicunder the direction of Pärt’s untiring messenger, Tõnu Kaljuste. What these works, separated by decades of time and soul-searching, lack in duration (given that they all fit snugly onto one CD) they make up for in their dynamic and textural scope. In the album’s liner note, music critic Wolfgang Sandner writes: “To study and listen to symphonies is, in essence, to read and comprehend a biography in notes.” In this respect, symphonies are aesthetic snapshots of a composer’s life at those times. Like stencils applied to the past, they filter out anything extraneous to the meaning at hand, funneling our attention into particular shapes and therefore boundaries of possible interpretation.

In listening to the Symphony No. 1, penned almost half a century before his Fourth, we hear what Sandner refers to as the “jagged caesuras” of Pärt’s inner landscape: deeply personal snapshots from a time when composers under the Soviet flag were forced to weigh idiosyncrasy and conformity on a scale of creative expression. Pärt was willing to take the risks that came with upending that scale altogether, and was summarily banned as a composer when, in 1968, he professed Christian faith via his Credofor piano, mixed chorus and orchestra. Five years earlier, the First Symphony was already in genesis. Dubbed the “Polyphonic,” it bears dedication to Heino Eller, his professor at the State Conservatory in Tallinn. Constructed around a twelve-note row (E-F-F#-B-Bb-G-A-Eb-D-Ab-Db-C), it is divided into two movements. “Canons” is a thick slice of serial pie, and like the proverbial desert reveals delectable combinations of starch and sweetness with every bite. The “Prelude and Fugue,” by contrast, begins with lighter strings before jumping into a pastoral interlude and, in conclusion, an insistent cluster of rhythmic and tonal artifacts.

Although the Symphony No. 2 (1966) is also cured around a twelve-note row, it feels less constrained by formula. Its brevity (the symphony barely crests the ten-minute mark) is its strength. At this time, Pärt was working in what he called a “collage” technique, by which resolution was reduced to a petty dream in favor of metamorphosis. Its first movement is a kaleidoscope of motifs, atmospheres, and collisions by which is rendered not a mosaic but a centrifuge of philosophy. The block chords of the second movement are urgent, thrown by their own weight into a black hole of identity reformation. The third and final movement, percussive minutiae and all, glimpses the mind of a composer reaching for something more than what reality has to offer, as indicated in his quotation of “Sweet Dreams” from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. It ends as if unresolved, stepping into the pastures of the future.

By the 1971, when Pärt was writing his Symphony No. 3, he was well into a period of self-reflection that led him to declare a Russian Orthodox conversion. This symphony is the first breach of that spiritual watershed—both musical and personal—that cut the umbilical cord of the avant-garde. Dedicated to conductor Neeme Järvi, this tripartite monument touches upon the prayerful unfolding that now characterizes the mature composer. In the second movement especially, a familiar lyrical nature struggles to break through the soil of political nurture, pulled from its reasoning by a force that would otherwise refute it. The final movement describes the old flesh wrestling with the new, eventually giving over to a medieval polyphony and blast of hope.

If the Symphony No. 4 (2008) sounds more choral, that is because it overflows with voices: of history, of experience, and even of persecution. Bearing dedication to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian mogul once jailed for his critical outspokenness, it wears decidedly liturgical clothing. The pizzicato textures of its second movement are the stirrings of a soul wanting to be heard, while the coda breathes in hope and exhales caution, never letting go of the rope in its hand. And attached to the other end that rope? A vessel of the past on which has been loaded the cargo of our sins, which one way will be unloaded, weighed, and accounted for.

Zsófia Boros: Local Objects (ECM New Series 2498)

2498 X

Zsófia Boros
Local Objects

Zsófia Boros classical guitar
Recorded November 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 3, 2016

He knew that he was a spirit without a foyer
And that, in this knowledge, local objects become
More precious than the most precious objects of home
–Wallace Stevens

When classical guitarist Zsófia Boros made her ECM debut with En otra parte, she did so not by planting a flag but by opening a door. Where that door led was mostly left to the listener, guided only by the signposts of an internationally minded program. Here, she treats an equally mixed corpus as a movie screen, working with an auteur’s patience to render establishing shots before allowing full scenes to take shape.

The first stirrings of character development come into view with Mathias Duplessy’s Nocturne, which by its depth of suggestion foreshadows a bittersweet ending. So intimate is its approach to darkness that can almost wear it as a cloak of protection against a blinding world. Boros gives a superb technical performance, especially in her application of harmonics, but even more so an emotional performance that turns gestures into possibilities of new lives.

Next, Egberto Gismonti’s Celebração de Núpcias, a harmonious roll of fragrant arpeggios and falling petals that first appeared on 1977’s Dança das Cabeças, is reborn in the present rendering. It’s the first of a few South American touch points that include Jorge Cardoso’swidely performed yet freshly realized Milonga (its familiar bass line a vital narrative fulcrum) and Anibal Augusto Sardinha’s Inspiração. All are bound by a feeling of kinship and inspiration: reminders to be oneself when all else fails.

Carlo Domeniconi’s Koyunbaba, named for a 15th-century Turkish saint, is another concert favorite, which for all its hermitic solitude is alive with movement. Its distant calls of intuition, achingly beautiful Cantabile, and energizing Presto, for which Boros places paper over the strings before leaping into a full-throated cry of tenderness, make for an intensely tactile experience. Against these, Al Di Meola’s Vertigo Shadow and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Fantasie are spirals of geometric endurance in the puzzle of identity. The latter piece leaves room for improvisation in order to make the story the interpreter’s own. Boros floats around every note, drawing an entire garden’s worth of ideas and melodies. Via muted strings, she expresses unmuted emotions.

Our bittersweet ending is realized in Alex Pinter’s Gothenburg. It’s the sonic equivalent of knowing you will never see a loved one again yet also knowing they’ve become an indivisible part of you. Like strings on an instrument, you and they have their own voice and path, yet echo together in the same chamber of existence, waiting for that divine hand to pluck them before fate has its way of silence.

Frode Haltli: AIR (ECM New Series 2496)

2496 X

AIR

Frode Haltli accordion
Trondheim Soloists
Arditti Quartet
Irvine Arditti 
violin
Ashot Sarkissjan violin
Ralf Ehlers viola
Lucas Fels violoncello
Recorded October and November 2014, Selbu Kirke, Norway
Engineer: Sean Lewis
Mastering: Manfred Eicher and Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 26, 2016

AIRmarks a classical return to ECM for Norwegian accordion player Frode Haltli, who now, as on his label debut, offers a program centered around the music of Danish composer Bent Sørensen. For that album’s title piece, Looking on Darkness, Haltli was required to rethink his approach to the instrument in search of softer dynamics and bent pitches, and deepens those quasi-linguistic impulses here.

Sørensen provides the album’s frame tale. It is Pain Flowing Down Slowly on a White Wall (2010), written for solo accordion and string orchestra, feels vulnerable to something beyond grasp of flesh and time. Despite a lack of footholds, if not also because of said lack, the accordion takes on a winged materiality, destined to never touch solid ground. The relationship between it and the strings demonstrates Haltli’s own views on chamber music, of which he writes: “It demands fellow musicians who really listen, and who can move flexibly and playfully between various levels in the music according to what the music is telling you—not musicians who constantly need to be in front.” Indeed, “soloist” becomes a reductive term in the present context, favoring instead a larger whole. Movements of great distance share breathing room with dreams of proximity in a constantly shifting topography, as if the very earth were struggling to hold its shape. And so, when the string players at last trade bows for melodicas, it comes across—ironically enough—as an act of solidarity. Like Sigrid’s Lullaby (2010), adapted for solo accordion from a nocturne, it dips a hand into the font of time and swirls until all colors blend into one.

Between those two poles stretch the telephone wires of another Dane I expect (and hope) to hear more of on ECM: Hans Abrahamsen. His Air (2006) for solo accordion (2006) not only yields the album’s title but more importantly its spirit. A haunting experience that’s difficult to imagine in anyone’s hands but Haltli’s, it narrates texture and space with autobiographical assurance. Its molecules move so slightly, so continuously, as to appear still. Air is also something of a palindrome, beginning and ending in a wash of chords, while in the middle revealing a dance that returns to dust as quickly as it is born from it. And while the instrumental forces of Three Little Nocturnes (2005) for string quartet and accordion feel much more distinct than on Sørensen’s sound-world, they are deeply harmonized in rhythm, each inhaling the other as deeply as it can before the final exhale.

Haltli’s assessment of Abrahamsen’s music, of which he observes, “Not one note is accidental,” applies to the album in its entirety. Not only because these pieces are capturable on paper, but also because they treat that paper as the skin of an individual life.

Jörg Widmann: ARCHE (ECM New Series 2605/06)

Arche

Jörg Widmann
ARCHE

Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
Marlis Petersen soprano
Thomas E. Bauer baritone
Gabriel Böer boy soprano
Jonna Plathe child narrator
Baris Özden child narrator
Iveta Apkalna organ
Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper
Audi Jugendchorakadamie
Hamburger Alsterspatzen
Kent Nagano 
conductor
Concert recording by NDR from the opening of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie on January 13, 2017
Tonmeister: Hans-Michael Kissing
Engineer: Dominik Blech
Editing, mix, and mastering: Carl Talbot and Anne-Marie Sylvestre (engineer)
A NDR Production
Release date: October 5, 2018

Let our book of debts be cancell’d!
Reconcile the total world!
E’en the dead shall live in heaven!
Brothers, drink and all agree,
Every sin shall be forgiven,
Hell forever cease to be.
–Friedrich Schiller

Written to inaugurate Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie concert hall in January of 2017, Jörg Widmann’s massive oratorio for soloists, choirs, organ and orchestra was inspired by the architecture of the hall itself. The composer recalls his reaction upon seeing the unfinished building for the first time: “From the outside the building resembles a ship… To me the interior looked like the hold of a ship, an Ark. It breathes the spirit of democracy!” From that initial epiphany followed a work that seeks to encapsulate the thrust of Continental history while parrying its trajectory via politically savvy retrospection.

Sadly enough, despite the obvious amount of heartfelt effort that went into this performance, there’s a certain emptiness to its presentation, not least of all in the fact that no English translations of the libretto are included in the CD booklet. This is an unfortunate omission. We know that Widmann has sewn together writings by Claudius, Klabund, Heine, Sloterdijk, Andersen, Brentano, Schiller, Francis of Assisi, Nietzsche, Schmmelpfennig, Thomas of Celano, and Michelangelo, as well as the German folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Latin Mass for the Dead, and the Bible itself. Without the otherwise excellent liner notes by Dieter Rexroth, the grander scope of what Widmann is doing textually would likely be lost on non-German speakers.

To be sure, however, some fascinating musical dramaturgy awaits the adventurous listener willing to surmount the linguistic barrier, and what few clues we are given are just enough to let the finer nuances get swept away in the experience. The warped blasts of organ and choral surges in “Sintflut” (The Flood) are especially thrilling, and provide strange respite from the text-heavy surroundings. Inclusive of the opening section, “Fiat Lux” (Let there be light), two child narrators link the even broader brushstrokes of creation leading to the repainted canvas of the Flood. Between respirations, voices shift in tectonic frictions of flesh and spirit. Whether spoken or sung, whispered or shouted, each utterance is an open doorway into the fractured nature of time. In this milieu, words seem to act as buoys and anchors alike, while baritone soloist Thomas E. Bauer embodies the oratorio’s titular vessel struggling against raging waves.

Emerging from these troubled waters is the volcano of “Die Liebe” (Love), wherein bubbles the molten sentiments of the Song of Songs, even as a poem by Michelangelo asserts its three-dimensional dominance. The lovers—of which soprano Marlis Petersen’s renderings are alive with virtue and desire—find synchronicity only toward the end of their respective journeys, as if mocking the destination of a tested faith. For as soon as those travelers lock step, the ground falls from beneath their feet in the apocalyptic “Dies irae.” Beneath those voices, whose incongruence bursts through Schiller’s unused “Ode to Joy” verses like water from a broken dam, a visceral percussive landscape splits Hell wide open.

“Dona nobis pacem” pushes the Catholic liturgy against a litany of technological obsessions, chanted by children’s choir as if in defiance of the modern world’s rituals, both sacred and profane, so that when boy soprano Gabriel Böer cuts through the din like a shooting star of reason, it’s with a sharpness more effective than any blade, honed as it is on a metaphysical stone of hope in a higher power.

“Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty; open thine eyes, and thou shalt be satisfied with bread.”
–Proverbs 20:13

Christian Reiner: Joseph Brodsky – Elegie an John Donne (ECM New Series 2513)

Elegie an John Donne.jpg

Christian Reiner
Joseph Brodsky: Elegie an John Donne

Read by Christian Reiner
Recorded 2014-2017, Garnison 7, Wien
Recording engineer: Martin Siewert
Mastering at MSM Studio, München
Engineer: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Wolf Wondratschek
An ECM and Joint Galactical Company Production
Release date: August 25, 2017

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
–John Donne

Following his acclaimed readings of Friedrich Hölderlin’s Turmgedichte, by turns stark and revealing, Viennese actor Christian Reiner adds as many layers as he peels away in his approach to Russian-American poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996). Although Brodsky was imprisoned in his native Russia as a dissenter, he never explicitly engaged the issue of incarceration until later in life. His lack of self-importance was one of many facets that imbued his verses with microscopic insight into the human condition. Even when awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987, he accepted the honor with humility. A vivid chunk of that humility can be found in what Reiner considers to be his masterwork—1963’s “Great Elegy to John Donne”—which is presented here in two German translations among a tract of shorter, life-spanning selections.

It was in prison, in fact, that Brodsky first read Donne, when a writer friend sent him a book by the English poet. Yet Brodsky’s “Elegy” is more than a paean to a kindred spirit; it’s the recognition of a voice caught between its earthly origins and heavenly destination. His litany of mundane objects—crystal, linen, stockings, and the like—read like a perverse genealogy of material lives. For in the same way that we have succumbed to the immaterial promises of recognition, so do the connective tissues of human and nonhuman experiences string the very tightropes along which our deepest anxieties vie for balance. Just as Donne has died, so too is the world drained of life, unable to finish its own diary with that final answer of Heaven or Hell. Everything is sinking in speech: voices whose owners refuse to identify themselves. Archangels and prophets, kings and slaves, martyrs and murderers—all depleting the same oxygen supply of moral spectra. “All things are distant,” Brodsky writes. “What is near is dim.” Endurance is a fantasy replicated in reality, wherein fingertips graze the backs of our necks with demonic tingling, forever unclear.

Reiner’s diction is characteristically architectural in nuance, as heard in the pained urgency of “In Memoriam Fedja Dobrowolskij” (1958). More importantly, he understands the pregnancy of a pause. His recitation of selected “Strophes” (1978) embodies that philosophy to the fullest, making of silence its own vocabulary. In the sensually inflected“From Nowhere with Love” (Aus nirgendwo in Liebe, 1976), the voice becomes the body, bouncing memories of communion off its own burnished mirror of expression. In the brief, morbid “A Polar Explorer” (Der Polarforscher, 1978), 40 seconds is enough to open the jar of hope and let its rancid contents spill out into the cold. “Lullaby” (Wiegenlied, 1992), by contrast, renders shades of redemption through fixation on immaculate maternity. Throughout these and more, Reiner adds weight to Brodsky’s lists and uncertainty to his spiritual invocations, treating words like shingles for a roof, beams for a doorway, and glass for a window. What we end up with, then, isn’t a house of coherence but a chapel of hard-won truths.