Werner Bärtschi: W.A. Mozart/G. Scelsi/A. Pärt/F. Busoni/W. Bärtschi (ECM New Series 1377)


W.A. Mozart/G. Scelsi/A. Pärt/F. Busoni/W. Bärtschi

Werner Bärtschi piano
Recorded July 1988 at Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this ECM debut, Swiss pianist Werner Bärtschi offers up an intriguing and carefully conceived program. Having studied with Klaus Huber and Rudolf Kelterborn, Bärtschi brings a decidedly compositional attention to his playing that lends itself well to the material at hand. He begins with Mozart’s C minor Fantasie (1785), which, as the longest piece, reads like a single human life. It is not a simple reimagining of the past but a reliving of it, for to play the piano is to articulate a biography in sound, using the body in imitation of what bore those same feelings in “real time.” After such a piece, the Four Illustrations on the Metamorphoses of Vishnu (1953) by Scelsi may seem like a startling transition. Yet humble quartet presents us with a rare programmatic gesture from the Italian, whose microscopic approach actually balances out Mozart’s broader strokes and veils the turmoil of mortality behind the surface of the spirit made flesh. Bärtshi surprises us yet again with Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. This early 1976 version is like a dream we question upon waking: Did we really hear it, or did the music rise in our minds out of an unspoken memory? And so, when we next encounter Mozart in the 1788 B minor Adagio, we hear him with fresh ears and open hearts. Rather that scoping out the Mozartean influence in the surrounding works, we see the latter funneling into the former. Bärtschi follows with a piece of his own, Frühmorgens am Daubensee (1986/88), realized during an early morning hike in the mountains surrounding the eponymous lake. In it we hear snatches of something upon the wind, distant conversations, activities, worldly movements, the beginning of an avalanche that never quite forms. This salves us nicely for the relative onslaught of Busoni’s 1921 Toccata, a masterful yet demanding unfolding of theme and counterpoint. After such a towering cascade of notes, Mozart’s B major Sonata (1783) is like a gentle return, a pair of hands lowering us slowly to the earth, leaving us to slumber in a blanket of solid ground.

Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich provides a beautifully conceived essay which, despite risking an overuse of the word “oriental” (it appears no less than five times in the liner notes), makes a viable case for Bärtschi’s musical choices as being firmly rooted in the spirit of magic and fantasy that engenders the program as a whole. Where Jungheinrich characterizes this as a piano recital of “Mozart and…,” I would go a step further and say it is equal parts “…and Mozart.” yet although Mozart bookends the recital and inhabits its fulcrum, his infrastructural presence is no more significant than the validation of the superstructure. As such, the continuity between these pieces is a narrative rather than formal concern—not a linear continuity, but one in which the potential for speech is equally present at every stage.

<< Dino Saluzzi: Andina (ECM 1375)
>> Heinz Reber: MNAOMAI, MNOMAI (ECM 1378 NS)

A Hilliard Songbook (ECM New Series 1614/15)


The Hilliard Ensemble
A Hilliard Songbook: New Music For Voices

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Barry Guy double-bass
Recorded March/April 1995, March 1996 at Boxgrove Priory, Chichester
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Those who approach this album like I did—that is, only after listening to the Hilliard Ensemble’s many early music recordings—may be in for a surprise. Whether that surprise is a pleasant one or not may depend on the listener’s openness to new sounds. The opening convulsion that is Barry Guy’s aphasic Un coup de dés would seem to foreshadow a bumpy ride. Its whirlwind of extended double bass techniques and choral acrobatics leaves us hard pressed to find our bearings. The score, Guy tells us, encourages improvisation and even the modification of what has already been written. Using a section from a Mellarmé poem, which likens the process of thought to a mere dice-throw, the piece works its way into our ears like a dwarfing star. It is abstract, agitated, and unsettling, yet full of gracious detail we cannot help but enjoy. The Hilliards demonstrate that they can execute a piece of such technical difficulty and “modern” sensibility with as much fluidity as they approach their more familiar repertoire—at least insofar as their recordings are concerned, for they have always been known for juxtaposing contemporary works with those of bygone ages in their live performances. And then we get the short and sweet Only, the earliest published composition of Morton Feldman. In less time than it takes to microwave a frozen dinner, we are utterly transported by Feldman’s visceral melodic rendering of a Rilke sonnet, brought to its fullest fruition through the angelic voice of Rogers Covey-Crump. It is a folk song for its own sake, a funereal hymn for the living. This sets off a spate of shorter pieces by Ivan Moody and Piers Hellawell. Moody’s viscous miniatures live up to the composer’s name, taking us through a range of emotional colors. Endechas y Canciones sets Arabic-Spanish poetry from the 15th and 16th centuries. The second of these, “Endechas a la muerte de Guillén Peraza,” is a dirge from the Canary Islands that pulls at the heartstrings with a pace slow and focused, like moderated speech. The Hilliard Songbook by Hellawell, on the other hand, is a whimsical journey through A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning by Nicholas Hilliard (1547-1619), the celebrated Elizabethan portraitist. This is the centerpiece of the album, both in title and in song. The treatise’s idiosyncratic descriptions of color inspired the composer to recreate those very colors with voices. Regulating the piece is a refrain taken up each time by one member of the ensemble: “True beautie of each perfect cullor in his full perfection in perfect hard bodies and very transparent.” Through this many-hued ode we are given valuable insight into not only the Hilliards’ vocal art, but also into the visual mind of their namesake.

Of the longer pieces represented here, Paul Robinson’s Incantation is textually the broadest. The words are adopted from Byron’s poem of the same name—what Robinson calls a “vitriolic curse”—through which the composer sought to foreground the Hilliards’ sonority over the work being performed. As the music marks its slow path through a rather morbid text, we feel the voices blend into a single destination. Kullervo’s Message, by Estonian composer Veljo Tormis, recounts a dramatic episode from The Kalevala, Finland’s nineteenth-century national epic. From a line of skillfully harmonized textual lifts, Tormis hangs a series of messages by which the eponymous tragic hero is informed of the deaths of his loved ones, even as he prepares to exact his revenge upon those whose ridicule led him to such self-destructive fervor. Tormis’s melodic and programmatic colors are ideally suited to their source material, moving with the virtuosity of a master storyteller. Scottish composer James MacMillan offers his own epic statement in the form of …here in hiding…, a deceptively simple mesh of the poem “Adoro te devote” by St. Thomas Aquinas in both its Latin and English forms.

The remaining pieces comprise a flavorful mixture of words and musical ideas. Two exemplary statements from Arvo Pärt, And One Of The Pharisees… and the splendid vocal version of Summa, make fine company of Elizabeth Liddle’s Whale Rant, which takes its cues from Moby-Dick, and works its music like clock hands, with one arm counting the hours while another traces a faster, larger circle. The second hand becomes invisible, implied only in the vocal gestures of the sensitive performance, and is forever lost in the ocean of its source. Joanne Metcalf’s Music For The Star Of The Sea, is a thinly veiled meditation on the words “O ave maris stella” (“O hail star of the sea”) that extends the possibility of a single utterance into a vast Marian fabric. Sharpe Thorne by John Casken paints an image of Christ impaled, while Michael’s Finnissy’s Stabant autem iuxta crucem praises the one who bore him. And in Canticum Canticorum Ivan Moody again dazzles with this setting of verses from the Song of Songs and its loving incorporation of Byzantine chant.

Those wishing to hear the range of the Hilliards’ technical prowess will want to check out this collection for sure. This humble quartet sings with such clear articulation of phrase that one accepts every note like the nourishing morsel it is. While the music is for the most part contemplative and lovely, never ceasing to fascinate even at its least accessible moments, much of it feels spun from the same thread. The pieces by Ivan Moody stand out here as being the most well thought out and textually aligned, while the Hellawell, Tormis, and Guy enchant with their distinctive flair. That being said, it seems a shame to think that cultures outside a Eurocentric Judeo-Christian context should be shunted here. Considering that nearly all of these pieces were written for the Hilliard Ensemble, and that some of their composers were involved in the Hilliard Summer School led by the ensemble in residency, a narrow scope is perhaps understandable. Geographical limitations aside, the traveling instinct is still there in the Hilliards’ adventurous spirit, captured in every flawless phrase, in every committed performance that continues to issue from their very throats.

Improvised Choral Music

In 2004 a close friend, Mary Porcari, passed away of ovarian cancer. In my grief I contemplated writing a requiem for her, but as I sat before pages of empty staves I found my mind devoid of music. Instead, I opened a simple mixing program on my computer and, with the Latin text in front of me, improvised the full mass at one sitting. I later transcribed the piece, which received its world premiere performance in Mary’s honor at Grace Church in Amherst, Massachusetts on November 5 of the following year. I have since continued to compose choral music in this same way, letting each text guide me where it will. Because this music is straight from the heart, it inevitably has drawn from much of what I listen to daily. In this regard the music of Arvo Pärt and the performance style of the Hilliard Ensemble have been undoubtable inspirations. I have recently created a MySpace page where one can hear my music, unrefined as it is. Seeing as it would not exist without ECM’s vital presence in my listening life, I felt it appropriate to post here.

Incidentally, Grady Harp has been kind enough to share the following thoughts on my music:

It seems close to impossible to believe that the music of Tyran Grillo is limited to his MySpace blog site.  Happening onto this music was almost an accidental discovery.  This is music that travels direct from one man’s heart and soul into the manipulation of sound and space that weds to some of the most exquisite, ethereal otherness this listener has experienced.  Apparently Grillo’s only instrument is his voice and he records directly into the computer without first writing notes on a staff of music paper or recreating the sounds in a way that other musicians can perform them.  According to the composer these ‘melodies’ came out of an experience of loss of a loved one, and if that is the fact then we have in our midst a man who has an incredible future should he decide to transform his vocal manipulations of his own voice (a voice that comfortably rings through a wide range) into performable format.

To this point there are ten compositions at his site: Magnificat, Stabat Mater I, II, and III, Rorate Coeli, Kyrie eleison, Officium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Lacrimosa.  If pushed to the book of category these works are related to chants, but not the medieval chants that have lasted through the centuries and are heard at high holy days. No, these harmonies are very informed by Eastern music: some of these sound like mystical choirs hovering in the past of Egypt or Greece.  The lines do not repeat but instead hang in the air like vaporous transient clouds, like the afterburn of incense.  They are holy, they are sacred, they are from somewhere we have not been – except inside our souls.

This is important music, not a compilation of distant memories from other times, but very original murmurs of the heart.  I can only urge listeners to become acquainted with this work.  Hopefully someone will fund the production of this music on CDs so that more people can be transformed by this magic.

Arvo Pärt: Passio (ECM New Series 1370)

Arvo Pärt

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Lynne Dawson soprano
Michael George bass
Elizabeth Layton violin
Melinda Maxwell oboe
Elisabeth Wilson cello
Catherine Duckett bassoon
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Western Wind Chamber Choir
Paul Hillier conductor
Recorded March 1988, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London
Engineers: Peter Laenger, Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sometimes music arrests you the moment it begins. Arvo Pärt’s Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem of 1982 is just such a piece. Its opening proclamation speaks directly to the heart. Although the music is rooted in St. John’s Gospel, one need not be a believer to feel its spiritual tug. Pärt’s is one of an outstanding line of St. John Passions, most notably those of Orlande de Lassus (1580), Heinrich Schütz (1666), J. S. Bach (1724), and more recently of James MacMillan (2008). Pärt’s music is distinct from these in that it is so uniquely situated both in and out of its own time. His setting harks back to the monophony of the spoken word and accordingly makes us of an antiphonal structure determined by the rhythms and dynamics inherent in the Latin text. Passio is scored for bass and tenor soloists (as Jesus and Pilate, respectively), an SATB quartet as the refracted evangelist, choir, and a modest assortment of winds, strings, and organ. Under the sensitive direction of Paul Hillier, the musicians achieve an utterly breathtaking unity of diction and tone throughout the entire unbroken 70-minute duration.

Microtonal harmonies dominate the lead solos as the piece leads in from its captivating intro, rendered all the more dialogic with the countertenor’s entrance. The sopranic evangelist adds a feathery fringe to an already gauzy sound, even as it needles the patchwork it borders. The voices build into ascendant clusters against occasional commentary from woodwinds. Michael George is heartwrenching in the title role and sings with an almost orthodox flair. The higher voices work their way into compact triangles in a tessellation of strings and throats as winds weave their way through with the surety of fish swimming through water. A shaft of light cuts through the solace as the organ blossoms with fuller force and the entire choir bursts forth with flowering tendrils of fire, hurtling massive emotions into the cosmos. From this dense overgrowth emerge clusters of voices in a far-reaching conversation. The piece evolves in textually ordered sections, using its own remnants to build new vocabularies along the way. As such, the music feels “recited” more than played (not unlike the sacred works of Alexander Knaifel), gathering energy from the very blessing of articulation and peaking as that energy becomes concentrated when bid to be sung. Vocal lines bleed into one another, brought to life by the connective tissue of faith that flows through them, covering the score’s skeletal structure with skin while leaving stigmata untouched. These brief moments, during which the full weight of the assembled performers comes crashing down, are simply earth shattering and leave us effectively stilled for the quieter contemplations in which they are housed. This album is filled with moments of heart-stopping beauty: a high note from Lynne Dawson at 25:09, John Potter’s solo 90 seconds later, the chromatic climb from David James at 40:40 (and another at 54:11), the proclamation at 58:50, and of course the glorious final minute that leaves us spellbound.

One of the Estonian composer’s most beloved works, Passio is an epitome of the tintinnabuli style and ranks alongside such masterpieces as his Stabat Mater and Miserere. While Passio treats each section of text as its own poetic enclosure, a certain continuity casts the entire work in a light of repentance, a planetary prostration at the feet of something so almighty yet so pliant that only music can even begin to express in human terms that which is anything but.

Of the small handful of versions available on disc, this is the first and most definitive. A manifold approach to the recording is evident in every aspect, striking an ideal balance between intimacy and sheer vastness of sound. Some may be put off by a single long track that offers little respite for the overwhelmed listener, but the rewards that await us at the end far outweigh the patience required to get there.

<< Heiner Goebbels: Der Mann im Fahrstuhl/The Man In The Elevator (ECM 1369)
>> Markus Stockhausen: Cosi Lontano … Quasi Dentro (ECM 1371)

Arvo Pärt: Arbos (ECM New Series 1325)

Arvo Pärt

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Gidon Kremer violin
Vladimir Mendelssohn viola
Thomas Demenga cello
Brass Ensemble Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Arbos, An den Wassern zu Babel, Pari Intervallo, De Profundis, and Summa recorded March/August 1986, Karlshöhe, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland (Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg)
Stabat MaterEs sang vor langen Jahren recorded January 1987 at St. John’s Church, London
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner (Südwest Tonstudio, Stuttgart)
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of Arvo Pärt, says Wilfred Mellers in his liner notes, is “concerned with the numinous”; as direct a statement as one can make about the sounds contained in this relatively neglected disc, overshadowed as it often is by the popularity of Te Deum and Tabula Rasa. For those new to Pärt, the wide selection represented in Arbos makes a solid primer. From the succinct to the majestic, the listener is treated to a carefully programmed process of transformation, culminating in one of the great masterpieces of modern choral literature.

The journey begins with the title piece, a terse blast of energy scored for brass and percussion. While cacophonous and chromatic, it is also perpetual and dark, providing the core for the “Dies irae” of Pärt’s later Miserere. On its own, it swirls into a self-sustaining galaxy that becomes more ordered with distance.

An den Wassern zu Babel saßen wir und weinten renders the well-known “By the rivers of Babylon” passage from Psalm 137 in a series of lilting triads, alternating between men’s and women’s voices. Here and elsewhere throughout the album one encounters the essence of the composer’s “tintinnabuli” style. Sustained tones from organ thread a line of subdued vocal beads, reaching ever higher, only to fall like kites whose strings are cut.

Pari Intervallo provides respite from denser surroundings. Comprised of gravid lead tones resting on a blanket of softer commentary, it is a funereal postlude, waiting and watching as the end draws near, promising not cessation but new life in its reverberant heart. It is a sublime meditation on the meaning of divinity and the divinity of meaning, a soul left unscripted by the wayside, where it can be captured neither on paper nor in sound. And yet, here we find an attempt to sketch its contours against our better judgment, against our feelings of inadequacy, against our assumptions of complexity in all things spiritual. In this piece we find the fibers that bound the garments of Christ on the cross, the creaking of knees of those who knelt at his feet. Pari Intervallo shimmers like heat distortion, moving with the force of a slow tide before receding into a still sea.

This is followed by Pärt’s stunning De Profundis, which also makes an appearance in the Miserere, if augmented by a broader choral palette. Different also here is the recording, which is less spacious (the bass drum, for one, is far more present). The voices are allowed to luxuriate in their own fallibility, in that beauty of impermanence that makes them human. In exposing its fragility so readily, the music becomes resilient. An organ provides the waters upon which this vessel of music floats, while a gong adds a dual note of ceremony. Whereas this piece brings us to the end in Miserere, as a standalone composition it seems to suggest a beginning.

Es sang vor langen Jahren sets a German poem (text and translation available here) by Clemens Brentano (1778-1842) for alto, violin, and viola. Alto Susan Bickley weaves a delicate song in this bare setting. Her tone is rich, as if residing somewhere in the back of her throat, heard before it is seen. The strings are like a lectern upon which the poetry rests, its pages bronzed with age.

Next is Summa in its original choral version. It is the quintessential Pärt composition: balanced, lush with triadic splendor, and concise. Along with Fratres in its many guises, Summa is a red thread in Pärt’s oeuvre and shines in this heartfelt performance.

This is followed by a curious reprise of Arbos that may divide listeners. Either way, it startles us from our reverie before pushing us into another.

At last we come to the highlight of an already fine disc: the 1985 Stabat Mater for 3 voices and string trio. The downward movement of its opening strings presents us with a unique metaphorical inversion. Where many a Stabat Mater works toward transcendence in its mourning, here we are brought from Heaven to Earth, even as we know that we must look from the latter to the former. The voices are the Trinity in a single open Ah, as if to spin their grief beyond the confines of language. Only then, after a brief comment from strings, does the text reveal itself. David James is the standout performer here, leading the way to a more rhythmic passage, echoed sul ponticello. Soprano Lynne Dawson enters like light through a window, bringing a maternal edge as she joins with James in duet, dotting the frosted glass of eternity with her warm fingertips. From Mount Zion they overlook the valleys—as green as they are brown—until everything that we have known is washed away in sound.

On the whole, Arbos goes down like a potion brewed in a vast melodic crucible. This is music that revels in its own exiguousness, for it is within those empty spaces that the greatest discoveries await us.

<< Jan Garbarek: All Those Born With Wings (ECM 1324)
>> Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop (ECM 1326)