Kim Kashkashian: J. S. Bach – Six Suites for Viola Solo (ECM New Series 2553/54)

Six Suites for Viola Solo

Kim Kashkashian
J. S. Bach: Six Suites for Viola Solo

Kim Kashkashian viola
Recorded November 2016 and February 2017 at American Academy of Arts and Letters, New York
Engineer: Judy Sherman
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 12, 2018

“Living with Bach: a true and faithful companion who patiently provides a merciless and transparent reflection of one’s failings in vision and simultaneously gives the deepest comfort in all circumstances.”
–Kim Kashkashian

If you were to unravel all the blood vessels contained in the average adult, they would stretch to a distance of 100,000 miles. And while the Six Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach (BWV 1007-1012) have always felt like such an unraveling, heard now from the viola of Kim Kashkashian, one becomes aware of that distance in an entirely new way. Whereas on the cello the extent of their totality feels surprising and overwhelming, here it takes an intimate, inevitable quality. In that respect, Kashkashian makes us believe that this music has passed through every molecule of her own body before a single note has tingled from the regard of a microphone.

Kashkashian heats expectation to the consistency of glass, cools it, and shines new light through its resulting prism by starting with Suite II in D minor. At first, one might miss the “depth” of the cello, but what the viola may lack in octave it makes up for with a resolutely vocal quality. With so much emotion at hand, the listener feels inadequate to contain it all. Yet both composer and interpreter assure us of having enough corridors within us to provide passage. In her rendering of the Sarabande especially, Kashkashian hasn’t so much revealed something once hidden by the screens of former performances, but taken the first pictures of this moon’s far side. Indeed, whereas other performers have focused on the face that’s always illuminated—whether by force of history or convention—Kashkashian shines her creative light onto a darker plane that was always there but for so long went unseen.

Only next do we find ourselves swaddled by Suite I in G major. At last, we get those familiar arpeggios, making their appearance all the more savory for their anticipatory marinade. What might normally be experienced as the seed, then, becomes the stalk born from that seed, at last graspable as an object of silent regard, not unlike the bow used to elicit its photosynthesis. Kashkashian shows her greenest spectrum in the Allemande, tracing every life-giving vein from edge to edge. Here, as also in the Courante that follows and the Menuet a skip beyond, she takes her time, allowing rhythms and ornaments to suggest their own variations and appearances.

Anyone missing the cello’s grit will find it dutifully preserved in C-minor Suite V. Between the angular Prélude and the laddering Gavotte, there’s plenty of sediment to be sifted through. The latter movement is a major turning point in that respect, and was for these ears the moment when the viola took on its spirit as a voice to be reckoned with in its own terms. What becomes clearer from this point forward is that everything Kashkashian plays is infused with as much of her being as Bach’s very own.

While “thinking out loud” is a descriptor often reserved for jazz improvisors, throughout Suite IV in E-flat major, Kashkashian shows us that classical musicians at the highest level are equally deserving of the accolade. Whether in every studied pause of the Allemande, masterful bowing of the Courante, or lively restraint of the duple Bourée, she shifts the light to reveal facets that, while forever singing, need a temporary amplifier to become audible.

Suite III, written in the fundamental C major, is a pantheon among temples, and therefore holds itself with a dignity that the other suites can only taste in shadow. Its own Allemande is another master class in syncopation and finds Kashkashian moving as would a linguist through a text so fully clothed in marginalia that, despite not being written in the native tongue, becomes second nature through years of anthropological internalization. So, too, the Courante, which leaps not from the strings but from the bow bidding them to resonate. Neither has the Bourée sounded so connected to its physical means, cracking in the ear like the softest of whips.

Just as the album began with the unexpected, so does it end as it should: with Suite VI in D major. Offering the most arresting Prélude of the collection, the microtonal rocking of which glows phosphorescently in its present handling, the suite is wisdom incarnate. The Sarabande is another manifesto of tenderness rarely so sustained, and delivers us like children into the dawn-drenched Gavotte. And where would we be but lost without its declamatory Gigue. Like its previous five counterparts, it gives us closure in order to hold us true to ourselves and our experiences. As Paul Griffiths in his liner essay notes of these farewells: “Gigues complete the landscape drawn in each key, not by the composer, not by the instrument, not by the performer, but by all three—complete it and leave.” We, however, stay behind, closing our eyes against the grain of what we’ve just heard in full knowledge that no such experience will ever honor us again. And so, we fold every artery, vein, and capillary we can call our own back into the suitcases of our skin, stepping back on the train of life and counting every track as we try to recall what it all felt like before these sounds compelled our detour into peace.

Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf (ECM New Series 2550)

2550 X

Danish String Quartet
Last Leaf

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin, harmonium, piano, glockenspiel
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded January 2017, The KirstenKjær Museum, Frøstrup
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Mixed June 2017 at Tritonus Studio, Stuttgart, by Rone Tonsgaard Sørensen, Manfred Eicher, and Markus Heiland (engineer)
Produced by the Danish String Quartet
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

After an intimately electrifying 2016 ECM debut, the Danish String Quartet follow with this program of original arrangements so well suited to the source material that if their collective heart were a moon, it would be full and bright in the night sky of their creativity. The album’s seed is the Danish Christmas hymn “Now found is the fairest of roses.” First published by poet-theologist H. A. Brorson in 1732, it’s played as if in slow motion and captures the musicians in a film of artful restraint. That the tune concludes rather than begins the sequence is indicative of an underlying philosophy at play, in which stars regress back to their gaseous birth, mere wisps of galactic thought rendered sentient by the incubator of time.

At the other end of the spectrum is “Despair not, o heart.” This Lutheran funeral hymn, first notated in 1517, adds the elegiac cast of a harmonium, and with it the feeling of the open sea unraveled in “Shore.” Written by the quartet’s cellist, Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, this self-described “folk fantasy” evokes sand and tide while also tracking the footprints left behind and washed away along its canvas. It finds later parallel in Sjölin’s “Naja’s Waltz,” a heartfelt piece of latticework that feels like a gift from father to daughter, and “Intermezzo,”a beautiful segue into “Shine you no more,” by lead violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. A reel partly inspired by John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” it moves kaleidoscopically and jigs its way across the grasslands.

Much of the liminal material at hand is Danish in origin, including the graceful “Minuet No. 60” from a 1760s collection of folk melodies transcribed by Rasmus Storm. Coordinated to the point of feeling untethered by convention, it moves as dancers in their prime. The song “Hur var du i aftes så sildig” (Where were you last night so late), from the same collection, treats pizzicato like a series of semantic puzzle pieces. Other highlights from this geographical focus are “The Dromer,” a so-called English dance collected by the Bast Brothers between 1763-1782, and “Æ Rømeser,” an example of the dance form known as the “sønderhoning,” unique to the southern Danish island village of Sønderho. Slow and sure, but transitioning into a more forthright sway, it grounds the listener as a prerequisite for leaving the earth behind.

Further travels take the quartet from the Swedish traditional “Polska from Dorotea,” attributed to fiddler Johan August Andersson (1866-1902) and filled with luscious interplay from the violin and the Faroese mythology of “Stædelil” to the astonishing sonorities of “Unst Boat Song,” an old Norse song from the Shetland Islands, and “Fastän,” a contemporary Swedish polska by Eva Sæther that ends with a trail of piano.

Regardless of origin, the quartet plays these all with such grace, attention to color, and scenic integrity, that where they’re going is never in question. In their handling, the last leaf becomes the first of another in a cycle of decay and burgeoning life, for which they are humble interpreters. We, in turn, are humbled to witness their unfurling.

Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings (ECM 2540-42)

Steve Reich

Steve Reich
The ECM Recordings

Recorded 1976-1981
Release date: September 30, 2016

Steve Reich creates more than music; he renders his sound so systematically as to make it seem organic. Like the frond of a fern or the edge of a tide’s diurnal crawl, it reveals internal order upon inspection, working its fractal splendor at the most intimate of listening levels. At their heart, Reich’s compositions are precisely that: aggregates of base elements working toward a larger conveyance of meaning. Their pulse is their nervous system, insisting on linear paths in a tangle of mortal spirals. But as Paul Griffiths notes in his booklet essay for this essential boxed set, Steve Reich struggled to find a recording home, despite a few standalone releases on other labels, and the fact that by this time he was in his forties and had established himself as a musician and composer of international renown. Part of the problem was how to market it. It wasn’t quite or just classical, but a unique amalgam drawn as much from rock music as West African drumming. And while Deutsche Grammophon had made a recording of Music for 18 Musicians in Paris, it wasn’t until ECM head Manfred Eicher heard it that it saw the light of day. “It spoke to the time,” Griffiths goes on, “and to some extent it still speaks of that time, when the Vietnam War was recently over and in most western countries a social revolution had been accomplished under pressure from below. It speaks of optimism and harmony and drive and progress.”

Reich ECM 3D

Whatever their political, social, or geographic connections, the three albums collected here are as historical in scope as they are in ECM’s preservation. With barest means—the primordial contact of living flesh on dead—Reich and his cadre of dedicated musicians offer a three-dimensional experience unlike any other. And while it’s easy to differentiate the intimate details between each recording, hearing them under a single banner reveals powerful interrelationships and dialogues in service of a growing aesthetic. From the unhidden methodologies of Music for 18 Musicians to the numerological mysteries of Tehillim, one finds a spectrum of emotional receivers flipped on in glorious succession.

Music for 18 Musicians

Music for 18 Musicians (ECM New Series 1129)

Shem Guibbory violin
Ken Ishii cello
Elizabeth Arnold voice
Rebecca Armstrong voice
Pamela Fraley voice
Nurit Tilles piano
Steve Chambers piano
Larry Karush piano, maracas
Gary Schall marimba, maracas
Bob Becker marimba, xylophone
Russ Hartenberger marimba, xylophone
Glen Velez marimba, xylophone
James Preiss metallophone, piano
Steve Reich piano, marimba
David Van Tieghem marimba, xylophone, piano
Virgil Blackwell clarinet, bass clarinet
Richard Cohen clarinet, bass clarinet
Jay Clayton voice, piano
Recorded 1976, Studio des Dames, Paris
Recording engineer: Klaus Hiemann
Mixing: Rudolph Werner, Klaus Hiemann, and Steve Reich
Produced by Rudolph Werner

Music for 18 Musicians makes no efforts to obscure the methods behind its construction. It shows us mysteries never notated. The piece is scored for violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone (vibraphone with no motor). With his characteristic attention to detail, Reich utilizes these instruments not necessarily for their evocativeness, but for the varied ways in which their timbres can be blended in a nearly hour-long wash of sound. Movements herein are at once linear and multidirectional. Reich’s notecraft commits to its own agenda while grafting on to many others along the way.

It all begins with a living metronome of piano and mallet instruments before a chorus of breaths (via throat and woodwinds) convenes. The interweaving of these strands reinforces the compositional density, like marrow and nerves attaching themselves to a spinal c(h)ord of aural design. Indeed, what develops is one active body of which instruments are the genetic code. And while vocal utterances function as extensions of manufactured instruments, they lend fragility to the underlying spirit at hand. They rise and fall, slowly replaced by clarinets as if one and the same.

Sudden changes in rhythm serve to reconfigure our attention to the intervention of the composer’s hand: just as we are being lulled into a sense of perpetuity, akin to a natural cycle studied from afar, we are reminded of listening to a human creation. This awareness invites us to share in its re-creation through the act of listening. Like much of Reich’s music, Music for 18 Musicians is nothing if not accommodating. Rather than patronize or proselytize, it bares its bones. This brackets Music for 18 Musicians off from much of the histrionic art music in vogue at the time of its creation (1974-76).

The recording quality of this album is ideally suited to its subject matter. A sense of “clusteredness” prevails, such that the performers never stray too far from the nexus of their unity, while also providing just enough breathing room (performers’ lung capacities determine the length of sonic pulses throughout) for individual elements to shine. Most of the mixing, as it were, is done live by the musicians themselves, and requires attentiveness on the part of the engineer to highlight that interplay without overpowering the core.

Reich Octet etc

Octet / Music for a Large Ensemble / Violin Phase (ECM New Series 1168)

Russ Hartenberger marimba
Glen Velez marimba
Gary Schall marimba
Richard Schwarz marimba
Bob Becker xylophone
David Van Tieghem xylophone
James Preiss vibraphone
Nurit Tilles piano
Edmund Niemann piano
Larry Karush piano
Steve Reich piano
Jay Clayton voice
Elizabeth Arnold voice
Shem Guibbory violin
Robert Chausow violin
Ruth Siegler viola
Claire Bergmann viola
Chris Finckel cello
Michael Finckel cello
Lewis Paer bass
Judith Sugarman basse
Virgil Blackwell clarinet
Richard Cohen clarinet
Mort Silver flute
Ed Joffe soprano saxophone
Vincent Gnojek soprano saxophones
Douglas Hedwig trumpet
Marshall Farr trumpet
James Hamlin trumpet
James Dooley trumpet
Music for a Large Ensemble / Octet
Recorded February 1980 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Violin Phase
Recorded March 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Mixing: Manfred Eicher, Martin Wieland, and Steve Reich
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Have you ever repeated a word over and over again until it loses meaning? Cognitive science calls this “semantic satiation.” Now imagine that someone could do the same thing for instruments and you’ll have a clear idea of the power of a Steve Reich composition. In this selection of three longer examples, we get exactly that: an unraveling of music’s linguistic shapes, transformed from within.

The instruments in Music for a Large Ensemble fit into a vast sequence of aural DNA, as logical as it is mystifying. Every voice is given ample space in a piece that, while densely layered, is as airy and fractally ordered as a puff of windblown dandelion. Strings waver with the unrelenting heat of a desert sun, horns ebb and flow in a brassy wash of equilibrium, and a vibraphone rings out like magic over all. Although the music moves mechanically, its texture is organic. This earthiness is maintained in Violin Phase, which consists of a repeated motif that, as with all of Reich’s “phase” pieces, is knocked just slightly out of alignment by the doubling voice, like two turn signals rhythmically staggering and realigning. This is the most localized of Reich’s phases, clearly rooted in the bluegrass fiddling tradition. The violin grinds like sand, small particles swirling and separating yet holding fast to some invisible predictability. After two such strikingly different pieces, the Octet somehow comes across as the most intimate. The inclusion of wind instruments, in particular the clarinet and flute, adds a crystalline contrast, leading to a glorious and sudden silence.

Albums like this and Music for 18 Musicians will easily make one lose track of time. Both are tessellations in sound, each image shifting through time and space like an Escher print, so that what begins as a diamond ends up a bird in flight. Naturally, the precision required to play Reich’s music is a feat in and of itself. That such a synergistic cast of musicians could arise out of the work of one composer is by all accounts spectacular, and when so lovingly recorded their cumulative effect is heightened. This is music that finds its expansiveness internally, charting the waters of our biological oceans until we come to our beginnings anew.

Tehillim

Tehillm (ECM New Series 1215)

Pamela Wood voice
Cheryl Bensman voice
Rebecca Armstrong voice
Jay Clayton voice
Bob Becker percussion
Russ Hartenberger percussion
Garry Kvistad percussion
Steve Reich percussion
Gary Schall percussion
Glen Velez percussion
Virgil Blackwell clarinet, flute
Mort Silver clarinet, piccolo
Vivian Burdick oboe
Ellen Bardekoff English horn
Edmund Niemann electric organ
Nurit Tilles electric organ
Shem Guibbory violin
Robert Chausow violin
Ruth Siegler viola
Chris Finckel cello
Lewis Paer bass
George Manahan conductor
Recorded October 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Mixing: Manfred Eicher, Martin Wieland, and Steve Reich
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Human languages are contrived, insofar as they have undergone extensive sociopolitical reshaping. In Steve Reich’s Tehillim, however, words take on a self-sustaining feel, deeply rooted in the nutrient-rich soil of the composer’s instrumental configuration, and serve to dictate the flow of a seminal shift in American “minimalism.” Being the first document of this new path in Reich’s personal and professional development, this recording matches an endearing trepidation to every practiced gesture. This music, says Reich, may be “heard as traditional and new at the same time,” as it was both a way for him to explore his Jewish roots while weaving a fresh brand of secularism into the many liturgical threads at his back. At just under 30 minutes, Tehillimis a fleeting unraveling of that very fabric.

Tehillim, meaning “praises” and referring to the Hebrew Book of Psalms from which it borrows its texts, is more than a remarkable work. It is also a work of remarks. The scoring is built around a core of drum and clapping before introducing a female voice doubled by clarinet. This opens into a series of four-part canons against a backdrop of electric organs and maraca. Each melodic line—human and instrumental alike—moves distinctly, unaffected by the trappings of vibrato or other flourishes, as an imitative counterpoint works its way into the smoke of this short-burning votive candle. Part II carries the women’s voices into higher elevations in which the passage of time is marked by a light interplay of drums. Part III is the slowest of the four, ebbing and flowing with a breath’s involuntary precision. Like the most engaging of Gavin Bryars’s ensemble pieces, this section pulses with the quiet splendor of a deep-sea organism. The final part opens our eyes again to sunlight. With the barest assortment of auditory keys, it unlocks just enough doors to usher us into a more personal understanding of exultation. It can be no coincidence, then, that the derivation of the title—Hey, Lamed, Lamed (HLL)—also forms the root for “hallelujah.” And so, when the hallelujahs that close the piece spring up like so much plant life, they seem inevitable. Tehillim is the Tree of Life feeding off itself, bathing in the spores of the Word made flesh.

Despite having turned this triangle around in the inner ear more times than can be counted, I discover something new every time: proof positive that calling it “minimalism” is unfair both to Reich and to the ones among whom he makes these demanding journeys. Thankfully, all we need to join them is a mind prepared to receive every shift of terrain with humility and a body in which to house it.

Eicher Reich
(Photo credit: Deborah Feingold)

Mieczysław Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet (ECM New Series 2538/39)

 

Weinberg Chamber Symphonies

Mieczysław Weinberg
Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet

Kremerata Baltica
Gidon Kremer principal violin
Andrei Pushkarev timpani, triangle, percussion
Yulianna Avdeeva piano
Džeraldas Bidva violin
Dainius Puodžiukas violin
Santa Vižine viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Mate Bekavac clarinet
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conductor (Chamber Symphony No. 4)
Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1-3
Recorded live June 13, 2015 at Musikverein Wien
Piano Quintet, Chamber Symphony No. 4
Recorded June 9/10, 2015 at Latvian Radio Studio, Riga
Tonmeister: Vilius Keras, Aleksandra Kerienė
Engineer: Varis Kurmins (Riga)
Mastering by Christoph Stickel, Manfred Eicher at MSM Studio, München
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

Following his first examination of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), violinist Gidon Kremer returns with his eponymous ensemble for another album devoted to the Polish-born Soviet composer. “No other composer has entered my own and Kremerata Baltica’s repertoire with such intensity,” writes Kremer in a liner note for the album, citing the four chamber symphonies recorded here as his finest examples. Despite Weinberg’s penchant for chamber music, if not also because of it, in these pieces one finds heartbreaking intimacy.

The Chamber Symphony No. 3, op. 151 (1990), loosely transcribed from his String Quartet No. 5, opens the program’s descending first half. The string orchestra for which it is scored opens in the mode of Lento with such clarity that it feels like a mirror in which every listener is reflected in high definition. Its tactility of history finds purchase wherever it can, clawing its way slowly into the inner ear, where it nests like a dying bird. Its afterlife is marked Allegro molto, lively yet underlined by melancholy, shifting into a tutti passage of chords that teeters on the brink of decay. The Adagio that follows is Weinberg’s default state of mind, giving itself over to thoughts of fog and shadows. The cello arising from shimmering violins gifts us one of the great solos of modern music. Lastly, the Andantino, a macabre dance interspersed with surprising Baroque textures utters a transfixing farewell.

This piece and its predecessor come from a time when Weinberg was fading into obscurity. Sick and isolated, he could only watch as his friends died or emigrated beyond his reach. Still, works like these continued to be premiered and touch the lives of those fortunate as we to hear them.

Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2 and 1 are further reworkings of string quartets and both supplement new movements in their reiterated forms. The Chamber Symphony No. 2, op. 147 (1987) adds to the orchestral milieu a pounding timpani, and with it a layer of storm. It circles, dances, and flirts with romanticism even as it transcends boundaries with the ease of breathing. The second movement shifts from lacey dance to exuberant outpouring, capped by a solo violin that also figures centrally in the final Andante. The strings are gnarled like tree roots, only some of which are visible aboveground. The Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 145 (1986) closes out the first disc, balancing the Tchaikovsky-esque textures of its first movement with the final Presto’s full-on desperation, treading the edges of collapse between them with a strange mixture of glee and fear. Although no timpani is to be heard, it may just be the most percussive of the symphonies.

The Piano Quintet, op. 18 was composed in 1944, a year into Weinberg’s settlement in Moscow, where he would spend the remainder of his life, following a harrowing escape from the Nazis in 1941. By influence of Shostakovich, it takes a five-movement structure, and is presently arranged for piano, string orchestra and percussion by Andrei Pushkarev and Gidon Kremer. The gentlest of persuasions eases us into its sound-world, brittle enough to snap at the merest hint of impropriety. In the interest of its protection, Kremer and company lend it an evenness that never ruptures, except at choice moments of catharsis. That said, there’s very little in the way of redemption. In its place are the anxieties of its faster movements, which in their headlong rushes of detail reveal many possible outs, none of which are taken until the mighty Largo that follows. Over its 14-minute duration, as much urgency as recall feeds into the final movement. Appropriately designated Allegro agitato, the latter mocks the army of time.

Last is the Chamber Symphony No. 4, op. 153 (1992). Scored for clarinet, triangle and string orchestra, and bearing dedication to composer Boris Chaykovsky as a gesture of reconciliation to their waning friendship, it was to be Weinberg’s final completed work. Its opening Lento is his crowning achievement. Here, as in all subsequent movements, the clarinet flows as if through the prism of a traumatized yet resolute soul. The second movement, a fierce Allegro molto, treats the clarinet as a voice among voices, a representative of its community, vying for attention in the push and shove of a politically overwhelmed life. Again, a cello figures sagaciously at the end, tracing wisdom born of conflict. The Adagio is another patient stroke of genius, drawn like an ink-laden brush until every last drop is elicited. The final Andantino is a ballet without dancers in which microtonal plies are front and center before collapsing into a funereal drone.

If Shostakovich, with whom he was a close friend, can be said to be pathos, then Weinberg is the pathos of that pathos. Kremer’s focus on this music is therefore more than a recovery effort, but a philosophical resurrection. Under his direction, the music leads itself, and in that spirit walks crosswise with regard to every expectation, head bowed and hand dashing across the page before the flesh expires.

András Schiff: Franz Schubert – Sonatas & Impromptus (ECM New Series 2535)

Schubert Sonatas and Impromptus

András Schiff
Franz Schubert: Sonatas & Impromptus

András Schiff fortepiano
Recorded July 2016, Kammermusiksaal H. J. Abs, Beethoven-Haus, Bonn
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Tuning and technical assistance: Georg F. Senn
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 12, 2019

“Secretly, I hope to be able to make something of myself, but who can do anything after Beethoven?”

In these words, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) at once shadowed himself against his light of inspiration and added to its fiery glow. But because artists of any type are often their worst bêtes noires, the humble interpreter would better judge his place in history, for while this music exuded from the body of its composer, it infuses every sinew and synapse of its performer. In András Schiff, Schubert finds an amplifier both in and out of time. “Schubert’s music,” notes the Hungarian-born pianist, “is the most human that I know,” and only a musician of such humanity could hold true to that doctrine.

In his own day, Schubert was filed prematurely under “recondite,” and so after the publication of his first two early sonatas he dove headlong into his crowning Winterreise, producing also in that period the Moments musicaux (see ECM New Series 2425/26) and the first Impromptus D 899. The latter were never meant to be concert pieces. “And even if we play them in a large hall today,” Schiff insists, “we have to transform that space into an intimate space.” Schiff does that, and more, in his renderings of these mosaics. From the light-footed highs to the surface-level lows and the heavenly mids between them, Schiff achieves a striking balance and dynamic spread on the Franz Brodmann fortepiano, built in Vienna circa 1820, which makes its recording debut here. In the first impromptu especially, one hears a mind thinking aloud in words that can only be captured in their absence. In place of letters, Schubert writes with feelings—not impressions, but fully formed emotional landscapes. As lines diverge, Schiff handles their individuality with surgical care. In both the second and third impromptus, he carries across a sense of water running through a forest, while in the last enhancing the modesty reflected in the epigraph above.

The Sonata in c minor D 958 was written in 1828, just two months before Schubert’s death. Its Allegro plunges us into a world all its own, crafted as much by shadow as by light. Schiff’s rhythmic sensitivity is righteously attuned and reveals a difference of reiteration rarely matched. The mournful Adagio finds its promise fulfilled by asking for no promise to be fulfilled. Its eternal spiral of questioning and answering becomes a private dialogue for composer and performer alike. A Menuett gives us respite from the weight of darkness, turning to a memory as a rift in the fabric of time that cannot be brought closer no matter how far we reach. The final Allegro, which Schiff calls a “dance of death,” is a mad, desperate rush into turbulent night. At any given moment, it threatens to unchain itself, but manages to hold its integrity, even as it unspools to a thread of its former glory.

The Three Piano Pieces D 946, essentially impromptus by another name, are among Schubert’s most adroit. The first of these, in e-flat minor, appeared at Schiff’s fingers previously on ECM in his Encores After Beethoven, and enthralls even more in the present rendition. This piece has it all: drama and introspection, virtuosity and humility, life and death. The second is an inversion of the first, achieving some of its densest textures in the middle between a head and tail of airy resolution, while the final impromptu jumps through one thematic hoop after another until it sticks its landing perfectly.

Schiff is keen to observe that Schubert, even in his brief life, wrote more than 600 lieder for piano and voice, and that even when writing for solo piano “the human voice and the song are always present.” His magnum opus, the Sonata in A Major D 959, is proof positive of this effect and is alone worth the price of admission. Its gargantuan opening is the science of poetry incarnate. At nearly 16 minutes, it floats two images for each one it sinks, and leaves us tenderized for the lachrymose Andantino that follows. If any single movement can be exhibited as proof of the fortepiano’s capabilities, this would be it. From whispers to thunder, it encompasses the full gamut with breadth of mind, and Schiff understands its mechanical heart as his own. The mood is so intense that the Scherzo opens a portal from one end of life to the other, bleeding into the concluding Rondo as if time itself were a physical substance to be waded through on the way to eternity.

As Misha Donat writes in his liner essay, “In the beauty of his material and the magical effects of elliptical key change…it must be said that Schubert actually surpassed his model.” But perhaps their relationship isn’t so much temporal as spatial, for while Schubert had himself buried close to Beethoven, the two would seem to converse from atop distant mountains even as performers of their music try to hang-glide along the currents between them without falling. And while it’s tempting to imagine what Schubert might have written had he lived beyond the tragic age of 31, that his flame caught hold of its worldly wick for as long as it did should be enough to validate the gift of its light.

Thomas Demenga: J. S. Bach – Suiten für Violoncello (ECM New Series 2530/31)

Demenga Bach

Thomas Demenga
J. S. Bach: Suiten für Violoncello

Thomas Demenga violoncello
Recorded February 2014, Hans Huber-Saal, Basel
Engineer: Laurentius Bonitz
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

The Cello Suites of Johann Sebastian Bach, like his Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, are touchstones for listeners and performers alike. In the latter sense, Thomas Demenga approaches them through an ECM lens for the second time here. Having first fragmented his traversal between 1986 and 2002 through a series of pairings with contemporary works, thereby suggesting exciting new relationships, here he uncovers intra- rather than interrelationships, moving from fundament to firmament and back again with mind and hands sculpted by experience into something unmissable.

Where some interpretations might seek to add something new, Demenga’s embrace something old, always there but too often crucified on the scoreboard of modernism. Here we encounter a return to form, if not also a form of return, in the deepest interest of music that springs eternal from Creator to creator. Referred to in Thomas Meyer’s liner essay as “every cellist’s gospel,” the Cello Suites do more than encourage rereading; they demand it. Having played these masterpieces for more than 50 years, Demenga understands that no one is ever “done” with them and that we’re all born and expire in its swaddling echoes.

In the First Suite, he carries an antique sensibility from first inhale of Prélude to last exhale of Gigue, working shadows into familiar nooks and crannies as if they constituted a physical substance. That same feeling of breath, more than metaphorical, whispers, rasps, and soliloquizes through the Second Suite’s philosophical journey. Its Prélude liquifies the heart and feeds it to another in a cycle of life that cannot be qualified by any other means than the gut strings and baroque bow with which Demenga has chosen to articulate every stroke. The Courante is strangely beautiful in its jagged denouement, while the Sarabande that follows it speaks with haunting urgency and the concluding Gigue with three-dimensional tactility.

The lithe stirrings of the Third Suite’s Prélude and Allemande form a dyad of such emotional integrity as to occupy a realm all their own. As in the famous Bourrée I & II, he dives inward for pearls of wisdom, unpolished and offered in their own shells, glorious specimens of nature whose perfection communicates in the language of imperfection. Demenga’s trills and glissandi are as surprising as they are organic, and flow of their own volition.

Says Demenga of Bach, “His music is detached from personal feelings and dramas or other events to which many composers give expression in their music. That is why his music is so pure and why it possesses, we might say, something divine.” In interest of that expression, this performance is made all the more solitary for its attention to dance-informed structures. This is especially evident in the program’s second half, which through the prism of the Fourth Suite shines a light striated with as much solemnity as exuberance. From the throaty Prélude unspools a narrative of timeless impulses. In the Allemande and Courante that follow, one can feel the soul of a viola da gamba squeezing through the strings, as if the latter were portals of mastery to which our ears must seem as eyes hungry for vistas beyond the known. And in the footwork of the final Gigue, the press of flesh into soil is vivid and alive.

From that sunlit scene Bach pivots into the twilight of the Fifth Suite. Here the modesty of its inception tangles in moral debate with its fleshly Courante—made all the more carnal for Demenga’s intuitive bowing—before finding solace in the blushing Gigue.

This leaves the Sixth Suite to stand as its own Book of Revelation, a scriptural culmination of all that came before it, a fulfillment of prophesies as old as they are indisputable, and which spread the good news of salvation not through words but actions.

As the opening movements—not least of all in the dizzying Prélude—suggest, we must find our own way into this music not by way of deciphering but in the knowledge of receiving a gift in and of faith. And if the finality of its Gigue is any indication, we must treat farewell as the opening of a deeper relationship with life itself, personified in every tremble of the waiting ear and reciprocated whenever we need to be reminded of purpose.

Dénes Várjon: De la nuit (ECM New Series 2521)

De la nuit.jpg

Dénes Várjon
De la nuit

Dénes Várjon piano
Recorded April 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 31, 2018

He searched under the bed, around the fireplace,
in the chest: but he found no one.
And he could not understand how the spirit had crept in—
and how he had escaped again.
–E.T.A. Hoffmann, Night Pieces

Hungarian pianist Dénes Várjon, who last regaled ECM listeners on 2012’s Precipitando, returns with another program of three culturally disparate composers united by the immaterial. Although the blood running through the veins of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), and Béla Bartók (1881-1945) may be genetically dissimilar, in each we find arbitrations of music that, according to the booklet essay by Jürg Stenzl, “far transcended the confines of their time.” The untethered quality of these compositions, each chosen with utmost attention to detail, by virtue of their literary angles interlock in organic conversation. And in rendering them, ECM has found an unparalleled interpreter.

Schumann’s Fantasiestücke, op. 12 of 1837 are comprised of transfixing poetry. In these “character pieces,” linked explicitly to the writings of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Jean Paul, Schumann eschews sonata form in favor of an emotional mosaic that abides by its own logic. Its foundations support a lighthouse for listeners lost at sea. From the dramatic (Aufschwung and In der Nacht) and tenderly inquisitive (Warum?) to the mythic (Fabel) and dreamlike (Traumes Wirren), Schumann shines his light through one incredible prism after another until, coming to rest after the robust Ende vom Lied, Várjon, too, breathes the sigh of a journeyman closing his eyes with success.

Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit (1908), inspired by a prose-poetry collection of the same name by Aloysius Bertrand, spins those latter impulses into a web of vivid imagery. The lambent Ondine evokes the water sprite of the same name, whose attempts at seduction follow fountain-like trajectories before rejection sends her reeling into the background. Le Gibet (Gallows) is meant to illustrate the body of a hanged man. Morbid yet beautiful, its suspensions take on new meaning. Scarbo returns to folklore in its depiction of the eponymous dwarf, said to haunt nightmares. The sensation of running desperately through a forest of which every tree is a hand tearing at our clothes makes this one of the most astonishing renditions I’ve ever heard of this piece.

The title of Bartók’sSzabadban(1926) means “Out of Doors,” and provides respite in the pastoral truths of its canvas. Some of its many influences include folk songs in the darkly percussive first movement and the harpsichord music of Couperin in the third. Throughout, a sense of comfort is always one step removed, locked in step with the march of a history that has all but left these jewels behind. Like the final movement, each scene is totally committed to its own unfolding, until we’re ready to work it back into shape as a promise to return.

Till Fellner: In Concert – Beethoven/Liszt (ECM New Series 2511)

2511 X

Till Fellner
In Concert: Beethoven/Liszt

Till Fellner piano
Années de pèlerinage
Concert recording, June 2002
Wien, Musikverein, Großer Saal
Tonmeister: Gottfried Zawichowski
Engineer: Andreas Karlberger
An ORF Recording (Austrian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Österreich 1)
Sonata No. 32
Concert recording, October 2010
Middlebury College Performing Arts Series
Mahaney Center for the Arts, Robison Hall
Tonmeister: Mark Christensen
Mastering: Markus Heiland
An ECM Production
Release date: November 2, 2018

But where of ye, O tempests! is the goal?
Are ye like those within the human breast?
Or do ye find, at length, like eagles, some high nest?
–Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

After a mosaic of recordings spanning the gamut from J. S. Bach to Thomas Larcher, Till Fellner returns to ECM with a pastiche of live recordings from 2002 and 2010. The first presents the Austrian pianist in his home capital for year one of Franz Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage. Inspired by the composer’s trip to Switzerland from 1835 to 1836 but unpublished until 1855, this aural scrapbook is alive with alpine imagery and motifs, encompassing firsthand memories, friendships, and even political views. It’s on the latter note that the collection begins with La Chapelle de Guillaume Tell. This stately introduction to an otherwise flowing work sets a precedent of architectural soundness that infuses all to follow. Contrast this with the watery beauties of Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d’une source, and you already have a sense of the variety to which Liszt had eloquent access, rendered by Fellner with dynamic temperament.

While many sections, such as the sunlit Pastorale and Eglogue (the latter riffing on a shepherd’s song), are built around fleeting impressions, each nevertheless feels complete. This may be due to the fact nearly all of the music is revised from earlier material, an exception being the tempestuous Orage. No matter the duration, emotional integrity is the primary ingredient, so that the descriptions of Vallée d’Obermann’s thirteen precious minutes feel just as thick as Le mal du pays. Both seem to find the composer yearning for home when away from it, if not also for distant travels when in it, lending themselves to a score that only serves to nourish Fellner’s radiance. All the above shades of meaning cohere in Les cloches de Genève, by which the pianist elicits rich yet subtle sonorities.

If Liszt is a photographer, then Ludwig van Beethoven is a filmmaker whose magnum opus is surely the Sonata No. 32 in c minor. His Opus 111 shares its key signature with the Fifth Symphony and other monumental works, and provides a fitting end to his sonata cycle. As suggested in William Kinderman’s deeply considered liner essay, “The pair of movements of this sonata interact as a contrasting duality suggesting strife and fulfillment, evoking qualities which have stimulated much discussion, reminding commentators of the ‘here’ and the ‘beyond,’ or ‘samsara’ and ‘nirvana.’” Such spiritual language is no mere hyperbole, but an activation point of Beethoven’s grander concerns over the effects of art on the soul. As The Art of Fugue was to Bach, so is the Sonata No. 32 to Beethoven with regard to variation.

To be sure, Fellner touches upon those grander narratives, but more importantly keeps his ears attuned to the details. In the opening movement, for example, his arpeggios feel like quills on paper. Balancing stream-of-consciousness impulses with deeply articulated control, he links an unbreakable chain of progression. The second and final movement begins almost timidly, as if sifting through old notes for fear of what one might find, only to be surprised by a joy one never knew was waiting for rediscovery. Urgency compels the left hand while trills in the right signal a transformation of flesh into glory. “The transformational power of this closing music,” says Kinderman, “acts like a utopian symbol, which seeks to neutralize if not dispel the tragic reality embodied in the weighty opening movement of the work.” And perhaps weight is the most appropriate physical property by which to analyze what’s happening here, for regardless of size and scope, the relationship of every note to gravity is meticulously examined, its potential for flight believed in like a prayer.

Yuuko Shiokawa/András Schiff: Bach/Busoni/Beethoven (ECM New Series 2510)

Bach Busoni Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa
András Schiff
Bach/Busoni/Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa violin
András Schiff piano
Recorded December 2016, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 27, 2017

Seventeen years separate the first appearance of Yuuko Shiokawa and pianist András Schiff on ECM’s New Series and this long-awaited follow-up. Here they bring their intimate knowledge and experience to bear on sonatas by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Through its sequence and execution, the program reveals as much richness of ideas within the pieces as between them.

Shiokawa Schiff
(Photo credit: Barbara Klemm)

Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1016, dating to his 1717-23 tenure as Kapellmeister at Köthen, is emblematic of a then-nascent genre, and finds both composer and interpreters ordering lines of many shapes and sizes. Schiff’s role at the keyboard is a challenging one, each hand operating independently yet with deep awareness of the other, while Shiokawa must paint with an actorly brush from first note to last. The vulnerability she brings to the opening Adagio is but one example of her ability to take something so lilting, so fragile, and render it impervious to the trampling feet of time. From there she takes us on a journey of inward focus, and by an interactive cartography traces bubbling streams to destinations of delight.

Although Busoni was more steeped in Bach than perhaps any composer before or since, one would be hard-pressed to find Baroque affinity in the first movement of his Sonata No. 2 in e minor, Op. 36a. Towering over a decidedly Beethovenian landscape, it leans toward and away from its historical precedents with fervor. Whereas single movements in the Bach were facets of a larger mosaic, each of Busoni’s sections is a sonata unto itself. The gargantuan final movement, however, is a theme and variations on the Bach chorale “Wie wohl ist mir, o Freund der Seelen, wenn ich in deiner Liebe ruh,” as it appears in wife Anna Magdalena’s Clavier-Büchlein of 1725. Busoni’s 17-minute exegesis goes from funereal to exuberant and back again. Between those worthy bookends stand two slim, insightful volumes. Where the Presto is playful yet adhesive, the somber Andante treads over shifting terrain.

In light of these fantastic excursions, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 10 in G Major comes across as non-fiction. As the composer’s last violin sonata, it holds a status all its own, and its details are organically suited to the duo. Where the trills and harmonies of its Allegro yield an enchanting ripple effect, the Adagio holds us suspended as if in need of nothing more than a confirmation of breath. A brief Scherzo scales the highest peak before trekking down into an Allegretto with a joy given life through musicians who care genuinely for everything they touch. It’s therefore difficult to listen to this recording without reminding oneself that Shiokawa and Schiff are partners in both music and life. Not only because they play so lovingly, but also because they listen to each other with rapt attention, inspiring nothing short of the same.