Turning the Prism: A Review and Interview with the Danish String Quartet

Since making their ECM New Series debut with a program of works by Thomas Adès, Per Nørgård, and Hans Abrahamsen, the young musicians known collectively as the Danish String Quartet have secured a most suitable recording home in the label’s ever-growing annals. Having explored unfamiliar territory as intimately as breathing, they now approach familiar repertoire as distantly as foreign travel. This is, perhaps, something of the meaning behind their PRISM series, which pairs Ludwig van Beethoven’s late quartets with music of Johann Sebastian Bach and, between them, a modern work that ties the two together. When I caught up with the quartet via email, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard had the following to say about the title of this personal traversal:

“Just as a prism breaks light into different colors, we pass a linear beam of light from Bach to Beethoven. The original beam—in this case, Bach—already contains all the colors and directions of the future. In our interpretation, the late Beethoven quartets, typically considered a point of arrival, function as a prism, a pathway into something else. This puts all of the music into a very unusual perspective: Bach is the oldest, but already contains the future. Beethoven isn’t the end of a road. And the modern pieces are created from the oldest mold imaginable.”

I asked Nørgaard to expand on how Beethoven and Bach came to be the frame around these roving images:

“A while ago we found ourselves slightly bored with much of the classical programming (including our own). Too much randomness, too little connection. If art museums were curated like classical concerts used to be, no one would bother going. Then back in 2012 we had a collective ‘aha’ moment when Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic performed in Copenhagen. They started out with Ligeti’s Atmosphères and continued with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin. By connecting these masterworks, he created a completely new framing but with elegance and highest respect. A small trick, but a brilliant way to serve this great old wine in a beautiful new glass. This idea made it into our five-album PRISM project. The specific connection to Bach came after reading Beethoven: The Music and the Life, in which Lewis Lockwood shows a connection between Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier late Beethoven.”

Such tandem dynamics of parallelism and interweaving, of distance and proximity, are particularly evident in the first of the series.

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PRISM I (ECM New Series 2561)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded November 2016, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 21, 2018

Bach’s Fugue in E-flat major from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier, as arranged by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, is the opening bookend of this installment, and by suggestion of its resonance sets the parameters, pours the concrete, and delineates the land for purposes of construction. And what a mighty structure we find built on this foundation in the String Quartet No. 15 in E-flat minor of Dmitri Shostakovich. A haunting piece in six movements, its opening Elegy, at 13 minutes in length, takes clear inspiration from Beethoven, and with it starts on a journey through some of mortality’s darkest channels, as Shostakovich crafts the quartet’s existence as a body of organs.

The Serenade that follows has rarely sounded so tactile, and finds itself rendered as a dance of understated capture. The DSQ seems to feel so much about what Shostakovich meant to convey, and by that communication flips details inside out. The sonorities of the Nocturne are of especially brilliant subtlety. Muted strings unmute the soul. After a harrowing Funeral March, they conclude with a dynamic Epilogue, whispering a farewell in E-flat minor before its major counterpart is leaked by Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 12 in E-flat major.

In his liner note for the album, Nørgaard describes their first encounter with the late string quartets of Ludwig van Beethoven as a humbling experience. What they first approached with academic flair they quickly found to be brimming with possibility and meaning. To them, Beethoven’s Opus 127 in particular felt “as if it had fallen down from outer space onto our music stands, disconnected from music history and tradition.” It begins with huge swaths of chord fabric, unfurled before instruments sharp as a blade yet not seeking to cut. It renders introverted textures in an extroverted language. The lengthy Adagio is its centerpiece, a 16-minute chain of hymnal variations for which the quartet plays, put so precisely by Paul Griffiths in his booklet essay, as “four hearts differently beating, but at the same rate.” A pall of shadows and softest light given fresh nutrients by this performance. The following Scherzo flies off the bows of the quartet with especial providence, while the Finale speaks in a similar language of planes and caesuras, achieving transcendence in the final stretch.

“When you spend so much time with a certain repertoire, you naturally end up having a very intimate relationship with it. On top of that I think we all enjoy digging into the music we play and finding all the little details that are just below the surface. We are just the lucky vessels that get to convey fantastic music. If you pick the good things out there, you don’t need to push all kinds of intent into it. It’s fine on its own as long as you do it justice in the way you play it. That being said, we never intentionally try to play in a very ‘intimate’ way. Maybe what sounds ‘intimate’ is actually our respect for the music.”

I wonder, then, how he might distinguish this album from their first two programs and, similarly, what binds it:

“Our two initial albums on ECM were ‘standalones.’ Everything is connected in the PRISM series, however. It’s a wonderful feeling doing projects like this. It teaches you so much as a musician. We tend to think that masterpieces are ‘otherworldly’ when in fact they were the result of a bunch of human beings inspiring and learning from each other. Like us. They were just exceptionally good at it! What stays the same is the stable ECM sound that we have come to expect. We truly enjoy working with people who are so passionate about what they do. It clearly reflects in the top-notch albums that come out of ECM and inspires us to do better.”

Listeners can be assured of placing this and the second volume squarely within that top-notch category.

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PRISM II (ECM New Series 2562)

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded May 2017, Reitstadel Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 13, 2019

Bach’s Fugue in B minor from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, in an arrangement by Emanuel Aloys Förster, thus ushers us into the project’s continuation in the manner of an old friend, welcoming with an open door and an open heart. Moving with tenderness and spiritual comportment, it touches a window of reflection into unknown futures, tracing patterns of suspension and transcendence.

Following this is Alfred Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3, a 1983 composition in which ghosts of antiquity are astir. The opening Andante’s sirens move with grace and finality, even as they activate seeds that will one day grow into life. The contrast between stretches of quietude and heaves of mourning are transfixing. The middle movement’s self-refractive allusions are brilliantly examined, rendering Shostakovich-leaning textures and palpable flavors. The final movement, marked Pesante, returns to that keening quality of the first, treating every sonorous shift as a veil to be dyed and worn as a screen through which to view a monochromatic world. It ends off-center, waiting for something to speak.

For me, the Kronos Quartet’s version of this harrowing masterwork on Winter Was Hard has long been my reference recording of choice, and I can say with heartfelt assurance that its throne must now be rebuilt for two.

In light of this darkness, Beethoven’s epical String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major turns night into dawn. The opening stretch of landscape resolves into a jagged dance of joy. Its adjoining Presto even injects a bit of humor into the proceedings.

The three subsequent movements are like paintings in sound, each portraying the same scene from a different angle. The DSQ opts for the quartet’s original version, including the monumental Große Fuge (op. 133) as the finale. After a declamatory overture, it morphs into some of Beethoven’s most boisterous writing for the genre. A superb account in every way.

Holding both programs together as one, it’s easy to ascribe a visual quality to their emerging narrative. First violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen agrees:

“Schnittke and Shostakovich do create very strong images—to me more so than Beethoven and Bach. I guess that the beauty of music is that every single listener and performer can have different images in mind when hearing/performing it: it’s a very open art form in that regard. Of course as a quartet, we strive to project one common story when performing a piece. Often it’s easier to think in images rather than being too concrete—loud, soft, fast, slow—when studying a piece of music.”

And perhaps we can ascribe a cinematic aesthetic by the hand of producer Manfred Eicher, whose touch so often turns sound into physical action. Says second violinist Frederik Øland:

“It’s always lovely to work with Manfred. His presence exudes great authority, and we always feel very committed when he’s around. His overwhelming passion for recording, plus 50 years of experience in the business, gives you a totally unique and very personal touch on the records that I find rare in today’s music industry. I would argue that he is old school, yet innovative. Timeless, in fact.”

The album’s engineering, every bit as beautiful as the playing, confirms an underlying dedication to recorded art. Øland again:

“Luckily, we have great people working ‘behind the scenes’ on our recordings. I’ve often thought that the producer and engineer’s names should be on the front of the cover, just as much as the musicians. We always start with adjusting the sound, so that everyone is happy and can relate to what they actually hear, but from there much of editing and engineering is left out of our hands. It’s really a matter of trust, but with that said, I think our sound is very well taken care of.”

And listeners can feel confident walking into these beams of light knowing they, too, will be very well taken care of.

Duo Gazzana: Ravel/Franck/Ligeti/Messiaen (ECM New Series 2556)

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Duo Gazzana
Ravel/Franck/Ligeti/Messiaen

Natascia Gazzana violin
Raffaella Gazzana piano
Recorded March 2017, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 20, 2018

For their third ECM New Series recital, violinist Natascia Gazzana and pianist Raffaella Gazzana deepen their conversation as soulful interpreters, if not also as interpreters of souls. Presenting four composers of spatial disparity yet creative overlap, they engage music that requires listening, respect, and emotional integrity. I recently asked them via email to talk about the new album, and how it differs from previous recitals.

“It takes us a long time to put together meaningful and organic programs, either for a recording or for public concerts. Usually in our recitals we span the gamut from established pieces of the classical repertoire to contemporary and less commonly performed pieces—or even totally unknown ones, such as György Ligeti’s Duo in this program. Our previous recordings were mostly focused on repertoire from the 20th up to the 21st century. On this album we went a bit further back in time, as we do in live performances.”

The Ligeti Duo is a brief yet narratively rich piece that receives its premiere recording here. Each character of this newly recovered folktale recalls the joys of childhood in exquisite detail, it searches for dialogue but instead discovers a soliloquy split into its component parts. And why, one wonders, did a piece by such an established modern composer get buried for so long?

“We have always loved Ligeti’s music and were wondering how it could be that he had not written any piece for violin and piano, a combination attempted by all composers. Only after looking through his catalogue attentively did we discover the Duo. Written in 1946, when he was only 23 years old, it was dedicated to György Kurtág and languished in a drawer. Most likely it was performed only for an inner circle of friends.”

The Gazzanas expended much effort to secure the rights to record the Duo, and the score, they note, has yet to be published. Heard alongside the 1932 Thème et variations of Olivier Messiaen that follows, it inhales shadow as Messiaen exhales sunshine. The Thème et variations is a wedding gift to the composer’s first wife, violinist Claire Delbos, and as such glows with adoration. The piano stretches a canvas for the violin, whose brushwork ranges from ponderous to effervescent.

While these two youthful compositions comprise the program’s second half, the first begins with Maurice Ravel’s Sonata posthume. Although composed in 1897, when Ravel was 22, his first chamber work wouldn’t see the light of day until 1975. Its combination of robustness and delicacy is masterfully recreated here. The initial violin line skitters through underbrush, its movements captured by the piano and rolled into a ball of spirited wonder. Fantastical elements omnipresent in Ravel’s later works are foreshadowed, but sway in and out of frame with the lilt of a windblown branch. Like water taking different forms, some moments drip through open fingers, while others evaporating as if from a distant lake, and still others polish to a reflective sheen. When playing such music, say the Gazzanas, “we concentrate on the sound quality and not getting distracted away from the structure of the work. We would think mainly in terms of sound story more than a visual narrative.” In that respect, sound structures are apparent even when silence is in order.

Because Ravel modeled his Sonata posthume on César Franck’s Sonate for piano and violin in A major, it makes for a natural inclusion. The Franck sonata was, in fact, the album’s seed:

“It is a real masterpiece and has a highly structured, cyclical form. Too often, when talking about French music, you may hear it spoken of in terms of delicate and refined sounds, nuances, and colors. Franck gave an impetus to the so-called French School and this sonata represents a cutting edge in composition that significantly influenced many subsequent composers.”

Originally written for Eugène Ysaÿe, it eschews showiness to spotlight the evocative abilities of its performers, who in this instance regard romanticism with a studied gaze. The second movement is a rolling tide of memory made flesh by the touch of these humane performers, while the third bridges a synapse of utter enchantment. As the profoundest example of communication between the Gazzana sisters, it is rich with unspoken language and metaphysical translations. The final movement walks a high tightrope in the violin, scaling down rocky terrain into an immaculately pruned path.

In combination, these selections offer a cumulative effect of consideration:

“Every piece included on the album represents our present vision. We enjoy immensely the fact that everything we have performed over many years has always sounded fresh to our ears. Every time we approach a work, we look for some new details or aspects to bring out. We are perfectly aware that we still have so much to learn and that every state of mind or stage in life can provide new impulse to our performances.”

Aiding in that process are producer Manfred Eicher and engineer Markus Heiland. Their contributions reveal hidden shades of meaning:

“Every stage of the recording process is important in bringing out the best sound quality possible. Manfred and Heiland were particularly attentive to microphone placement, and even before that to the placing of instruments in the studio. A lot of time was dedicated to finding out how to listen to each other, so as to balance the instruments’ levels. We went back and forth to the control room, listening to the results until we were satisfied with the purity of the sound. The final editing, the choice of the order of the compositions on the album, as well as the pauses between a piece and another also contributed to a lengthy creation process.”

By its end, forged together as a seamless story, the album beckons us like an open book, anticipating with great joy the experiences that await us.

Keith Jarrett: The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I (ECM New Series 2627/28)

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Keith Jarrett
The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I

Keith Jarrett piano
Concert recording, March 7, 1987
at Troy Saving Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York
Engineer: Tom McKenney
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 14, 2019

After recording Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier for ECM on piano in February of 1987, on the 7th of March that same year he performed it live at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in upstate New York. Throughout this archival recording, we see a side of Jarrett not so much hidden as broken wide open in his life as an improviser. His restraint is poetry in motion, figuring this masterful music with a touch that’s intimately bound to the score. Even in the more dramatic flourishes of the c minor and C-sharp major preludes, there’s a sense that he is submerging any impulse to flourish in a bath of deference.

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In Jarrett’s hands, each pairing of prelude and fugue takes on the very character one presumes it was meant to have: which is to say, standing with resolute individuality as part of an interlocking embrace that cannot be broken apart. Issuing from these portals is a spiritual force that weaves between realms as Jarrett between notes. When he slips from the realm of C into that of D, where the latter’s major dyad feels blessed by a watery hand, he clarifies Bach’s inversions, rendering minor keys as stages for joy and their major counterparts as jumping points for faith.

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Whereas D has its playful veneer, E casts aside all notion of folly and turns even the liveliest fugue into a fierce puzzle of longing. The e-flat prelude is an especially ponderous example of composer and interpreter working in harmony to communicate truth. That said, there’s no Platonic ideal lurking within, but rather a feeling tailored to every listener. If any exuberance is to be found in this phase of the journey, it’s in the e minor fugue, but even there it looks rather than speaks through a filter of tangled intentions. In light of this, the F major prelude’s wider net lets through more than it catches, interested as it is in preserving the terms of its passage. Landfall is suspended until the F-sharp major prelude, wherein Jarrett wears the tenderest of hearts on his muscled sleeve, and pulls out a treasure map in the key of f-sharp minor.

And treasure he does indeed find in G terrain, of which major and minor preludes yield their respective fugal gems. All the while, rewards of the A major prelude have awaited our triumphal return, hoisting up flags and drinks alike in the manner of tribute. Thus, we are primed for the B-flat major prelude, in which Jarrett’s quick-thinking fingers revel in the joy of safety. In closing, the b minor pairing embroiders a dream in waking filament. Its every stepwise turn introduces a new color in the tapestry and tempers the final fugue with intimations of obscurity, morality, and nothingness. The flesh may only whisper, but by now we know the calling of a higher power whose volume—though compressed into a single keyboard—matches that of millions more in aggregate.

Reto Bieri and Meta4: Quasi morendo (ECM New Series 2557)

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Reto Bieri and Meta4
Quasi morendo

Reto Bieri clarinet
Meta4
Antti Tikkanen violin
Minna Pensola violin
Atte Kilpeläinen viola
Tomas Djupsjöbacka violoncello
Recorded November 2016, RSI Studio Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 10, 2019

When clarinetist Reto Bieri made his solo ECM debut with Contrechant, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Let Me Die Before I Wake (1982) was the most memorable piece of that program. Here, its unaccompanied wonders make a welcome reappearance, inciting an altogether different journey through works of Johannes Brahms and Gérard Pesson. Sciarrino’s sense of color is downright prismatic, separating the white light of breath into its constituent spectrum through deft use of multiphonic and overtone techniques. There is a tenderness to this music’s unfolding, the occasional outburst from which feels somehow delicate, as if the materiality of it all were but a blip on the listener’s dreaming radar. Bieri himself would be the first to agree on the enigma of it all: “How the sounds come about in this piece,” he says, “is a mystery even to me.” That air of separation between knowledge and production, catalyst and effect, is at once tangible and immaterial. For while Bieri has total control over the sounds emitted by his clarinet, there’s that same daunting sense of physics found in Heinz Holliger’s 1971 Studie über Mehrklänge for oboe (documented by the composer himself on ECM 1340).

Brahms’s Quintet in b minor, Op. 115, finds Bieri in the dynamic company of the Meta4 String Quartet, themselves making an ECM debut. Written in 1891, after Brahms had already decided to retire from composing yet opened that door again when clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld came knocking, this masterwork is what Roman Brotbeck in this album’s liner essay calls “a swan song.” It is, he goes on to write, “freer, more idyllic, less ‘controlled’ than Brahms’s earlier chamber music, but is in fact one of his most strictly constructed compositions.” The opening Allegro is an exercise in dark exuberance, clarinet playing the role of voice among the voiceless. There is lyricism, robust anatomy, and fortitude of reasoning at work in every thematic shift. The following Adagio sees itself reflected in the opening mirror, tracing memories of younger days with fingers dipped in sunlight, but always returning to a baseline of melancholy resignation. The Andantino seems to cradle the most happiness in these shadows, and somewhat recalls the third movement of Brahms’s First Symphony with its subdued pastoralism. The final movement takes all the self-regard that preceded it and turns it into moving images. Like a cinema that predates its own technology, it flows across the screen of the mind in glorious performance.

Pesson’s Nebenstück (1988), what Brotbeck calls “an estranged instrumentation, or rather arrangement, for clarinet and string quartet of the ballade for piano, Op. 10 No. 4, that Brahms composed in 1854,” takes a decidedly internal approach to homage. With a frailty that rivals even the Sciarrino, it speaks in a shaded and subliminal language while peeling back layers of awareness graspable only behind closed eyes, as if the very sight of things would interrupt its grammar with unnecessary punctuation. A brilliant gesture of continuity in summary of a wonderous recital.

Anja Lechner/Pablo Márquez: Franz Schubert – Die Nacht (ECM New Series 2555)

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Anja Lechner
Pablo Márquez
Franz Schubert: Die Nacht

Anja Lechner violoncello
Pablo Márquez guitar
Recorded November 2016, Spiegelsaal, Residenz Eichstätt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: November 2, 2018

In his book Franz Schubert: Music and Belief, the late Leo Black wrote of the Austrian composer as figure of faith whose image morphed from “carefree minstrel” to “a man sorely tried, living under a horribly oppressive regime, afflicted through his own miscalculation with a horrible disease that was bound to bring an untimely end and make his final years a sojourn in Hell.” In either reduction there is surely a bit of mythology at play, for in the music itself we find a third Schubert: one whose breadth was all of those and so much more.

Although none of us knew Schubert, in the present recording we feel like we did at one time: a childhood friend dangling at the edge of memory and now pulled into the foreground by two musicians who understand his unique ability to, as Wolfgang Sandner phrases it in his liner essay, “poeticise all that is real, to turn reality into a dream and the dream of a better world into reality, all with the means of music.” In this spirit, cellist Anja Lechner has returned to her foundational love of Schubert and, alongside guitarist Pablo Márquez, carves an intimate sigil into the ever-growing tree of interpreters.

The selections herein speak mostly of latter days, during which Schubert was perhaps as much chiseled by creative visions as said visions were by his approach to a score. All lead to the precise yet free-flowing melodies of Nacht und Träume, of which humane touches in both the composing and this performance wind through forest on their way to new experiences. As a beacon among the program’s shorter pieces, it shines inlaid light upon such other standouts as Der Leiermann (The hurdy-gurdy man), in which Lechner evokes the titular instrument with sul ponticello double stops; Fischerweise, which unspools its theme with forthright harmonic drive; and, of course, the album’s title work, in which past and future dreams melt in the crucible of a lively here and now. Further delights abound in the rarer Romanze, an anatomical study written as incidental music for Rosamunde, and the duo’s rendition of the a-minor “Arpeggione” sonata, a relatively optimistic portal in which even the most eruptive moments cling like ink on pages bound by aged leather.

While this would be enough for a robust sequence, through it all are interspersed three nocturnes by Schubert contemporary Friedrich Burgmüller (1806-1874). Originally written for cello and guitar, they stir the proverbial soul while healing its wounds with grace. As the air in different seasons, each takes on its own constellation of fragrances, temperature, and quality of light, shifting from introspection to full gallop and back again.

Die Nacht is one of those special albums that could only have taken place under the guiding hand of ECM. Resting within its compact circle is music of translucent beauty, recorded with a balance of depth and immediacy, by musicians who surrender themselves to every note, and all in the name of a composer whose footprints have plotted their own glowing path along the label’s historical trajectory, as one hopes they will continue to do.

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)

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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.

<< Jack DeJohnette: New Directions (ECM 1128)
>> Azimuth: The Touchstone (ECM 1130)

… . …

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.

<< Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (ECM 1167)
>> Jan Garbarek/Kjell Johnsen: Aftenland (ECM 1169)

… . …

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.

Eicher Reich
(Photo credit: Deborah Feingold)

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.

<< James Newton: Axum (ECM 1214)
>> Pat Metheny Group: Offramp (ECM 1216)

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.