Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity (ECM New Series 2612)


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Anna Gourari
Elusive Affinity

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded January 2018, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Water equals time and provides beauty with its double.
Part water, we serve beauty in the same fashion.
–Joseph Brodsky

In the wake of Anna Gourari’s first two ECM New Series recitals, the Russian pianist steps more deeply than ever before into dreamlike repertoire. That said, there’s actually very little in the way of fantasy in the present disc, reconfiguring as it does experiential fragments into an anagram of reality. The album begins and ends with arrangements by Johann Sebastian Bach of slow movements from concertos by Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello, respectively. Both are skeletal at first but soon burgeon into a tangle of nerves, veins, and tendons. As fundaments of an ever-growing monument, through whose windows shines a future sun, they send out their pulse as a signal to the unborn. And as a plush interior takes shape, hands lay themselves down as if to sleep and never wake, holding on to melody as a tether to this world before moving on to the next. Elusive, perhaps, but also infinite.

Between these walls, furniture reveals itself to be the seat of our listening. The most prominent sectional is Alfred Schnittke’s Five Aphorisms (1990), which in its cerebral upholstery offers respite for the weary self. Like a tour of a stroke-ridden mind, it holds fast to memories even as it struggles to lasso the words to articulate them. All we emerge with instead is a series of notes, chords, and mosaic rhythms. The central Lento carries its dissonant flesh up a staircase from which gestures leap ahead of the body they describe before finding in the final Grave a double meaning of mood and physical location.

In the shadow of this tower, Giya Kancheli’s Piano piece No. 15 (his theme from Robert Sturua’s adaptation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht) dances like a child without a future, just as his Piano piece No. 23 (theme from Sergei Bodrov’s 2002 film Bear’s Kiss) gilds the frame of recall with harmonious alloy. In kindred spirit, Arvo Pärt’s Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977) finds Gourari aligning her emotional y-axis with the score’s x. Each note seems pulled from the keyboard, spinning polyphony into a chamber of prayer.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Diary – Seven Pieces (2002) bears dedication to Gourari herself, and by that association turns friendship and respect into audible communication. Darkly inflected yet chiseled in light, each piece is a window into the otherss, a symbiotic aesthetic given wings by sensitive performances. There are stories to be told here, but not in the manner of linear narratives, for hints of jazz and freer associations assure us that beauty, urgency, and proclamation all share the same oxygen. This leaves only Wolfgang Rihm’s Zwiesprache (1999), which occupies a region liminal to the rest, where an archaeological dig is already well underway. These dedications are playful yet morose, touching impressions as if they might bleed on contact. We, however, know that in Gourari’s purview no such wounds will ever be inflicted, because healing is never too far behind.

Anna Gourari: Visions fugitives (ECM New Series 2384)

Visions fugitives

Anna Gourari
Visions fugitives

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Anna Gourari: Canto Oscuro (ECM New Series 2255)

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Anna Gourari
Canto Oscuro

Anna Gourari piano
Recorded May 2011, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Born 1972 to a family of musical pedagogues, Russian (and, since 1990, Munich-based) pianist Anna Gourari makes her ECM debut with a characteristically unconventional recital…or so it would seem. Two of J. S. Bach’s chorale preludes, as arranged by Ferruccio Busoni, parenthesize the program’s modern heart. “Ich ruf’ zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ” and “Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland” both come from the incomplete Orgelbüchlein, a pedagogical scrapbook compiled in the earthy 18th century. Busoni’s erudite touch burgeons further in Gourari’s, opening a doorway all the grander for being so austere. Yet here is a Bach that, while adorned, breathes with the minimalism of a single voice. The tenderness of these leaves betray nothing of the fragile limb to which they cling.

From light to brokenness, the program tilts its wings eastward to Sofia Gubaidulina’s Chaconne. Composed in 1962, this deconstruction of a b-minor triad represents an key period in the Russian composer’s development. One may be tempted to read grand philosophical statements of suffering into such music, when really it turns itself inside out for all to hear. This is not an evocation of suffering, per se, but an acknowledgment of its necessity. The effect is such that even the overt references to Bach come across as probing, strangely confident, and spiraled like a unicorn’s horn. Its elegiac impulse is foxed by ragged edges, given light in measured doses. Here is a lighthouse without a vessel to guide, a signal without a flare.

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), a prolific composer yet one whose piano works have only in recent years begun to crop up on CD programs, is given plenty of space in Gourari’s ecstatic take on his Suite “1922.” Although its effect would surely have raised a few eyebrows that same year, as was Hindemith’s intention, today his experiment stands as a fascinating cross-section of early expressionism. Over the course of five parts, this jocular, if rigorous, piece takes us on a wild ride. Titles like “Shimmy,” “Boston,” and “Ragtime” transport the listener to a time when said dances still hit the floor, when financial doom was still some years away. Such historical perspective lends poignancy to the central movement, a “Nachtstück.” Like a fragment of title card found in the wreckage of a silent film warehouse, it tells only part of the story that its context makes abundantly clear. Hindemith’s references are seeds for more complexly developed ideas and beg comparison with contemporary George Antheil, whose own “Shimmy” graces Herbert Henck’s fascinating Piano Music. Gourari’s resolute command of, and passion for, the material makes this a benchmark recording.

Anna Gourari

Busoni resurrects Bach again in his supernal arrangement of the Chaconne from the solo violin Partita No. 2. The mighty Chaconne has always been a keystone in Bach’s solo literature. That it speaks with the same colors is testament both to arranger and performer. From the chord-enhanced arpeggios to the requisite drama throughout, Gourari allows the music to resound not by means of surface but interior. If Busoni has given it an elastic quality, then she has stretched it to the limit in an interpretation that promises to open new doorways with every listen.

Were this program a long day, Bach’s e-minor Prélude (transposed here to b minor) would be its longed-for slumber. In a stained glass arrangement courtesy of composer-conductor Alexander Siloti (1863-1945), this relatively small piece from the Clavier-Büchlein vor Wilhelm Friedemann Bach reminds us that duration has nothing to do with density. There is bounty in this music that one discovers through living it.

(To hear samples of Canto Oscuro, click here.)