Cyrillus Kreek: The Suspended Harp of Babel (ECM New Series 2620)

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Cyrillus Kreek
The Suspended Harp of Babel

Vox Clamantis
Jaan-Eik Tulve conductor
Marco Ambrosini, Angela Ambrosini nyckelharpa
Anna-Liisa Eller kannel
Recorded April 2018, Transfiguration Church, Tallinn
Engineer: Margo Kõlar
Recording supervision: Helena Tulve
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 8, 2020

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the LORD’S song in a strange land?
Psalm 137:1-4

Cyrillus Kreek (1889-1962) is the latest member to be welcomed into ECM’s congregation of Estonian composers, and on this album we encounter a program of his choral music. Though a teacher by trade, Kreek spent decades transcribing nearly 1300 folk songs, three quarters of which he arranged for choir. These settings comprised a choral touchstone in Estonia and inspired such composers as Veljo Tormis and Tõnu Kõrvits in their own creative pursuits. Interpreted by Vox Clamantis and guided by director Jaan-Eik Tulve, these pieces constitute a worthy introduction for listeners outside Estonia to a composer who dedicated his life to the revitalization of local cultures. Joining these voices are Marco and Angela Ambrosini (nyckelharpa) and Anna-Liisa Eller (kannel), whose preludes, postludes, and intertextual commentaries render just enough connective tissue to channel our attention into the meaning of every word we hear.

The tender clarity of Kreek’s style lends itself authentically to the album’s many folk hymns, thus establishing a sacred baseline for all else that surrounds. Structures vary from the dancelike Mu süda, ärka üles (Awake, my heart) to the supplicating Kui suur on meie vaesus (Whilst great is our poverty), from the flowing Kes Jumalat nii laseb teha (He, who lets God prevail) to the prophetic Ma tulen taevast ülevelt (From heaven above to earth I come), in which the nyckelharpa shines through verses like the light of Bethlehem’s star. To my ears, however, the most powerful of these is Jakobi unenägu (Jacob’s dream), an Estonian runic song from Kanepi parish that moves through visions of crucifixion and lamentations of persecution by way of two solo voices: one singing, the other chanting in prayer. Such division mirrors the battle of flesh and spirit that every believer knows all too well. It also transitions into the Psalmnody of Kreek’s Õhtune jumalateenistus (Orthodox Vespers), from which two blessings are offered. His combined treatments of Psalms 135 and 136 show both his ability to restructure texts with humility of consideration and to compose by inspiration.

Beyond the Vespers, other Psalms emanate from his scores with supernatural purpose. The album’s title can be pieced together between the lilting hallelujahs of Paabeli jõgede kaldail (By the rivers of Babylon), thus hinting at God’s infinite nature through its picturing of the ephemeral. Another wonder to be cherished herein is Issand, ma hüüan Su poole (Lord, I cry unto Thee), a deep dive into Psalm 141 that enhances the folly of David’s doubting heart. As through the ache of Kiida, mu hing, Issandat (Bless the Lord, my soul) and the women’s voices of Päeval ei pea päikene (The sun shall not smite thee), images are born with an apparent age: a universe without precedent destined to prove the existence of eternity.

After the lively yet reflective Viimane tants (The last dance) from the Ambrosinis, we end with another Estonian hymn, Oh Jeesus, sinu valu (O Jesus, Thy pain), along with the song Dame, vostre doulz viaire by Guillaume de Machaut of 14th-century France. While the latter may seem an unexpected suffix in theory, in practice it is seamless. Moving backward, as if to remind us that time has neither beginning nor end, it pictures death, burial, and resurrection by the most fundamental element of them all: breath.

John Cage: Music for Piano 4-84 Overlapped (YAN.006)

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John Cage
Music for Piano 4-84 Overlapped

Pascale Berthelot piano
Recorded and mixed 2017 by Gérard de Haro at Studios La Buissonne
Mastered by Anaëlle Marsollier
Piano technician: Alain Massonneau
Produced by Marc Thouvenot & La Buissonne
Release date: May 24, 2018

What if I ask thirty-two questions?
What if I stop asking now and then?
Will that make things clear?
Is communication something made clear?
What is communication?
–John Cage, “Communication”

In her third intersection with the CUICATL sublabel, pianist Pascale Berthelot offers something truly unique in John Cage’s Music for Piano. Composed between 1952 and 1962 through a series of chance operations, Music for Piano grew into a set of 85 pieces. Numbers 4-84 took on a life of their own as incidental soundtrack for dancer Merce Cunningham’s 1953 Solo Suite in Space and Time, and these are presented in an unprecedented way: superimposed and played as one. Because Music for Piano indeed plays with notions of space and time—stretching, deconstructing, unraveling them as quantum material—it makes an ideal sort of sense in this collective reiteration.

Suggestions in the score were yielded by natural imperfections in the paper, where Cage decided to make a mark, thus freeing something that might otherwise have remained locked away in its planar prison. This fundamental action—of treating something noticeable as a rupture into sound production—gave emptiness to substance and substance to emptiness. In so doing, he proved the fallacy of silence altogether.

Despite the overlap (if not also because of it), an intense subtlety prevails. And because the notation is already so bare, the result is far from chaotic. It is, rather, like gazing upon a starry sky and hearing it for the first time. The deeper one goes into Berthelot’s performance, the more the piano sheds its associations as a center-stage instrument. Rather, in being plucked, strummed, depressed, and knocked from the inside out, it opens itself like a dictionary. Flipping through it as one would spin a globe and land a finger for want of random travel, Berthelot links one word after another until vocabularies, sentences, and paragraphs emerge. In reading them back to us, he fixes a narrative as such and allows us to wield it as a text. The beauty of it all is that we may cut a piece from anywhere along its trajectory and roll it out into another story altogether.

This recording is a gift that keeps on giving. A must for admirers of Cage, and for anyone who believes that music is something that should feel you, not the other way around.

Thomas Adès: Illuminating from Within (YAN.005)

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Thomas Adès
Illuminating from Within

Winston Choi piano
Recorded 2015 by Nicolas Baillard at Studios La Buissonne
Produced by Marc Thouvenot & La Buissonne
Release date: October 30, 2015

If ever there was a composer who worked in light, it would be Thomas Adès. As the subject of this recital by Canadian pianist Winston Choi, he comes across as someone interested not so much in the metaphysical as the metaphorical. Traced Overhead (1995/96), for one, takes its inspiration from the iconography of angels, and in drawing that connection molds transcendence and ascension as motifs worthy of articulation at the keyboard. Such heavenly associations, however, remind us of flesh’s sinful tendencies and of the material world that keeps its desires running smoothly. As two relatively shorter movements shift into a protracted third, in which the scratch of thorns blood-lets a sacred disembodiment, the dichotomy of inner/outer ceases to be real. The Three Mazurkas (2009) that follow are brimming with detail. Originally written for Emanuel Ax and tipping their shared hat to Chopin, they showcase a full integration of sound, color, and environment even as dance steps are obscured through the filter of personal expression.

Thrift (A Cliff Tower) (2012) begins a chain of standalone works. Its roiling textures, viewed (and heard) as if from a precipice, are an appropriate prelude to Darknesse Visible (1992). This nervous translation of John Dowland’s “In darkness let me dwell” is strangely bright. The end result is no longer a song but something else entirely. Still Sorrowing (1992), also rooted in Dowland, lights a decidedly nocturnal stove. Muted strings and plant-like forms grow in honest profusion. All of which makes the Concert Paraphrase (2009) feel like a masochistic slap. This free transcription of Adès’s first opera, Powder Her Face, is dramatic, halting, and intensely physical. Between fiercely lyrical asides and gently tumultuous arias it strings tightropes of Weimar-era cabaret, romanticism, and fantasy. More real than anything, for nothing is real without a little makeup to offset the truth.

Samuel Sighicelli: Etudes pour piano & sampler (YAN.004)

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Samuel Sighicelli
Etudes pour piano & sampler

Samuel Sighicelli piano, electronics
Recorded October 6-8, 2014 by Gérard de Haro at Studios La Buissonne
Mastered by Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Marc Thouvenot & La Buissonne
Release date: February 28, 2017

Pianist Samuel Sighicelli, known to La Buissonne Label listeners as a key member of Caravaggio, presents what this album’s press release calls a “bionic piano.” More than an amalgamation of flesh, metal, and wood, it is a meta-compositional tool. Sighicelli started this project by recording improvisations at home on the piano, treating curated selections therefrom as seeds for heavily constructed pieces. From this a series of 12. Though originally intended for two loudspeakers, he reworked them for live performance using digital sampling, thus allowing him to invoke the prerecorded material via electronic keyboard.

“Signes/Course” combines elliptical motifs with splashes of cold water, string treatments, and backward glances. If such descriptions feel vague, it is only because the music is so precise, and to capture it in like manner risks limiting its interpretive possibilities. So begins a psychological character study of psychology itself. The mix of submarine signals and deserted expanse that is “Carcasse dans la neige” haunts the brain. Upon hearing it, we immediately realize we lack the necessary equipment to interpret the pattern as a message. Instead, we flounder in our need for communication: isolated, undiscerned, voiceless. Those pulses continue to echo across the waters of our conscious mind in “L’horizon comme vouloir,” even as they find purchase in the piano’s physical body.

The more these pieces evolve, the more the sampler becomes integrated into the piano itself, as if it were hybridizing with the very instrument from which it emerge. Along the way, we are exposed to sound bites of human voice (“Édifices”), sinister ruptures (“Brèches”), sacred spaces (“Monolithe”), futuristic body scans (“Départ dans le bruit neuf”), and even the lull of cricket song (“L’âge du faire”). And when the keys sing to us from within minimal clothing, as in “Dernier regard” and “Presque l’aube,” the effect is startling. It is akin to being sonically operated on to disentangle us from an incursion of microscopic entities, each wielding a knife so small that every slash is felt only in dreams.

Daniel D’Adamo/Thierry Blondeau: Plier-Déplier (YAN.003)

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Daniel D’Adamo
Thierry Blondeau
Plier-Déplier

Béla Quartet
Julien Dieudegard
violin
Frédéric Aurier violin
Julian Boutin viola
Luc Dedreuil violoncello
Recorded, edited, and mixed in 2012 by Gérard de Haro at Studios La Buissonne
Mastered by Nicolas Baillard
Steinway prepared by Alain Massonneau
Produced by Marc Thouvenot & La Buissonne
Release date: November 19, 2013

Plier-Déplier (Folding and Unfolding) is the title piece, jointly composed by Daniel D’Adamo and Thierry Blondeau, of this fascinating program of string quartet music. Played with astonishing (meta)physical accuracy by the Béla Quartet, it comes across as three-dimensional and tangible. Prerecorded snippets allow insight into the preparatory elements of these constructions. Some are distant, others intimately close. Such extremes give credence to the between-ness of things, just as the rising and setting of the sun confirms our allegiance to the day. Though nearly all of these 19 pieces average two minutes in length, there’s a sense of expansion at play from one to the next. Silence is as much employed for its notecraft as scored action. Calling these vignettes therefore feels grossly inaccurate, as they are no less narrow in scope than a haiku. So-called extended techniques become the norm, while traditional bowing serves to insist on the contrivances of measured speech, directed emotion, and impositions of time. In the present context, urgency of clarity becomes a disruption to the comforts of a given instrument’s tessitura, stretching the limits of possibility as naturally as blinking. Implications abound in the creak of a tuning peg, the scrape of an un-vocalized string. Contrasts of breezes and gales coexist in a fluttering storm, while harmonics resound like sirens of the heart, coaxing themselves to shore.

Blondeau and D’Adamo each offer a solitary composition as postlude. Where the former’s Last Week-End on Mars evokes air raids and space travel, using electronics to enhance the vagaries of time, the latter’s Découper – petite passacaille touches the edges of its own vocabulary—not with the tongue but with the fingertips. The quartet’s delicacy, interspersed with forthright expulsions of air, gives a taste of the meal that never reaches this proverbial table. Instead, it leaves us to ponder the empty plate before us as if it were our own life, scarred by years of silverware and unthinking consumption.

Ivan Fedele: Musica della luce (YAN.002)

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Ivan Fedele
Musica della luce

Pascale Berthelot piano
Recorded in 2012 by Gérard de Haro at Studios La Buissonne
Edited, mixed, and mastered by Nicolas Baillard
Steinway prepared by Alain Massonneau
Produced by Marc Thouvenot & La Buissonne
Release date: November 19, 2013

The pianistic literature of Ivan Fedele is the subject of this recital by Pascale Berthelot, which follows her CUICATL debut. The program opens with the Italian composer’s Études boréales (1990). Meant to evoke the icy climate of Finland, it requires the performer to dig into the keyboard like a mountain climber might ascend by means of a pick. Such sharp attacks are resolutely luminescent, while the slower sections are murmurings of shadow. Internal resonances are beautifully enhanced in the third and fifth etudes, as if in a frozen cave exhaling its own voices across the valleys. The harmonics of the fourth are the tones of icicles falling from their state of overhang.

Études australes (2002/03) shifts to warmer, more forgiving spaces. Subtitles of individual etudes (Tierra del fuego, Cape Horn, etc.) suggest polar geographies but also the genera (e.g., Aptenodytes) and species of birds who inhabit them. With no pedal indications to lead the way, Berthelot is left to interpret the duration of every note cluster as if it were its own hybrid, jumping from sparkling cliffs into oceanic depths.

The Toccata (1983, 1988) is an ode to the composer’s own youth and the revelry of practicing at the piano. That feeling of repetition, of evolution and involvement, is omnipresent. Insistence and flowery ornamentation go “all in” throughout this fascinating and unabashedly honest music.

Cadenze is a set of nine aphorisms composed over a 25-year period (1983-2008). Though short, they practically insist on lingering long after being uttered. Thus, the markings of each are as much linguistic as environmental. Some particularly striking examples are numbers III (a psychic rush), VI (a dance that never gets off the ground), and VIII (a lullaby for DNA).

Nachtmusik (2008) concludes with a piano-only section from the longer Deu notturni con figura, itself for piano and electric piano. As the most brooding narrative at hand, it pulls itself through a thick emotional transference, ever aware of its age.

Fedele’s oeuvre is a collective study of contrasts in the same planetary body. Just as the Earth’s axis suggests two tilts—one toward the sun and the other away from it—it balances light and dark, warmth and cold, art and science. This is neither a treatise or a manifesto, but a short story collection rolled into a ball and kneaded until its words are no longer distinguishable.

Morton Feldman: Triadic Memories (YAN.001)

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Morton Feldman
Triadic Memories

Pascale Berthelot piano
Recorded and mixed in 2009 by Gérard de Haro at Studios La Buissonne
Mastered by Nicolas Baillard
Steinway prepared by Alain Massonneau
Produced by Marc Thouvenot & La Buissonne
Release date: November 19, 2013

Around fifty solo piano pieces are attributed to composer Morton Feldman (1926-1987), whose relationship with the instrument was like that of light to prism. This studio recital by Pascale Berthelot, recorded in 2009 by Gérard de Haro at La Buissonne, marks the inaugural release in the studio’s CUICATL imprint, dedicated to documenting world-class performances of contemporary classical material.

Triadic Memories, written for Japanese pianist Aki Takahashi in 1981, is a cartography not only of triads and memories as self-contained entities but also of the ways in which each informs the other. Arpeggiated chords mark ephemeral borders; motifs are recycled and transformed. Every shade comprises a vocabulary of solitary travel. In the words of Feldman himself: “In this regularity (though there are slight gradations of tempo) there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion; a bit like walking the streets of Berlin—where all the buildings look alike, even if they’re not.” Thus, Feldman’s interest in duration over rhythm (or, as Louis Goldstein puts it, “[h]is concern with how a musical composition sounds, rather than how it is made”) takes precedence, just as one’s footsteps might give the illusion of regularity yet, upon closer scrutiny, reveal endless possibilities. Like a child learning how to walk yet whose comportment speaks of an innate knowledge passed down genetically, cosmically, from body to body (if not soul to soul), Triadic Memories recalibrates the parameters of our attention span until we no longer feel present in ourselves. And just as we are about to get stuck, we find our equilibrium restored, over and over, until only beauty remains to show for our passage.

One of the missions of CUICATL is to include pieces appropriate for conservatory students to learn and play. In this case, it is Feldman’s Piano Piece of 1952. Despite its more rigid structure and shorter duration, it feels less welcoming than Triadic Memories. Premiered by David Tudor in 1959, it has been rarely recorded since. Its score suggests not melodies but organisms. These we can hold as one might hold a newborn and watch them grow in a space where the air shapes itself as a sentient, physical substance. This is character of Feldman’s music: its willingness to let contradictions speak as the fully formed individuals they are rather than stand before the court of our scrutiny as selves divided between prosecution and defense.

Ketil Bjørnstad: A passion for John Donne (ECM 2394)

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Ketil Bjørnstad
A passion for John Donne

Håkon Kornstad tenor saxophone, flute, voice
Ketil Bjørnstad piano
Birger Mistereggen percussion
Oslo Chamber Choir
Håkon Daniel Nystedt
conductor
Recorded live March 2012, Sofienberg Kirke, Oslo
at the Oslo International Church Music Festival
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
An ECM Production
Release date: October 24, 2014

Batter my heart, three-personed God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to men;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

Pianist and composer Ketil Bjørnstad has sailed some of ECM’s purest waters. Yet while many of those journeys have been instrumental, he has with increasing frequency turned to the human voice as a candle from which to exude a melodic glow. True to metaphor, much of 2008’s The Light represented a major engagement with English poet John Donne (1572-1631), whose verses are the backbone of the present recording. Written for the Oslo International Church Festival and given its premiere in March of 2012 (the very performance heard here), Bjørnstad’s A passion for John Donne features Håkon Kornstad (tenor saxophone, flute, voice) in his ECM debut alongside percussionist Birger Mistereggen, the Oslo Chamber Choir under the direction of Håkon Daniel Nystedt, and the composer himself at the keyboard.

An Introitus gradates this hymnal piece into existence with a gong before piano and choir pull back the curtain of night to reveal a dawn-lit choral arrangement of “Thou hast made me.” As Kornstad’s tenor weaves through the undergrowth of these self-reflective intonations, unfolding one wordless implications after another, a silent heart of reverence is illuminated. Kornstad also sings, lending sanctity to “A fever” and “Farewell to love” as Bjørnstad shelters him like a church would a believer.

The writing for choir is sweeping yet intimate, most notably in “Death, be not proud” and “A nocturnal upon St. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day,” the latter an atmospherically rich tapestry of waning moons and withdrawn souls. “A valediction, forbidden mourning” is another memorable passage, its use of marimba laying a supple path for Kornstad’s reed and voice to wander.

Each poem enacts a laser-focused concentration of mortality, distilling years of life into single words and phrases. This scriptural quality lends itself well to the piece’s concept as a “passion,” which by virtue of its promises of everlasting life through the doorways of death and love gives rise to a grander meaning in the texts. Like the benediction for incorruptible blood with which it ends, its prayerful mold feels more ripe than ever to be filled with our submissive will.

Konstantia Gourzi: Music for piano and string quartet (ECM New Series 2309)

Gourzi

Konstantia Gourzi
Music for piano and string quartet

Lorenda Ramou piano
Ensemble Coriolis
Heather Cottrell
violin
Susanne Pietsch violin
Klaus-Peter Werani viola
Hanno Simons violoncello
Recorded July 2012, Himmelfahrtskirche, Munich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 10, 2014

Greek composer Konstantia Gourzi’s approach to time plus ECM’s approach to space equals the most whole of sonic numbers. Said whole consists of intimate minutiae, each the corner of a photograph otherwise hidden by the downturned palm of history. The transubstantiation of Eine kleine Geschichte, op. 25 (2005) for solo piano epitomizes this feeling of obscurity. Notes fall neither like rain nor like teardrops, but more like a maple copter in slow motion, yearning for the touch of soil. After such a liminal experience, the opening proclamation of the String Quartet No. 2, op. 33/2 (2007) indeed feels like a bear hug of gravity. Titled P-ILION, neun fragmente einer ewigkeit (the latter meaning “nine fragments of eternity”), it is a fitting description of the molecules that inform Gourzi’s atmospheres. A powerful river in which to drop one’s ears like stones, its currents teem with reminiscences and fantasies alike. Whether groveling in a heavenly day or dancing in a pagan night, the sheer breadth of evocation herein is staggering. As the cloth of familiarity frays at the shards of stories yet to be told, this piece elicits a lyricism so deep that it can only end where it began. Moods are darker in the String Quartet No. 1, op. 19 (2004). Bearing the title Israel, it begins with the mortal urgency of Henryk Górecki and the playfulness of Claude Debussy before morphing into a lone voice, orphaned but for its spiritual genealogies traceable back to Abraham’s near-sacrifice.

The program gives us a cross-section of Gourzi’s writing for piano. From the seven miniatures that make up „noch fürcht’ ich”, op. 8 (1993), an early opus that is her first for the instrument alone, to the similarly aphoristic Klavierstücke I-V, op.24 (2004) and the eclectic Aiolos Wind, op. 41 (2010), we encounter jazz, folklore, and hypermodern cartographies. The moment we find something to hold on to, it slips away and offers a substitute made of an entirely different material. When piano and string quartet combine in Vibrato 1, op. 38 (2009/10) and Vibrato 2, op. 38 (2010), Gourzi creates the soundtrack to a tracking shot, one footstep at a time.

I cannot fathom how this album slipped past my radar for so long. Though of only recent discovery, it has already earned a top spot among my favorite New Series discs. And while these compositions may sit comfortably beside those of György Kurtág and Helmut Lachenmann, there’s something distinct about Gourzi that is to be found not in her last name but in her first. Konstantia, which means “steadfastness,” is precisely the quality of which her music is possessed, moving ever forward as a way of polishing us like mirrors held up to the past.