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

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Dénes Várjon
De la nuit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Till Fellner
In Concert: Beethoven/Liszt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bach Busoni Beethoven

Yuuko Shiokawa
András Schiff
Bach/Busoni/Beethoven

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

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

Shiokawa Schiff
(Photo credit: Barbara Klemm)

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

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

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

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

Point and Line

Momo Kodama
Point and Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tigran Mansurian: Requiem (ECM New Series 2508)

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Tigran Mansurian
Requiem

Anja Petersen soprano
Andrew Redmond bass
RIAS Kammerchor
Münchener Kammerorchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

György Kurtág
Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stefano Scodanibbio: Alisei (ECM New Series 2598)

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Stefano Scodanibbio
Alisei

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

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

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

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

Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies (ECM New Series 2600)

Pärt Symphonies

Arvo Pärt
The Symphonies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zsófia Boros: Local Objects (ECM New Series 2498)

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Zsófia Boros
Local Objects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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