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

Cantante e tranquillo

Keller Quartett
Cantante e tranquillo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2454|55 X

Arvo Pärt
Musica Selecta
A Sequence by Manfred Eicher

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

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

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

Pärt and Eicher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Barber Bartók

Keith Jarrett

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Kate Moore: Dances and Canons (ECM New Series 2344)

Dances and Canons

Kate Moore
Dances and Canons

Kate Moore composer
Saskia Lankhoorn piano
Recorded April 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of composer Kate Moore is a hybrid of hybrids. It channels the inner fire of things that must someday turn to ash, and coaxes from this realization one intensely melodic conflagration after another. Born in England but raised in Australia, Moore cites the latter’s open landscapes as having permanently hued her artistic paintbrush. Moore’s longtime interpreter is pianist Saskia Lankhoorn, who debuts both herself and the composer to ECM’s hallowed New Series family.

Even though Moore professes no allegiance to minimalism—and rightly so, for her politics could hardly be more different—fans of the genre’s stalwarts are sure to take distinct pleasure in this program. Furthermore, taking the opening solo piano piece Spin Bird as an example, we find a natural wonderment present in, say, the seminal Philip Glass. Yet where Glass might attend to the overarching philosophical questions of a Koyaanisqatsi or a Satyagraha, Moore is more interested in the under-arching gesture, a cupping of water in all its microscopic glory. In this respect, Stories For Ocean Shells, also for solo piano, is like two hands interlocking: despite being of the same organism, each has characteristics that distinguish it from the other, with whom it only partners occasionally in a world designed to separate them through material engagement. Only through immaterial actions do they come together in a temporarily unbroken circuit of meditation and profound thinking. Every microtonal harmony is a puff of spore, every melodic spiral singing as if sung in the manner of a falling leaf. The result is a music that gazes on its own reflection and sees insight into the self as insight into all selves. And so, what might seem a mere chain of arpeggios in theory is in practice a downright sacred unfolding of time signatures, which can only be notated through the act of speech and bodily interpretation. Lankhoorn is fully adapted to bringing all of this out, and more.

(Photo credit: Dániel Vass)

But if The Body Is An Ear takes its inspiration from the writings of Sufi mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan (as it does), then it also takes inspiration from that which cannot be written (as it should). The rhizomatic pulse of its two pianos is so translucent that the instruments bleed through one another until there is but one between them. The transitions are resolutely beautiful—from smoothness to pointillism, from connectivity to individuality, from river to ocean—but hearing them as we do from the level of the molecule, we recognize that even beauty needs emptiness to survive. In this light, Canon is the intermediary between coalescence and dissolution. Magnified now to four pianos, Moore’s forces begin with a rounded dance of solitude and finish in a thought spiral. As the newest piece of the program, brought to the studio as it was in still-raw form, its gradualness begs a contemplative spirit and rewards the patient listener with presence of mind.

From the above descriptions, it would seem as if Moore’s is an ephemeral realm. This it might very well be, though no more than anything in this world already is. It’s also physical. The spine of Zomer (for solo piano) is glass-boned, its nerves of light sending their messages in occasional, quiet bursts, while Joy (also solo) grows heavier with every iterative cycle of its unfolding. Like the emotion itself, it is sometimes messy, at other times supremely ordered, and prone to exhaustion. The ultimate (for being fundamental) distillation of all this is Sensitive Spot for “multiple pianos,” meaning the musician must play against recordings of herself, trying to match them as closely as possible. Quick and almost nervous, it reinforces itself like a flower becoming lost in its own fragrance.

Landhoorn performs Sensitive Spot:

The closing reprise of Spin Bird, then, feels less like such. Rather, it is a leap farther inward to a place where only you, dear listener, and I may travel, untethered and free to roam.

(To hear samples of Dances and Canons, click here.)

Trio Mediaeval: Aquilonis (ECM New Series 2416)


Trio Mediaeval

Anna Maria Friman voice, Hardanger fiddle, melody chimes
Linn Andrea Fuglseth voice, portable organ, melody chimes
Berit Opheim voice, melody chimes
Recorded June 2014 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recording supervision: John Potter
An ECM Production

Trio Mediaeval are Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth, and, making her ECM debut, Berit Opheim (who in 2014 replaced Torunn Østrem Ossum). In their sixth New Series program, the Scandinavian songstresses bring a characteristically thoughtful cohesion to their selections and the themes under which they live again. The album’s title means “North Wind,” but as recording supervisor John Potter explains in his album note, the metaphor is as much temporal as geographical, emphasizing as it does the Trio’s centuries-long reach.


Furthest from the present are two Italian sacred songs from the 12th century. “Benedicti e llaudati” (Sacred and blessed apostles…) and “Fammi cantar l’amor” (Let me sing of the love…) contrast radiant harmonies spun around a core of chant with monophonic lines of flight. The drone also figures as a natural extension of three Norwegian folk songs, which find the singers accompanying themselves for the first time on instruments (the enriching percussion heard on 2007’s Folk Songs was courtesy of Birger Mistereggen). The Hardanger fiddle, played by Friman, is both heart and lungs of “Ingen vinner frem til den evige ro” (Eternal rest is the reward of…), and its ghost whispers in the air of the vocal solo “Gud unde oss her at leve så” (God gave us grace to live), a string of beauty untying itself in righteousness.

A step closer brings us to 14th-century Iceland and the vespers of the Office of St. Thorlak, beautifully unpacked from their plainchant rudiments into braids of censer smoke. The masterful arrangements enchant with their folkish brogue, sounding at times more like songs of the Irish plains than prayerful nights. Now it’s Fuglseth on the portable organ who gleans a droning undercurrent from the score and copies its DNA until it breathes. Yet another step lands us in the more pronounced polyphony of three 15th-century English carols, of which “Ecce quod natura mutat sua jura” (Behold, nature changes her laws) and “Alleluia: A newë work” are sublime highlights. The latter was the first piece the original Trio ever sung and makes its glowing presence known to a wider audience at last.

In the realm of the living, English composer Andrew Smith contributes three symbiotic pieces to the Trio’s repertoire. Of these, “Ioseph fili David” (Joseph, son of David) is the crowning jewel of the program, while “Ave regina caelorum” (Hail, Queen of heaven) breaks glass with its light. Swedish composer Anders Jormin, better known to ECM fans as a jazz bassist with a classical heart, solely offers “Ama.” Based on a poem by Virgil, it is a miniature of overlaid shapes, transparent and turned askew until they form new harmonies in search of the old. The singers themselves compose three pieces, each a vital organ to the program’s functioning body, planets without satellites whose clouds welcome all suns. And American composer William Brooks yields the somber yet tender “Vale, dulcis amice” (Farewell, sweet friend) on which the program ends.

The combination of self-accompaniment and new music secures the women of Trio Mediaeval as the reigning torchbearers of the now-defunct Hilliard Ensemble, of whom they are superlative protégés. Like their legendary mentors, they are able to move from one coil of existence to the next without slightest loss of form. Here’s hoping they continue to do so for decades to come.

(To hear samples of Aquilonis, click here.)

The Hilliard Ensemble: Transeamus (ECM New Series 2408)


The Hilliard Ensemble

David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2012, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

The illustrious Hilliard Ensemble ends its decades-long tenure with ECM, and with the world of performance, in a program of 15th-century English carols and motets for two, three, and four voices. Since debuting on the label with 1989’s Perotin, countertenor David James, tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter, and baritone Gordon Jones have enchanted with their peerless blend of timbres, equal interest in contemporary and early music, and scholarly sheen. In 1998 Steven Harrold filled the venerable shoes of Potter, who would go on to strengthen his leadership of the Dowland Project (see, for example, Night Sessions) and pursue alluringly off-the-map endeavors such as Being Dufay. Harrold joined ECM’s venerable ranks in a traversal of motets by Guillaume de Machaut, one of many landmark recordings by the newly minted ensemble.

(Photo credit: Marco Borggreve)

Whereas other vocal groups might have bowed out with a flourish, the Hilliards have chosen a contemplative return to roots, drawing from a repertoire ingrained in their individual beings long before becoming a part of their collective one. Many of the composers whose work is represented herein are anonymous, yet their music, notes David James in his affectionate liner note, is anything but. Included among the sélections sans auteur is some of the Hilliards’ most incisive singing on disc, which illuminates the verily bookended pages of “Clangat tuba” in purest gold and imbues “Lullay, I saw” with baby’s-breath. Also remarkable are the more intimate combinations, especially those pairing James with one or both of the tenors. The Codex Speciálník has long been one of my most beloved Hilliard albums, in large part because of its occasional duets, and Transeamus may just share that position for its own. “There is no rose,” one of the program’s three carols, is one such instance of skeletal beauty.

John Plummer (1410-1483) is one of four known composers represented. His “Anna mater” is an astonishing creation. Through watery sustains, over which the higher voices bend like willow branches, it reveals a consummate approach between image and reflection. The “Stella Caeli” by Walter Lambe (1450/51-a.1499) threads one of the program’s most angelic looms with a continually changing color scheme. “Ave Maria, Mater Dei” by William Cornysh (c.1468-1523) is as lovely as it is luminescent, and is all the more moving for Gordon Jones’s spinal tap. Lastly, Sheryngham’s “Ah, gentle Jesu” secures the Hilliard Ensemble legacy with a piece of such descriptive power that it turns the immaterial into a tangible piece of faithful proportion, if not also proportional faith. Like the windows of Propstei St. Gerold, the Austrian monastery where so much of their brilliance was captured for posterity, these unrivaled singers allow light to shine both ways.

This album’s title may be Latin for “we travel on,” but we the listeners can be sure that just as much of the Hilliards will be left behind in our hearts as they will carry forward in their own.

(To hear samples of Transeamus, click here.)

Anna Gourari: Visions fugitives (ECM New Series 2384)

Visions fugitives

Anna Gourari
Visions fugitives

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded October 2013, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

I do not know wisdom—leave that to others—
I only turn fugitive visions into verse.
In each fugitive vision I see worlds,
Full of the changing play of rainbows.
Don’t curse me, you wise ones. What are you to me?
The fact is I’m only a cloudlet, full of fire.
The fact is I’m only a cloudlet. Look: I’m floating.
–Konstantin Balmont, 1903

In 2012, pianist Anna Gourari made her ECM debut with Canto Oscuro, a diurnal recital of such imagination that it begged a sequel. Only Visions fugitives is, despite its modern vintage, more of a prequel, for it opens more of her heart than ever to the listener’s privilege. The title composition by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) is his opus 22 and marks a sensitive turning point in the prolific Russian composer’s oeuvre. Written between 1915 and 1917, the clarity of its 20 miniatures is in full evidence. But as David Nice observes in his biography of Prokofiev, the Visions fugitives also reveals “a new and more disturbing vein of the dynamic malice found in the early piano pieces as well as a more elusive sadness,” and these Gourari elicits with her detailed touch.

Prokofiev seems never to have intended the Visions as a set (the composer himself played no more than a handful in one sitting), but in listening to them as such, one cannot help but notice what Paul Griffiths in his liner text rightly calls their “family resemblances.” And while the title connotes fleeting things, there is something unusually indelible about their impressions. Closer to linked verse than haiku, the suite coheres by virtue of its consistent intimacy. It is, of sorts, an anti-sonata endowed with illustrative prowess, each movement so perfectly flavored that it needs no side dishes: a veritable tapas tasting of thematic subjects, of which only two exceed the two-minute mark. The opening dichotomy sets a tone of blissful regret that, like a pile of shorn wool, is pulled and spun into workable thread. Internal variations work in such a way that each piece, marked only by its tempo, seems a reflection of the one that precedes and a predictor of the one that follows. You may find yourself drawing connections to other composers (No. 8, for example, marked “Comodo,” feels a bit like Satie), but the phenomenological presence of Prokofiev’s score is such that one need hardly reach far to find purchase in between the lines. Some, like Nos. 7 (Pittoresco) and 18 (Con una dolce lentezza), may be incredibly pretty, but resist the plunge into full-on impressionism. Others, like No. 4, 5, 9, 15, and 19 are virtuosic standouts, but speak in tongues of escape over flourish. And in the twentieth Gourari finds a contemplative doorway waiting for her.


At two minutes and forty-six seconds, the Fairy Tale in f minor by Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) may look like filler material in theory, but in practice it acts as a vibrant ligament at the program’s center. Composed in 1912 as part of Medtner’s opus 26, it is a prime example of his skazki, or “tales,” a genre of his own making. One may project any number of scenes onto its imaginary folk setting, but these ears detect a forest of seasons: the wind combing through trees in spring, the fragrant foliage of summer, the decay of autumn, and the whisper of snowfall in winter. With these transformations in mind, we turn lastly to Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) and his opus 58 Sonata No. 3 in b minor of 1844. In the opening Allegro and subsequent Scherzo, Gourari is an artful dodger, the adept inhabitant of an otherwise empty castle. She walks through walls and transcends chambers as simply closing the eyes. She pushes through memories of pomp and circumstance, emerging from them trailing a single thread of transcendence, by which she stitches virtuosity to its shadow. The formidable Largo is a more brooding affair with a funereal quality but sheltering a hope realized in the triumphant Finale before burrowing into the reset of hibernation. Declamation, not proclamation.

Returning to Griffiths, who notes, “In integrating, however, Chopin also disintegrates,” we might lay the same claim about Gourari’s selections. This recital is a step inward, a dissolution of self into pure music that, once unleashed, takes on a life…and death…of its own.

(To hear samples of Visions fugitives, click here.)

Pablo Márquez: El Cuchi Bien Temperado (ECM New Series 2380)

El Cuchi Bien Temperado

Pablo Márquez
El Cuchi Bien Temperado

Pablo Márquez guitar
Recorded May 2012, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Even if The Well-Tempered Pig sounds far more appetizing in Spanish than it does in English, Pablo Márquez’s second album for ECM is an extraordinary achievement. The titular “Cuchi” (an ancient Quechua word meaning “pig”) was the sobriquet of one Gustavo Leguizamón (1917-2000), a composer, musician, lawyer, and pedagogue from the northwestern Argentine city of Salta. Salta is renowned for its musical heritage and is named for the same province that gave us Dino Saluzzi, who followed in Cuchi’s footsteps. Márquez describes Cuchi’s zambas (folk dances) as quintessential markers of Salta’s culture. Having grown up singing so many of them (they are, he explains, always accompanied by poems), Márquez was ideally suited to arrange them in a spectrum of 24 keys akin to, and inspired by, Bach’s monumental Well-Tempered Clavier. Although this album’s press makes further allusion to Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg, the listener would do well to absorb this music without intervention of a comparative filter.


Although Cuchi’s zambas take up the lion’s share of the program, the songlike vidalas, few as they are, reveal his truest heart. Opener “Coplas des Tata Dios” is a shimmering vidala-baguala, tinged with folkish hues and broken by the occasional tambora (rhythmic tapping at the base of the guitar strings). It seems to emerge from the fog of obscurity into the lucid here and now, and like so many of the pieces assembled here is intensely evocative. A single strum can reveal a shy glance through an open window, and the ghosts of a love that has yet to pass beyond it. Other instances of this form include “Chaya de la albahaca,” which plays with dissonant clusters and scraping of fingernails, and “Canción del que no hace nada,” which ends the album. But before we reach that bittersweet farewell, we are treated to an audible banquet like no other. Less represented dance forms such as the courting bailecito and exuberant carnavalito yield cavorting motifs and elastic strumming, while the three more compactly syncopated chacareras sprinkle the path with technically brilliant puzzles.

All of these aspects and more permeate the masterful zambas, which at Márquez’s touch serve as benchmarks of their form. In cinematic terms, they range from interior shot (“Zamba del carnival”) and soft-focus dream sequence (“Zamba de Lozano”) to flashback (“La cantor de Yala”) and close-up (“Zamba para la Viuda”). Also like an effective film, the music’s character development strengthens over a soundly engineered narrative arc and saves the best for later in “Zaba soltera” (this would be the love scene), “Zamba del pañuelo” (its enervating afterglow), the starkly realized “Maturana,” and “Chilena del solterón.” The latter is indicative of the entire set, pausing for breath and gathering new inspiration before rejoining the waves.

If Márquez were a painter, he would of course have his way with a brush, but would be especially skilled with a palette knife. With rigid elements he is able to render softness and structure in equal measure. As he recalls for an interview printed in this album’s booklet, Cuchi was fond of saying that “the ultimate accolade for an artist is that people think his work is anonymous.” But we can be thankful that, thanks to the efforts of guitarist, engineer, and producer, such anonymity may be harder to come by and will only enhance the wonders therein.

(To hear samples of Ei Cuchi Bien Temperado, click here.)

Anja Lechner/François Couturier: Moderato cantabile (ECM New Series 2367)

Moderato cantabile

Moderato cantabile

Anja Lechner cello
François Couturier piano
Recorded November 2013, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After honing their simpatico relationship at the core of the Tarkovsky Quartet and as part of Maria Pia De Vito’s Pergolesi Project, cellist Anja Lechner and pianist François Couturier step naturally as a duo into a temple of wonders on Moderato cantabile. Over the years, ECM has carved an unparalleled subgenre of cello-piano recordings, notably the collaborations of Ketil Bjørnstad/David Darling and Vassilis Tsabropoulos/Lechner, and it’s impossible to imagine this album having ever come about without those predecessors. Fans of especially the latter project, which shares Lechner’s mellifluous bow, will encounter fascinations galore in Couturier’s deeper impulses. This album takes the very best of those projects and spins it into a world all its own, one in which we are seated as honored guests at the head of the table. Distinguishing the current duo’s music from the rest are the organicity of its approach and blossoming sense of development. The result is no less meditative, but adds to its contemplations the temperance of flame.

Lechner Couturier

Although not arranged in the following way, one may treat the program concentrically, moving from outward from Komitas, one of three composers named on the album’s cover, which neglects to mention Couturier’s own contributions (in keeping, one imagines, with the classical billing as a New Series release). The Armenian priest’s Chinar es has about it a dervish quality, calligraphing hypnotism in the twirl of receptive bodies. Its combination of piano arpeggios and seamless cello threading indicates an aesthetic mind-meld between the two musicians, who are responsible for all of the arrangements heard here.

While the cello is so often thought to be the most vocal of the symphonic strings, making it sing in the way Lechner does is no small task. She is resolute in her approach to the melodies of Greek-Armenian philosopher G. I. Gurdjieff, famously transcribed by way of oral transmission to begin with. Cellist and pianist use their complementary masteries to pair hymns and dances in a tessellation of leaves and sky. Gurdjieff awakens like the sun lifting its eyelid over the horizon and extends his spirit-seeking ways through a magnifying glass. There is, too, the Night procession, in which the cello seems to emerge from the piano itself, whispering of charcoal before there is fire. Gurdjieff’s No. 11 dovetails into Catalan composer Federico Mompou’s Fêtes lointaines no. 3, thus creating a chromatic masterpiece in a realm of shadow so deep that it can only speak in light.

Subsequent Mompou selections feel as much like poetry as song, each with a sense of joy and belonging. Tracing parabolic arcs into dance, the strength of Lechner’s technique brings out the songlike heart of this music as well beneath Couturier’s low-flying melodizing. Whether gracing the streets of the Música Callada or scenes of Mompou’s first published work, the Impresiones intimas, theirs is an ocean of churning memory in which the buoys of experience are many and reliable.

Couturier’s own pieces are as beautiful as they are surprising. Soleil rouge surveys a pointillist field of ideas, switching masks over rhythmic double stops from cello, while the duo scales its highest evocative cliff in Papillons, for which they consolidate their artistic toolkit in service of the image. Voyage finds the composer spinning a helix of chords beneath Lechner’s floating crosshatch before they detour through individual veins of rumination. Lechner’s pizzicati blot out stars one by one, until only the moon is left to dance.

The connections of these musicians are special not only with each other, but also with ECM. The love and appreciation that went into this album’s production is discernible at any given moment, and those fortunate enough to bask in its rewards will not be disappointed.

(To hear samples of Moderato cantabile, you may watch the EPK above or click here.)