Varty Manouelian violin Boris Allakhverdyan clarinet Michael Kaufman violoncello Steven Vanhauwaert piano Kim Kashkashian viola Tatevik Mokatsian piano Movses Pogossian violin Teng Li viola Karen Ouzounian violoncello Recorded January-April 2019 Evelyn and Mo Ostin Music Center of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, Los Angeles Recording engineer: Benjamin Maas Cover photo: Jean-Christophe Béchet Mastering: Christoph Stickel Executive producer: Manfred Eicher Release date: November 6, 2020
Although “refined” has taken on elitist nuances over the years, Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian cuts to the root by following the true etymology of the word as a return to purity. In this all-chamber program, conceived as an 80th birthday gift by violinist Movses Pogossian and violist Kim Kashkashian, Mansurian’s combination of Armenian and European influences, sacred and secular alike, changes form as if viewed through a kaleidoscope turned in methodical wonder.
In the Agnus Dei of 2006, interpreted here by violinist Varty Manouelian, clarinetist Boris Allakhverdyan, cellist Michael Kaufman, and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, one can almost feel his presence in the room. The simultaneous awareness of separation and overlap in the composing and the performing allows listeners to take the opening movement in many ways: as a mirror or opaque surface, liquid or solid, past or future. The clarinet is the glue that binds this scripture, the strings dialects, and the piano keys the pages they call home. The second movement indicates stirrings within, cradling dark exultation, while the third movement barely exceeds a whisper. As in the sonic architecture of Alexander Knaifel, the instruments humble themselves at the feet of the Spirit.
The Sonata da Chiesa (2015) bears a dedication to the priest and composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), whose quiet legacy has permeated a range of previous ECM recordings, not least of all Mansurian’s own. In the hands of Kashkashian and pianist Tatevik Mokatsian, the first movement suspends itself before writhing with historical awareness. Kashkashian’s sincerity and Mokatsian’s energetic approach to even the most delicate gestures draws two lines of flight that gradually become one in the second movement. Like hope and reality, they are distant until something sacred finds commonality in them.
The title piece (2006-2007) is scored for two violins (Pogossian and Manouelian), violas (Kashkashian and Teng Li), and cellos (Karen Ouzounian and Kaufman). Being a meditation on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 13, the viola is of liturgical importance. Incredibly, the higher the tones, the darker the sky grows over its catharsis. Next are the String Trio (2008) and String Quartet No. 3 (1993). If Con anima was closer in mood to Shostakovich, the trio is closer in form, moving ever closer to the shaded drawl of its final movement, while the quartet assumes an inverted progression from subterranean fields to aboveground terrains. Finally, Die Tänzerin for violin and viola (2014) shines a light on Armenian folk dance, bringing Bartók to mind.
As convenient as the above comparisons may be, they do nothing to capture the atmosphere of this music. Mansurian, by self-characterization, creates a crossroads of speech and silence that cannot necessarily be articulated by either. Given the honesty and truth with which he fills his cup, not every question he poses demands an answer. Searching without finding becomes its own gift in a world hell-bent on exploiting destinations.
Harry Traksmann violin Leho Karin violoncello Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann piano Tanja Tetzlaff violoncello Signum Quartett Florian Donderer violin Annette Walther violin Xandi van Dijk viola Thomas Schmitz violoncello Recorded April 2019 at Sendesaal Bremen Engineer: Christophe Franke Cover photo: Thomas Wunsch Executive producer: Manfred Eicher Release date: November 13, 2020
Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts. –James 4:3
Since debuting on ECM’s New Series in 1996 with the inimitable Crystallisatio, the humanity of Erkki-Sven Tüür has revealed itself through score after score in search of a purer distillation of his uniquely “vectorial” approach to composition. With Lost Prayers, his first chamber-only program for the label, he may have found his clearest alloy yet in the grander scheme of elements that informs his far-reaching spirit. No stranger to meshing contradictory elements into coherent wholes without capitulating to monolithic dogma, striking a path between mathematical precision and organic flow, he taps into something familiar that allows us to bypass the pleasantries of getting-to-know-you conversation, going straight into dialogues of faith, reason, and love.
Violinist Harry Traksmann, cellist Leho Karin, and pianist Marrit Gerretz-Traksmann embrace Fata Morgana (2002) as a child in need of comfort. The opening violin arpeggios and piano chords over crunchy cello double stops work into a controlled frenzy, indicative of an inner turmoil such as only a fresher soul could lay bare. As molecules join and separate, time loses all shape. Refrains, each a return to self before disembodiment resumes, stand out for their subtlety. Leaping gestures are quickly sublimated by quicksand motifs, pulling the listener into subterranean spaces where notes cease to matter, giving way instead to textural authority. The ending tremors hint more at glory than physical compromise. And while something about this piece leaves me feeling homesick, the same musicians close with a sense of family in Lichttürme (2017), a veritable lighthouse in sound. The violin is the glassy lens through which its glow is magnified, the cello the tower housing it, and the piano a tickle of awareness in the sailor’s cerebral cortex.
Between those poles, violinist Florian Donderer and cellist Tanja Tetzlaff chart points of continuity between night and day in Synergie (2010) before the Signum Quartett’s sensitive rendition of the String Quartet No. 2 (2012), from which this album gets its name. Like a conversation between epochs, it shifts from empathetic and coherent to cross-wired and fragmentary, its answers only becoming clear when taken in the aggregate. At its loudest moments, the notecraft soars; at its quietest, it scuttles along the ground toward agitations of light.
Tüür’s music is never content with endings. It dwells not in our bodies but in the natural materials our bodies partake of, harvest, and transform. Even as the instruments dip themselves in a font of inspiration, the water’s surface has been sprinkled with the lycopodium of honest self-reflection, leaving them dry. This is Revelation as Genesis: the potter’s vessel of our century broken into pieces and refashioned in the image of revival.
András Schiff piano Jörg Widmann clarinet Recorded May 2018 Historischer Reistadel, Neumarkt Engineer: Stephan Schellmann Cover photo: Jan Jedlička Produced by Manfred Eicher Release date: October 2, 2020
In the opening gestures of the Sonata in E-flat major, op. 120/2 (1894), for clarinet and piano, it’s difficult not to feel the breath of life that moved its composer, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), to such rapture in the latter years of his life. As the second of two such sonatas and his final chamber work, it is a testimony not only to Richard Mühlfeld, the master clarinetist of his day whom Brahms called “the nightingale of the orchestra,” but also to the self-effacement with which Brahms struggled throughout his creative life. And so, when considering the enduring interpretations here by pianist András Schiff and clarinetist Jörg Widmann, one must understand that without a love for every note, the bars between them would erode. Thus, Widmann gives colorations to the breath at every turn, while Schiff understands the role of the piano in Brahms’s chamber works as more than an accompaniment, giving it the fullness of expression it requires. The second movement, a rousing Allegro appassionato, is quintessential Brahms for its controlled drama and balance of fine motor skills, all tied together with a rustic charm. The final movement works patience into the virtue of exuberance.
The Sonata in f minor, op. 120/1 (1894), is even more dynamic. After a gradual first movement, the second unravels like paint from a brush, finding favor in the final trails of each stroke. The restrained Allegretto that follows sets up a rousing Vivace, the ebullience of which dazzles the senses. Given its symphonic textures, it’s no wonder the piece lent itself so gloriously to Luciano Berio’s orchestral transcription in 1986.
Between these giants of clarinet literature are Widmann’s five Intermezzi (2010) for piano. As tributes to both Schiff (to whom it is dedicated) and Brahms, they show a modern heart in love with the blood of tradition pumping through it. The central intermezzo, at 12 minutes, digs deepest into the spirit of this emotional transference. Throughout, we encounter waking moments in an otherwise dreamlike mise-en-scène. Nevertheless, clarity abounds.
Camerata Zürich Igor Karsko direction, lead violin Maïa Brami speaker Recorded September and November 2017 Radiostudio DRS, Zürich Engineer: Andreas Werner Cover photo: Nadia F. Romanini An ECM Production Release date: November 26, 2021
“When the heart speaks, the mind finds it indecent to object.” –Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) penned his two-volume On an overgrown path between 1901 and 1908. While its significance in the pianistic pantheon is often eclipsed by canonical predecessors, its inventiveness is marked by nonorthodox shifts in harmony, each a full statement without the need to justify what precedes or follows. Given the music’s history and place in time, few would be up to the task of arranging it for string orchestra with equal fervor, but this is precisely what Daniel Rumler did in 2016 to luminous effect, breathing not new but old life into the lungs thereof.
As Thomas Meyer notes in the CD booklet, the title of On an overgrown path references a Moravian wedding song, said path signifying the new bride’s severance from a home to which she can never return. The result is a collection of what the composer called “distant reminiscences” of folk songs and practices. In pieces like “A blown-away leaf,” the underlying connectivity of the notes rises to the surface as treasure from past sediment. Given its basis on the rhythms of the Czech language, we can rightly think of these as “texts” across which editorial marks of prosody and poetry abound, shifting with lyrical abandon from elegy to triumph at the gesture of a bow. Dances (e.g., “Come with us!” and “They chattered like swallows”) testify to the power of memory to reside where it cannot be erased. The spiritual glimpses of “The Madonna of Frydek,” which paints in broad strokes yet with detailed awareness, lean into Janáček’s love for his daughter, Olga, who died in 1903.
Much of this music, however, is divided against itself. For instance, what begins as a frolic in “Words fail!” morphs into uncertain recollections and emotional vulnerabilities. The latter work their way through “Good night!” and “Unutterable anguish” with the wormlike glow of burning steel wool. The strings are especially able to draw out that inner turmoil with maximum acuity. Even the closing Allegro grasps a bouquet of fragmented selves, each a palimpsest of circumstance.
Between the cycle’s two books is a 10-part text by Maïa Brami, dedicated to Thomas Demenga, who was the director of the Camerata Zürich when the orchestral arrangement was being put together (and who suggested the writing of these texts). Brami describes the scene as follows:
“In the evening of his life, Leoš Janáček returns to his native forest. He does know it, but it is the last time. The composer is looking for Otto, the son of his muse, Kamila Stösslova, whom he loves passionately. The boy has wandered off into the woods. After years of passionate correspondence, the young woman finally accepted the first-name as an admission of shared love and came to visit him in his family home. When he met her at a spa in 1917, the artist was at his lowest ebb: he had not recovered from the death of his daughter Olga and his career was not taking off. Kamila, his ‘rose,’ his ‘red flower,’ will resurrect him.”
This panoply of yearnings and recollections (“God how I would love to hold on to the summer,” he cries, “I who waited for it all my life!”) unfolds like a biography in miniature, brilliantly capturing moving images of the composer’s childhood (“Deep down in my suitcase, a pot of honey from my father’s hives, heavy as my grief”), mortal anxieties, and the loves connecting the spaces between. Thus, the composer is able to dip his fingers into the font his creative inspiration. And as the end encroaches on him, he resigns to the fleeting nature of things.
The program is bookended by two kindred pieces. The Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale St. Wenceslas, op. 35a (1914) of Josef Suk (1874-1935) welcomes natural sonorities. Like tall grasses in a windswept landscape, it gives purpose to the elements by making known their otherwise invisible movements. The Notturno in B major, op. 40 (1875) by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904) closes with grace, folding us into a river’s current in search of an oceanic afterlife.
Parker Quartet Daniel Chong violin Ken Hamao violin Jessica Bodner viola Kee-Hyun Kim violoncello Kim Kashkashian viola Recorded November 2018, Radiostudio DRS, Zürich Engineer: Peter Laenger Cover photo: Woong Chul An Produced by Manfred Eicher Release date: October 22, 2021
If the phenomenality of existence is rooted in its fleetingness, then music cannot be clothed in any raiment other than its mortality. Such is the impetus (and the slip-through-your-fingers brilliance) of György Kurtág’s composing, which never bites off more than it can chew so as to absorb every nutrient of its dialogic vocabularies. In the invocational architectures of his Six moments musicaux, op. 44 (2005), which open this program of ear-opening juxtapositions, there is much to be uncovered by listeners willing to seek the fragmentary in the harmonic and the holistic in the dissonant. Whether dancing with exuberance or wallowing in the eventide of mourning, the strings manifest as much meaning untouched by the bow as humming beneath its pressure. Shades of motifs that came before crack themselves open like eggs to reveal two distinct textures that cook at different temperatures. The Parker Quartet treats these dichotomies as anything but, reveling quietly in their gradations of white and yellow. The icy “Rappel des oiseaux…” (an etude rendered mostly in harmonics) is the clearest example of how sensitive one must be to speak Kurtág’s language. The quieter his grammar, the more robustly it leaps from the score.
The painted side of this mirror is Kurtág’s Officium breve, op. 28 (1988/89). Written in memory of composer Endre Szervánsky (1911-1977) but also paying respects to Anton Webern (1883-1945), its fifteen movements open as if tuning, bleeding into concentrations of light. Like a candle during a power outage, its quotidian purpose is magnified to near-sacred focus. For the most part, however, these pieces are reflections of reflections. From the sonority of the “Sostenuto” to the fragile spirituality of the “Canon a 2,” the Parkers erase the “d” in “breadth” and leave it to exhale into the slow-motion slumber of the final “Larghetto.” It is, as Paul Griffiths best describes it in his liner note, “A homecoming, to a lost home.”
Between these two destinations blossoms the String Quintet No. 3 in E-flat major, op. 97, of Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). Composed in 1893 during a sojourn in the small Iowa town of Spillville, its rendering here with special guest, violist Kim Kashkashian (a mentor of the musicians), immediately boldfaces the brightness for which the Czech composer was so well known, soaring in search of a place without winter. What begins as a splash of sunlight in the Scherzo shifts into fluid motion, the violin working its way like a bird in slow motion without any other purpose than to mark its path with invisible ink. Heat comes in the slow burn of the Larghetto, which rests its weight on Kashkashian’s shoulders as on a savior in dark times. This is a highlight for the quartet’s ability to mesh with itself and incorporate the extra instrument as if it was always there. Between the light footfalls of the cello’s pizzicato and the dreamlike tremble of its higher cousins, everyone has a chance to make peace with the fullness of their message, finding in the Finale a way to begin again: by inhaling with a prayerful spirit.
Fred Thomas piano Aisha Orazbayeva violin Lucy Railton violoncello Recorded 2012/2018 University of Huddersfield, courtesy of Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay Recording and mixing engineer: Alex Bonney Balance engineers: Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay and Rob Sutherland (trios), Elliott Parkin (solos) Recording producer: Fred Thomas Cover photo: Manos Chatzikonstanzis Mastering: Christoph Stickel Executive producer: Manfred Eicher Release date: October 22, 2021
Three Or One documents the prismatic transcriptions of pianist Fred Thomas, who for this project dips his fingers into the font of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. He adds to that unfinished book of organ chorales and canons a selection of vocal movements and other Bachiana, lovingly sequenced by producer Manfred Eicher. As revealed in a liner note, Thomas sought to “subvert the associations of the piano trio (so remote from Bach) and induce a hushedness that I heard in his compositions.” Bringing said trio to life are violinist Aisha Orazbayeva and cellist Lucy Railton, whose sense of color, space, and time humble the proceedings to a scriptural level.
The opening chorale, “Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 649) gives majesty to the very air as if it were only a medium for melody. Such presence is strong yet yielding throughout, as most apparent in the organ pieces. Of these, “Herr Christ, der ein’ge Gottes Sohn” (BWV 601) is especially touching for its heartfelt composition and centuries-delayed interpretation. “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (BWV 639) is another spiritual well from which is drawn the water of life itself.
The arranging is as sensitive as the playing. Whether in the delicate cello pizzicato of “Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt” (BWV 637) or the sustained violin lines of “Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott” (BWV 721), one can feel the close-eyed bliss of the creative process in both directions. The program offers solo piano interpretations as well, including a flight of four cantata arias and a sinfonia. In these are light-footed grace, intensifying passion, geometric wonder, and childlike whimsy all rolled into a holistic package.
Culminations of these signatures are found in the shining beacons of “Liebster Jesu, wir sind heir” (BWV 633), in which the strings blend like siblings while the piano sermonizes as if to a congregation of three, and “O Gott, du frommer Gott” (BWV 767), in which the violin sings as if a choir of one. Perhaps, this is a hidden nuance of the album’s title, referring not only to the number of musicians but also an evangelical diversity. Another doctrinal nugget is “Gott, durch deine Güte” (BWV 600), in which a closely miked violin played sul ponticello fills the left channel with birdlike movements.
We can be sure that everything gained here is the result of something lost. Hence the poignancy of what we are hearing: the cycle of birth and death that allows these beauties to exist in the first place. We can feel history coming together as much as separating, working to define the sounds through equal parts memory and unknowability. Notes Thomas: “Bach set out to discover, not create, the musical rules of the universe.” Indeed, there is much to discover in these hymns, sung before we could ever sing them.
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.
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 Linein 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 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.