Anja Lechner/François Couturier: Lontano (ECM 2682)

Anja Lechner
François Couturier
Lontano

Anja Lechner violoncello
François Couturier piano
Recorded October 2019, Sendesaal Bremen
Engineer: Christoph Franke
Cover photo: Erieta Attali
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 16, 2020

On Lontano, the cello of Anja Lechner and the piano of François Couturier play the roles of scenery and camera. As the lens bends the light into a discernible image yet changes that image in the process of fixing it within a frame, Couturier funnels Lechner’s sunbeams laden with stories that can only be heard with the eyes (and vice versa). If such a description seems too cerebral or even bogus, it’s only because the music it seeks to capture doesn’t accompany it. Even “capture” feels like an inappropriate word to interpret the relationships being explored by this symbiotic duo, especially when one considers that the music is half improvised and slips through the pores of any enclosure that surrounds it. Echoes reveal themselves to have been in the air they breathe all along, thus nullifying categorization as a political shadow that has no business casting itself here.

If the “Praeludium” tells us anything, it’s that awakening in this scenario can only take place when there is both sun and dew. Otherwise, the dawn might have nothing to kiss as it peers over the not-so-distant mountaintops. In so much of what follows, the inverted images in those pinhead orbs find themselves repeated in blissful aberration. Whether in the churning sediments of “Solar I” and “Solar II” or the flowering “Triptych” for two, there is a sense of agitation beneath the surface. The deepest point of these dialogues is mined in “Gratitude,” where Lechner skims the edges of notes as if to welcome melodic wanderers just long enough to feed and clothe them before sending them back into the wilderness, listless and without instruction until an ear catches them again—maybe tomorrow, maybe a millennium beyond.

That which is composed is carefully torn and folded from the pages of life itself. With each new crease, once-distant letters cohere into a new language. Among these homages, Anouar Brahem’s “Vague – E la nave va” inspires an astonishing piece of aural cinema, a tracking shot that shows us a wall and glimpses of the victims on the other side of it. The sensitivity of Henri Dutilleux’s “Prélude en berceuse,” too, reveals a pathway to revival, where awaits the closing door of the “Postludium.” Like the “Memory of a Melody,” which threads an excerpt from the Bach cantata aria “Wie zittern und wanken der Sünder Gedanken” (BWV 105) through the needle of the here and now, it reminds us that all melodies are memories.

Lontano is, above all, most wondrous for standing as a corrective to the phrase “effortless execution.” Tempting as this descriptor is, I find evidence of the untold hours of patient corporeal shaping and experience that feed every note. A flow like the one preserved here is made possible only by the sacrifices that dug its trenches.

Valentin Silvestrov: Hieroglyphen der Nacht (ECM New Series 2389)

Hieroglyphen der Nacht

Valentin Silvestrov
Hieroglyphen der Nacht

Anja Lechner violoncello, tam-tam
Agnès Vesterman violoncello
Recorded December 2013, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

Hieroglyphs are visual music. They imply movement, tell stories, and reflect human and spiritual connections. In the hands of composer Valentin Silvestrov, standard notation becomes a hieroglyphic language unto itself. Throughout the sequence of this program, most of it penned in the present century, language fills spaces in absence of utterances. Each composition is a planet orbiting an unspoken sun, thus illustrating the richness of silence as a resonant, vibrational constant. In the same way that zero gravity isn’t the absence of gravity but equal attraction from all directions simultaneously, silence acts upon chamber instruments until their voices emerge as one. The Drei Stücke for two cellos (2002/09) that open the program are proof of that very concept. Two bows move like arms attached to the same body, trailing lines of communication in sand: powerful in meaning yet susceptible to the tide. This dynamic resurfaces in the Serenaden (2002), also for two cellos, which return the evening sky after a day’s borrowing, threading stars like beads on a necklace, while the Lacrimosa for solo cello (2004) pulls them off one by one until their light becomes individual again.

Elegie for solo cello and two tam-tams (1999) treats air as writing surface, exploring layers of impermanence against the idealism of capture. In the first two parts of this tripartite composition, the cello tracks movements of branches with the naked ear, and in the third introduces the metallic breath of struck tam-tams. In this context, the relationship between contact and decay is somehow reversed, so that beginnings prune their wings with conclusive beaks. Lechner thus splits voices in unifying them, yet achieves the reverse in Augenblicke der Stille und Traurigkeit (2003), trading arco and pizzicato dialects with the ease of inhaling and exhaling.

8.VI.1810…zum Geburtstag R. A. Schumann for two cellos (2004) realizes the composer’s goal for a “cello four-hands,” expanding the instrument’s possibilities by turning it inward. A feeling of euphoria locks flesh with shadows. Dances flit by like opportunities for melodic escape, while their after-images seek reciprocation in the listening. Lechner and Vesterman accordingly hang their spirits on easels and mark them with every brushstroke of the bow. Although not sequential, the companion piece 25.X.1893…zum Andenken an P. I. Tschaikowskij (2004) folds twilit landscapes into lyrical dough, kneading the earth until it no longer sticks to the hands.

All of which funnels into the harmonic vessel of Walzer der Alpenglöckchen for solo cello (2004), in which the clicks of stick on string open mountainous doors, behind which smolder long-forgotten hearths, aglow with the possibility of slumber. And yet, while the album may feel like a dream, it’s no more susceptible to the blade of waking up than the nameless figure wielding it.

Dino Saluzzi & Anja Lechner: El Encuentro (ECM 5051)

El Encuentro (1)

Dino Saluzzi
Anja Lechner
El Encuentro: A film for bandoneon and violoncello
Directors: Norbert Wiedmer and Enrique Ros
Camera: Norbert Wiedmer and Peter Guyer
Editing: Katharina Bhend
Sound, sound editing, and sound mix: Balthasar Jucker
Production: PS Film, Biograph Film
Co-produced by SRF
Post-production: Recycled TV

In Sounds and Silence, Norbert Wiedmer produced a rather fleeting portrait of ECM Records and its head Manfred Eicher, leaving viewers with, at best, vague sketches by trying to do too much in one go. But with El Encuentro, glimpses of which one might remember seeing in the former documentary, he has given us the film that should have been. Along with co-director Enrique Ros, Wiedmer touches more of the label’s ethos by following only two of its major artists than Sounds and Silence does in profiling many more besides. Despite being from opposite sides of the Atlantic, gentle giant of the bandoneón Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner have bridged waters of their own making since 1998, when they first collaborated in the Kultrum project that featured the Rosamunde Quartett, of which the cellist was founder.

What makes El Enceuntro such an insightful window is the relative clarity of its narrative glass. At its core is a trip taken by Dino and Anja—so one feels compelled to call them after getting to know them so well by the end credits—to Salta, Argentina, where the bandoneonista absorbed the tango that would become central to his life. It’s an art form that would become increasingly important for Anja, who cites her own deep knowledge of, and respect, for the tango as a motivation for forging this intergenerational partnership with Dino. She recalls learning these rhythms for the first time in Argentina, where signatures rendered cut and dry through classical training now blossomed at her fingertips, reinvigorated.

El Encuentro 1

Dino meanwhile looks back on memories of his father, who after working a long day at the factory would sing for their village. Dino took to his father’s love of song like a sunset to ocean and, as the film makes clear, has passed that spirit on to Anja in kind. Indeed, the cellist says that even though Dino is always more comfortable playing with his family, she feels she has become a part of it. Whether dancing with the locals or navigating a recording session with Dino and his brother Felix, she adapts with chameleonic precision—which is to say: unthinkingly.

El Encuentro 2

But Dino’s story is as much about leaving home as finding it. He regales us with stories of putting his home country behind him to support his family, and of finding an unexpected brother in the late George Gruntz, who in 1982, as president of the Berlin Jazz Festival, traveled to Latin America in search of musicians and recruited Dino on the spot. No one in Gruntz’s band had ever seen or heard a bandoneón before, and this opportunity would prove career-defining.

El Encuentro 5

The past, however, is never too far behind. As Dino admits, “I compose with memories and hopes,” and in so doing kneads the passage of time into desired shapes. In this respect, the film is as much a meeting of lives as of minds. Anja lets us in on her own past: playing with rock bands at age 12, among whom she learned to improvise in the heat of the moment; hearing Dino’s music for the first time in Munich, where she’d so dutifully immersed herself in classical music of the European masters, even while surrounding herself with the melodies and forms of other places. And for her that’s the key. You have to go to these places to experience the emotional core of their music. Location is vocation. It’s something that cannot be substituted or recreated.

El Encuentro 4

None of this is meant to suggest that Lechner has abandoned her classical foundations. Far from it, as evidenced in her interactions with composer Tigran Mansurian in Armenia, the country dearest to her after Argentina.

El Encuentro 3

The cameras are there again for conversations with Levon Eskenian, who explains to her the sacred music of Armenia, and how when playing folksongs on the duduk one must always convey a sense of improvisation. Anja thus characterizes life in Armenia as more immediate, whereas in Argentina people truly engage and look into you. Such is the balance of her traveling life.

El Encuentro 6

On Dino’s own travels, no companion has been more constant than his trusted bandoneón. “I can’t conceive of life without the bandoneón,” he says. “The instrument has spoken with modesty since its conception. It doesn’t raise its voice, it only speaks with calmness, simplicity, and directness. All of the words are written here. All of the thoughts are here. All of the difficult equations are here. You only have to serve to bandoneón and understand that you’re letting the human experience pass through other channels.” But he also believes that bandoneonists should explore beyond the tango and create new forms of music. As if his recordings weren’t already ample proof of this advice in action, excerpts from concerts with drummer U.T. Gandhi and singer Alessandra Franco, and with the Metropole Orchestra in Amsterdam’s Musiekgebouw under the baton of Jules Buckley, show just how catalytic the instrument can be.

El Encuentro 7

But it is in combination with the cello where channels of communication open their hearts to the vastest possibilities. Just as Anja says, “Music is a world in which all emotions exist,” so are emotions a world in which all music exists. And at their center, we can feel these two souls creating a third for the listener to inhabit at will.

Saluzzi and Lechner
(Photo credit: Juan Hitters)

Early on in the film, Dino wonders how people can connect at all to his melancholic music, even as he recognizes something that meets the listener halfway. “For me,” he goes on, “doubt is driving force. It’s like gasoline. You use gasoline to run a car. And for us to work, we need doubt. Because if doubt is a driving force, then it can’t become a paralyzing problem. On the contrary, it’s a generator of ideas and desires, of searches and answers to the great questions we have.” And if we must be the electricity that powers this generator, how fortunate we are to be swept up in its current.

Dino Saluzzi/Anja Lechner: Ojos Negros (ECM 1991)

Ojos Negros

Ojos Negros

Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
Anja Lechner violoncello
Recorded April 2006, Kulturbuehne AmBach, Goetzis
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

There’s no better way to describe the wondrousness of Ojos Negros than to quote dance historian Sally Sommer: “Tango is self-transformation.” This groundbreaking debut of a duo nearly a decade in the making smacks of Sommer’s insight, works its fingers raw with the labor of its fluid intuition. Tango would be nothing without memory. That bandoneonista Dino Saluzzi and cellist Anja Lechner bring such a level of awareness to every note and space between alike is graspable enough. Less so are the whispers behind their collaboration, the linking impulse through which they sing as one. This can be neither taught nor so adroitly articulated, but can only be imbibed through the music of life itself. The album’s title is therefore no coincidence—black eyes hold in their pools the truth behind all that moves us.

Anyone familiar with Saluzzi’s work will know his skill for shaping a melody so heartwarming it hurts, and know also that his creative wellspring is itself a dark iris floating in red-veined expanse. Except for the title track, an alluring tango by Vicente Greco, all of the material on Ojos Negros is Saluzzi’s. That being said, once Lechner weaves her spirit into the quivering bandoneón of “Tango a mi padre,” it’s clear that it is just as much hers. The rare partnership established at the outset is, like Ryuichi Sakamoto’s pairing with Morelenbaum2in Casa, an unusual idea with organic results, so that one can hardly imagine the sonic landscape without their tangent. Thus caught in the lilting kinesis they so delicately render, we move with them, taking on the elasticity of gently disturbed water.

Dino and Anja
(Photo by Luca d’Agostino)

Saluzzi and Lechner tread foregrounds and backgrounds, stage left and stage right, interiors and exteriors with equal resonance, ever aware of the destinations at the heart of their storytelling regardless of whoever takes the lead. This constant give and take is the light in their prism, which shines brightest in the masterful “Duetto.” Its ashen beginnings ignite slumber before drifting back into peace, as if lazing beneath the swaying tendrils of the willow (each a necklace of time) evoked in the album’s title track. Elsewhere, the duo turns the lens a few clicks into softer focus. “Minguito,” for one, offers a stone rounded by decades of water’s passage as it relays pizzicato arpeggios to Saluzzi’s sustained builds. “El títere,” for another, invokes these contrasts afresh. A handful of especially contemplative pieces whittles the session into completion. Among them, the closing “Serenata” stands out for the depth of its emotion, pliant and mountainous.

The music of Ojos Negros is spoken for by the night. True to ECM standards, it is superbly recorded to boot, giving the bandoneón extraordinary breadth to enfold the cello at its center. As one of the label’s finest recordings and a highlight of Saluzzi’s ongoing travels, it simply deserves to be heard. It was also my first encounter with either musician, and if you have yet to open your ears to their command, I hope it may also be yours.