Alexander Knaifel: Lukomoriye (ECM New Series 2436)


Alexander Knaifel

Oleg Malov piano
Tatiana Melentieva soprano
Piotr Migunov bass
Lege Artis Choir
Boris Abalian conductor
Recorded February 2002 at The Smolny Cathedral, St. Petersburg
Engineer: Victor Dinov (St. Petersburg Recording Studio)
Recording supervision: Alexander Knaifel
Mastering: Boris Alexeev (engineer)
An ECM Production
Release date: April 20, 2018

As the fourth ECM New Series album dedicated to the music of Alexander Knaifel, Lukomoriye is both continuation and departure from previous discs. In the former sense, it pulls us deeper into the recesses of his faith; in the latter, it engages with more secular—though no less inspired—material. The program’s pillars rise from prayers to the Holy Spirit. Both O Comforter (1995) and O Heavenly King (1994) are written for choir, the second adding to that foundational grammar the punctuation of vibraphone and piano. Like Jeremiah in the pit, they look upward for grace. Their bead-like structure welcomes a thread of spiritual seeking, marking the passage of voices from firmament to soil as if to show us that the opposite trajectory is possible.

This Child (1997), played by pianist Oleg Malov, follows the Gospel of St. Luke. It opens with a single chord, played as if at a far corner of the room, before proximate notes finish the sentence. This sets up the Godly call and prophetic response, articulating questions that can only be answered by salvation. O Lord of all my life (2006), sung by bass Piotr Migunov to Malov’s electronically processed accompaniment, bonds itself with stillness. Through its 16 minutes of rewarding intimacy, Migunov sings with a vulnerability that recalls Sergey Yakovenko in Valentin Silvestrov’s Silent Songs. A prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, wherein humility is preached, and a poem from Pushkin, wherein idealism is crushed into a sinner’s prayer, render the sonic equivalent of a two-way mirror.

From the Word to the World, we are invited to A mad tea-party (2007), in which a heavily reverbed piano breaks its own suspension by the delicate play of a more immediate instrument, evoking both the frustrations and excitations of this pivotal scene in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Such contrasts might be counted as child-like impulses were it not for the conscious use of silence, touches of percussion, and whispers. Kindred details abound in Bliss (1997), wherein the composer’s wife, soprano Tatiana Melentieva, revives Pushkin. Her voice masterfully captures every shade of mythological revelry at hand with barest support from Malov at the piano.As in the title composition (written in 2002 and revised in 2009), even fully formed sentences flit through trees like birds in search of a new dawn, taking on the magic of their surroundings as they travel ever inward.

The ghost of Pushkin lingers in Confession (2003/04). Here Malov intones the words inaudibly, exploring love, carnality, and desire through the keyboard instead, every note as delicate as the balance of flesh and glory that every composer faces, yet few of which channel with such humility.

Alexander Knaifel: Svete Tikhiy (ECM New Series 1763)

Svete Tikhiy

Alexander Knaifel
Svete Tikhiy

Keller Quartett
András Keller
János Pilz violin
Zoltán Gál viola
Judit Szabó cello
Oleg Malov piano
Tatiana Melentieva soprano
Andrei Siegle sampler
In Air Clear and Unseen recorded October 2000 at Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Svete Tikhiy recorded1994/95 at Film Studio Lenfilm and 1997 at St. Petersburg Recording Studio
Engineers: Mikhail Shemarov, Victor Dinov, and Andrei Siegle
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Nature is not as you imagine her:
She’s not a mold, nor yet a soulless mask—
She is made up of soul and freedom
She is made up of love and speech…
–Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (1803-1873)

For its first conspectus of St. Petersburg-based composer Alexander Knaifel, ECM presents  Svete Tikhiy (O Gladsome Light). Side by the side, the program’s two works—each a triptych—seem vastly different in scope. And perhaps they are on the surface. But they are also part of an ongoing braid of interest on the part of the composer in what is lifted from the score and held in the spirit of the performers to whom he entrusts interpretation: in essence, the reading of the word. For this recording, the word comes to us both lower- and uppercased.

The former flexes its waking hour throughout In Air Clear and Unseen (1994) for piano and string quartet, peeking from behind the Orthodox veil through which Knaifel’s music is often so diffused. Steeped in the poetry of Fyodor Tyutchev, each tableau reads through gestures of slowly measured time. “In Some Exhausted Reverie” begins in Silvestrov-like fashion: with a piano postlude. It touches the ether with a delicacy so organic it almost falls away by merely being gazed upon. Its stillness may be illusory, but the potential emotional connection it makes with the listener flows into the ribcage and finds room to conform.

If encouraged to compare, one could cite Pärt’s Alina as an analogous atmosphere, if only for its breathing room. Distinct here is the feeling of something titanic, as if an entire history were being grappled with in a single note. All of which makes the opposite point: that there is never just one note, for each is a combination of many more, and those of still others. The air is unseen, yes, but it can be felt. It is a field of touch. Hence the tactility of Knaifel’s performers, whose own lives are filtered through their contact with the music. Instructed as they are to intone that which is ultimately “unvoiced,” the instrumentalists embrace each living moment with their entire being, itself a resounding instrument of warmth and illumination.

The central section, “An Autumn Evening” (for string quartet), finds a more distant analogue to the music of Tavener, whose The Last Sleep of the Virgin is also of Byzantine cast (and, coincidentally enough, composed the same year as the accompanying work on this disc). The lucidities of both shimmer in slow motion. Unique to Knaifel’s aesthetic is the unity of the assembly: the quartet is one flesh, a portrait of humanity drawn through what he calls “chain breathing.” The combination becomes something of a filter through which death renews life. It is the dreamed-of ribbon still in hand upon waking. The final section marries these two impulses, pulling childhood memories like a hood against blasphemy and lighting many candles from a single, originary flame.
The title composition, Song of the Most Holy Theotokos, is composed for soprano Tatiana Melentieva and sequencer. The eponymous hymn, which appears only at the end of the piece, is among the oldest Christian hymns, a folding of light into Christ and both into the world. It is force of life, but also agency of solace. Here the self-reflexivity of the replenished soul is expressed in the electronic manipulations and multi-tracking of Melentieva’s voice. The result is a ponderous, overtly crafted chorus of the self, giving way to echoing caverns of implosion. These, in turn, impart life to the openness of God. From mantra-like quivers and resonant tongues to the rounded grace of the central unaffected voice, it turns lullabies into dust and dust into starlight. And as the final fragments blur skyward, worship becomes a shroud for the ears.

On the whole, Svete Tikhiy is also a master class in engineering. Were the content not afforded the spaciousness it deserves, its inner voices might never reach us. This is not to say that technology adds something not already there, only that it brings out inherent tendencies toward infinite expression. The echo becomes a primary signifier of its referent, but also something more: a reference in and of itself to yet another echo, ad infinitum.

Alexander Knaifel: Amicta Sole (ECM New Series 1731)

Amicta Sole

Alexander Knaifel
Amicta Sole

Mstislav Rostropovich cello
Tatiana Melentieva soprano
Soloists of Boy Choir Glinka Choral College
State Hermitage Orchestra
Arkady Steinlukht conductor
Psalm 51 recorded September 2001 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmannn
Amicta Sole recorded July 2000 at St. Catherine Lutheran Church, St. Petersburg
Engineer: Semion Shugal
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The text is intoned as if it sounds. These, the simple instructions that composer Alexander Knaifel offers in the score of his Psalm 51 for cello solo. Dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, who also performs it in the present recording, the piece is as skeletal as its source: a sounding of spirit made flesh by mortal touch. While listeners may never hear the words, they will feel them in Rostropovich’s bow, poised as it is on a fulcrum of silence. Says Knaifel, “it is the only one and unique experience in my life when not a note was composed—in the fullest and most exact meaning of this word.” By this he admits no fallacy of the creative process, but instead reveals the divinity behind its cause. The internal is renderable only as an idol to itself, so that every dynamic of the cellist’s articulation seems destined to tremble. A climb into higher registers opens a flame’s pathos into vision and leaves one suspended in Heaven’s basement.

Like the burnt offerings of which the psalm concerns itself in its final stanza, the music scatters easily in the wind. That it holds true to form at all is proof of its spiritual integrity. Although the performer is singular, the incantation is sometimes plural. From piercing bridge crawls and vulnerable downward steps to interlocking pizzicati, every motion signals a diacritical reality. Rostropovich achieves all of this through his decades-long path toward mastery. For while the notecraft is almost as bare as the paper it is written on, Knaifel infuses every nodule with a word. Were we to plot each on an axis of pitch and time, they would form a rainbow arc through the firmament from birth to death. Only at the end does light creep in, pulling ever higher into the cello’s very threshold of audibility.

The papery consistency of Psalm 51 provides absorption of the ink in Amicta Sole (Clothed with the Sun) for soloist (female) of soloists. As a follower of the former’s grace, this starkly glassine piece speaks in angel’s tongue and awakens to angel’s ways. It is also performed here by its dedicatee, the inimitable soprano Tatiana Melentieva, who etches with her voice a denser light against a slow waterfall of strings and choral textures. Now that the texts are consciously sung, there is great movement from above to below, from interior to interior’s interior.

Inspired by the “woman clothed with the sun” who appears in Revelations, Amicta Sole sequences the genealogies of Christ as a helix between new prayer and ancient origins. The instruments perform the same role as the cello in Psalm 51, sounding the texts as if singing them, while the voices sing the texts as if sounding them. Melentieva’s art is so rich that she could very well carry these forces without their cushion, for she seems to summon legions of air before her. Despite the above connotations, what we have here is the full spectrum of earthly care, the weight of human conditions pressed upon our ears with the almost there-ness of a molt feather. And although we are invited to bask in the caesural nature of what transpires, stretched into barest triad, we can never be a part of its cathedral, where vibration and darkness dwell. The feeling of renewal is such that no architecture can stand here for so long as a breath (hear this in the flute’s red thread of color). Only in the harp is the promise of good news made manifest, and with it the uniform face of which our own are imperfect copies.

That the pieces here are from the mid-nineties, shaded by a lingering fog of the Soviet era, is only fleetingly significant. In them is a stillness of heart that reflects on troubled pasts. By the same token, their worth lies not in their politics, bleeding as it does through the reddest of paper with its own hues intact. At once reifying and transcending the corporeal waver that is its mirror, they are but two jewels in an eternal crown. 

Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy,
and according to the multitude of Thy tender mercies
blot out my iniquity.

Alexander Knaifel: BLAZHENSTVA (ECM New Series 1957)


Alexander Knaifel

Ivan Monighetti violoncello
Tatiana Melentieva soprano
Piotr Migunov bass
State Hermitage Orchestra
Saulius Sondeckis Principal conductor
Lege Artis Choir
Boris Abalian Artistic director
Recorded March 2006 at St. Catherine Lutheran Church and Capella Concert Hall, St. Petersburg
Engineer: Boris Isaev
Recording supervision: Alexander Knaifel
An ECM Production

Just when we ECM listeners had become lulled in the embraces of Arvo Pärt and Valentin Silvestrov, thinking no others might widen that door further, suddenly we encountered a new visionary: Alexander Knaifel. Although Knaifel shares the spotlight with other such stars of the Soviet avant-garde, his ability to paint with sound is arguably unrivaled among them. To experience his music is to experience the pathos of life itself: sometimes bumpy, even hurtful, but always rewarding with the tranquility of learning. In it one feels the weight of the world balanced like a feather on the breath.

Lamento (1967, rev. 1987) for cello solo is dedicated to the memory of choreographer Leonid Jakobson. And indeed, one can feel the shapely movements of the stage working their way into every facet of this sometimes-challenging work. From the opening series of attacks, chained by silence, to the heart-stopping double stop that carries us into prayer, we hear in it a promissory refrain. With youthful caution it spins from agitation a thread of such transcendent light that one feels blinded by its tonality. What follows skirts the line of harmony and dissonance, finding the divine without need of the Word. Knaifel’s attentive scoring allows us to hear the true interior of the cello. To accomplish this, he externalizes its full dynamic range. This is not a piece that answers its own question, but one that becomes the question itself.

Blazhenstva (1996) for soloists, orchestra, and choir also bears dedication, in this instance to mentor Mstislav Rostropovich in honor of his 70th birthday. It’s astonishing that such a meditative piece can harbor so much conflict, and yet here it is speaking to us in the sonic equivalent of Psalmnody. The voice of soprano Tatiana Melentieva proves to be one of the most heavenly on land, and one Knaifel does not exploit but rather bows to through his music, such that with the entrance of bass Piotr Migunov it reveals cardinal avenues of possibility. As a sustained piano intones, it flows like the text it engenders (Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5:3-12). This overlaps in unexpected ways while maintaining an antiphonal feeling. Men’s voices make way for altos as a constant sheet of strings forms like ice beneath. Vocal lines stretch before fraying into a holy triad, unwound like Creation returning to its firmament. A cello solo lends finality and grace, as if passing along the wisdom of the Beatitudes through a more terrestrial channel before crossing their vertical transmission.

“Both compositions form a united way,” says Knaifel, and this we can hear without question. If one is death, the other is life, and together they complete a circle that touches us all. The sheer amount of space articulated therein (and on this note one must praise engineer Boris Isaev) envelops the darkness and the light, traveling a way of gray that walks as it breathes.