Tigran Mansurian: Requiem (ECM New Series 2508)

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Tigran Mansurian

Anja Petersen soprano
Andrew Redmond bass
RIAS Kammerchor
Münchener Kammerorchester

Alexander Liebreich conductor
Recorded January 2016, Jesus-Christus-Kirche Dahlem, Berlin
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: March 17, 2017

ECM’s sixth album dedicated to Tigran Mansurian is a reference recording of his Requiem. Dedicated to victims of the Armenian genocide in Turkey that killed approximately one million people between 1915 and 1917, and composed a century later, it blends Continental and Orthodox traditions in a manner that is as unexpected as it is creatable by no other author. “The essence of the problem,” notes Mansurian of his process this time around, “was the existence of certain differences in the readings of religious texts between the Armenian Church and, say, the Roman Catholic Church. The psychology of a believer who represents a nation that has long been without an independent state differs sharply from the psychology of a believer at whose back stands a powerful religious community and centuries of independent statehood.” In this respect, he isn’t simply composing in a liminal space but also inviting the listener to light a candle in that space and pray in its glow.

A requiem challenges anyone wishing to write one, and for some has been a rite of passage. Mansurian struggled with the form for years, writing a handful of distinct attempts before abandoning them in favor of the one gifted to us here. Although scored for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and string orchestra, its collective spirit renders those solo roles—filled with emotional veracity by Anja Petersen and Andrew Redmond, respectively—in the “Tuba mirum” and “Domine Jesu Christe” as something more than representational; rather, they are two rays in a sun’s worth of individual voices. In humbler terms, their relationship to the larger assembly is as leaves to a tree, crying for acknowledgment with what little water they have left before their severed roots catch up with them. Such acts of violence, themselves stemming from a dark place, nevertheless confirm God’s grace to pull tortured souls from a tragic world into one that never trembles in fear of mortal sin.

Before we tread too deeply into these forests of mirrors, we begin with an airier “Requiem aeternam,” in which unrequited lives hold their hearts in their hands. Strings shift eerily from foreground to background in metaphysical exchange, presaging their playful relationship to choral motives in the “Kyrie.” Dances are brief and unsustainable, flowing like two separate rivers joining to cascade over the cliff of the “Dies irae.” Their urgency is jagged yet interlocking: a puzzle of mortality putting itself together despite our best attempts to upset it. The suspended animation of the “Lacrimosa” is echoed in the meditative “Agnus Dei,” and between them an insistent “Sanctus” which creates its own call and response of spirit, flesh, and remembrance.

Listening to Mansurian’s Requiem is like watching a film that weaves archival footage into freshly choreographed scenes of historical reckoning. It’s as if the cover image, depicting Armenian deportees trekking through the desert toward Aleppo, Syria, were coming to life, every figure contributing to the prescience of the whole, shaking their heads at what we have become.

György Kurtág: Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM New Series 2505-07)

Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

György Kurtág
Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir

Natalia Zagorinskaya soprano
Gerrie de Vries mezzosoprano
Yves Saelens tenor
Harry van der Kamp bass
Jean-Guihen Queyras violoncello
Elliott Simpson guitar
Tamara Stefanovich piano
Csaba Király pianino, spoken word
Netherlands Radio Choir
Reinbert de Leeuw conductor
Recorded March 2013–July 2016 at Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ, Amsterdam and Philharmonie, Haarlem
Recording producer: Guido Tichelman
Engineer: Bastiaan Kuijt
Assistants: Matthijs Ruijter, Pim van der Lee, and Isa Goldschmeding
Mastered at BK Audio by Bastiaan Kuijt
Project supervision: Renee Jonker
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: June 23, 2017

December’s fervor, summer’s flailing hailstorm,
wild bird encumbered with clogs,
this and more I’ve been. Willingly I die.
–János Pilinszky, “Hölderlin”

When immersing oneself in the Four Capriccios that opens this three-disc compendium of György Kurtág’s works for ensemble and choir, it’s nearly impossible to feel that our perceptions of reality can be tactical endpoints of any trajectories through space or time. The Hungarian composer’s Opus 9 for soprano (a role masterfully filled here by Natalia Zagorinskaya) and ensemble—composed between 1959 and 1970, revised in 1993—doesn’t so much set the poetry of István Bálint as rearrange its molecules in a diorama of linguistic play. Hence the atmosphere of the program as a whole, which by ironic virtue of its cohesion unrolls a narrative of unfinished thoughts, micro-images, and instincts. Like the title of its third part, “Language Lesson,” it is as instructive as it is destructive. Kindred echoes further haunt the interstices of such quadripartite settings as Four Poems by Anna Akhmatova, Op. 41 (1997-2008) and Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op. 11 (1975). The latter’s performance by bass Harry van der Kamp treats slurred speech as antecedent to lived experience (if not vice versa), and mortality as an instrument of desire.

Years of careful study, rehearsal, and understanding went into these performances, recorded under supervision-at-a-distance of the composer. Notes conductor Reinbert de Leeuw of this process: “[T]he fact that you can finally witness the happiness of a composer stating that his music has been recorded as he intended it to sound is priceless and meaningful in an historical sense.” To be sure, we can hear Kurtág lurking ghostily throughout these meticulous assemblies, which by their innate desire to be heard reveal what de Leeuw calls “the constant search for the meaning behind what could not be notated in the score.”

It’s especially tempting to read hidden messages into this collection’s centerpiece. The near-aphasia of Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, Op. 30b (1991) reduces utterances to emotional caesura between mockery and exaltation while provoking insectile stirrings in a garden of failed vocabularies. Even the scoring for alto solo, voices and “chamber ensembles dispersed in space” reveals something of the philosophical blood running through its proverbial veins.

“I had the privilege of working with the great composers of our time,” de Leeuw admits, “sometimes even interpreting every single orchestral work of a composer like I did as a conductor with the works of Messiaen. So at one point you think you have a pretty good idea of what twentieth century music is about. And then comes the music of György Kurtág. That was a real shock for me, completely transforming my perception of music.” Case in point is Grabstein für Stephan, Op. 15c (1978-79, rev. 1989), for which guitarist Elliott Simpson strums open strings, as if turning the idea of mastery inside out until bacterial details emerge. In a profound exchange of tenderness and violence, wordless voices descend like ink through water before a grief-stricken explosion rends the air with catharsis.

De Leuww again: “One could say that in a way every note he has written, may have been written before. But merging this extremely rich heritage into one voice that is recognizable and unique is for me utterly fascinating.” We can hear this most clearly in the Songs of Despair and Sorrow, Op. 18 (1980-94), of which the brilliantly realized “Crucifixion,” chest-beating Mary Magdalene and all, rubs shoulders with mock folk motifs and other haunting minutiae. The Colindă-Baladă, Op. 46 (2010) for tenor solo, chorus and chamber ensemble also flirts with tradition through its Orff-like interplay. Like a recovered traditional song warped beyond recognition, it struggles to embrace a stable identity.

As Paul Griffiths notes of Kurtág’s music in his liner text, “Crucially important is the brevity of the texts, and their corresponding qualities of intensity and openness, both stimulating to music.” Nowhere is this so artfully evident as in Messages of the Late Miss R. Troussova, Op. 17 (1976-80), which threads 21 poems by Rimma Dalos like beads of internal life. Between the programmatic “Why Should I Not Squeal Like a Pig” and the self-deprecatingly erotic “Chastushka,” distinctions between instruments and soloist are of slightest degree. From the achingly beautiful flute of “You Took My Heart” to the mournful brass of “For Everything,” Kurtág upholds every sound as an opportunity—not a promise—of communication.

Griffiths goes on: “If we want to try to think of metaphors or analogies for György Kurtág’s music, we will likely find ourselves drawing them directly from the human voice and the human body: from what it feels like to be communicating vocally in some specific way, from what it feels like to be making a particular movement.” This is true even of the instrumental pieces. Whether in the descending piano and Ligeti-like meditations of …quasi una fantasia…, Op. 27 No. 1 (1987-88) or the Op. 27 No. 2 (1989-90), a double concerto for piano, cello and two chamber ensembles, pulses suggest a human body and the voice struggling to transcend it. As in the closing ensemble piece, Brefs Messages, Op. 47 (2011), we find ourselves lost not in a miniature landscape, but an entire planet to which we’ve been granted teleportational access.

Stefano Scodanibbio: Alisei (ECM New Series 2598)

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Stefano Scodanibbio

Daniele Roccato double bass
Giacomo Piermatti double bass
Ludus Gravis Ensemble
Tonino Battista conductor
Recorded February and March 2014 at Pitch Audio Research, Perugia, and Studio Controfase, Roma
Tonmeister: Gianluca Ruggeri
Engineers: Daniele Roccato, Luca Mari Burocchi, and Tommaso Cancellieri
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 12, 2018

Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) was introduced to ECM via 2013’s Reinventions. Whereas that program documented the Italian double bassist and composer’s passing of Bach’s Art of the Fugue through a loom of Spanish and Mexican influences, here the focus is on what might just be Scodanibbio’s most personal work. Personal, too, is the liner note by Daniele Roccato, who describes hearing Scodanibbio perform for the first time at a Paris festival in 2008: “For me, it was an epiphany. The performance of a shaman, evoking an unprecedented world of sound, one he commanded with boldness and determination.” So began a mutually respectful partnership between two creative souls who shared a love for the lowest of the strings, and by that love opened doors of perception not simply closed but so well hidden that none even knew where to look until now.

The 1986 title composition for solo double bass is emblematic of an implosion-oriented approach. Its harmonic inventions, drawn from within, expose the willingness of a composer to listen to his instrument in the deepest possible sense. In addition to its organic genesis, it emits an industrial aura: the whine of grinding machinery and a human voice in agony rolled into one. Another solo piece, Due pezzi brillanti (1985), lends crosswise insight into the double bass’s split personality, in which the rhythmic and the textural serve as conduits of emotional stability. Like a microscope through which one may observe the inner workings of one’s own body, it implies an eternal braid of regard. Jagged yet interlocking, it fits into place by questioning the place itself.

The album features two premiere recordings. In Da una certa nebbia (2002), rhetorically scored for “double bass and another double bass,” the latter instrument is seen as, as Roccato puts it, “a sort of ‘misty veiling’ over the suspensions of the main double bass, in a temporal articulation which pays implicit tribute to the musical thinking of Morton Feldman.” In that role, alongside Roccato, is Giacomo Piermatti, whose gentle persuasions are indeed translucent. In this largely arco suspension, pizzicato gestures feel like punches, gentle as they are. The Ottetto (2011) was the result of a dream to write a piece for eight double basses that would unlock even graver secrets. Partly inspired by the ensemble of double basses featured here as Ludus Gravis, and partly by the efforts of two friends to see their muse spread its wings like never before, the piece is a meditative self-examination of sentient objects. Every moment of its 30-minute duration is imbued with intent. Whether conventionally or unconventionally bowed, treated as voice or percussive actor, each instrument takes on an aspect of nature from which it feels indivisible. Sometimes-insectile vibrations breathe the same air as subcutaneous twitches, while aboveground gestures feel like rituals in search of gods. In light of Scodanibbio’s death, which prevented him from seeing its first complete performance, implications of the Ottetto’s final drone exhale with mortal significance.

Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies (ECM New Series 2600)

Pärt Symphonies

Arvo Pärt
The Symphonies

NFM Wrocław Philharmonic
Tõnu Kaljuste conductor
Recorded August 2016 and October 2015 (Symphony No. 3)
Main Hall of the National Forum of Music, Wrocław
Engineers: Andrzej Sasin and Aleksandra Nagórko
Mastering: Christoph Stickel, MSM Studios, München
An ECM Production
Release date: April 20, 2018

Following the release of his Symphony No. 4 in 2010, it was perhaps only a matter of time before a compendium of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s symphonies would also come to light on ECM. And what a light we can enjoy through the prism of all four, newly recorded by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonicunder the direction of Pärt’s untiring messenger, Tõnu Kaljuste. What these works, separated by decades of time and soul-searching, lack in duration (given that they all fit snugly onto one CD) they make up for in their dynamic and textural scope. In the album’s liner note, music critic Wolfgang Sandner writes: “To study and listen to symphonies is, in essence, to read and comprehend a biography in notes.” In this respect, symphonies are aesthetic snapshots of a composer’s life at those times. Like stencils applied to the past, they filter out anything extraneous to the meaning at hand, funneling our attention into particular shapes and therefore boundaries of possible interpretation.

In listening to the Symphony No. 1, penned almost half a century before his Fourth, we hear what Sandner refers to as the “jagged caesuras” of Pärt’s inner landscape: deeply personal snapshots from a time when composers under the Soviet flag were forced to weigh idiosyncrasy and conformity on a scale of creative expression. Pärt was willing to take the risks that came with upending that scale altogether, and was summarily banned as a composer when, in 1968, he professed Christian faith via his Credofor piano, mixed chorus and orchestra. Five years earlier, the First Symphony was already in genesis. Dubbed the “Polyphonic,” it bears dedication to Heino Eller, his professor at the State Conservatory in Tallinn. Constructed around a twelve-note row (E-F-F#-B-Bb-G-A-Eb-D-Ab-Db-C), it is divided into two movements. “Canons” is a thick slice of serial pie, and like the proverbial desert reveals delectable combinations of starch and sweetness with every bite. The “Prelude and Fugue,” by contrast, begins with lighter strings before jumping into a pastoral interlude and, in conclusion, an insistent cluster of rhythmic and tonal artifacts.

Although the Symphony No. 2 (1966) is also cured around a twelve-note row, it feels less constrained by formula. Its brevity (the symphony barely crests the ten-minute mark) is its strength. At this time, Pärt was working in what he called a “collage” technique, by which resolution was reduced to a petty dream in favor of metamorphosis. Its first movement is a kaleidoscope of motifs, atmospheres, and collisions by which is rendered not a mosaic but a centrifuge of philosophy. The block chords of the second movement are urgent, thrown by their own weight into a black hole of identity reformation. The third and final movement, percussive minutiae and all, glimpses the mind of a composer reaching for something more than what reality has to offer, as indicated in his quotation of “Sweet Dreams” from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. It ends as if unresolved, stepping into the pastures of the future.

By the 1971, when Pärt was writing his Symphony No. 3, he was well into a period of self-reflection that led him to declare a Russian Orthodox conversion. This symphony is the first breach of that spiritual watershed—both musical and personal—that cut the umbilical cord of the avant-garde. Dedicated to conductor Neeme Järvi, this tripartite monument touches upon the prayerful unfolding that now characterizes the mature composer. In the second movement especially, a familiar lyrical nature struggles to break through the soil of political nurture, pulled from its reasoning by a force that would otherwise refute it. The final movement describes the old flesh wrestling with the new, eventually giving over to a medieval polyphony and blast of hope.

If the Symphony No. 4 (2008) sounds more choral, that is because it overflows with voices: of history, of experience, and even of persecution. Bearing dedication to Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an exiled Russian mogul once jailed for his critical outspokenness, it wears decidedly liturgical clothing. The pizzicato textures of its second movement are the stirrings of a soul wanting to be heard, while the coda breathes in hope and exhales caution, never letting go of the rope in its hand. And attached to the other end that rope? A vessel of the past on which has been loaded the cargo of our sins, which one way will be unloaded, weighed, and accounted for.

Zsófia Boros: Local Objects (ECM New Series 2498)

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Zsófia Boros
Local Objects

Zsófia Boros classical guitar
Recorded November 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 3, 2016

He knew that he was a spirit without a foyer
And that, in this knowledge, local objects become
More precious than the most precious objects of home
–Wallace Stevens

When classical guitarist Zsófia Boros made her ECM debut with En otra parte, she did so not by planting a flag but by opening a door. Where that door led was mostly left to the listener, guided only by the signposts of an internationally minded program. Here, she treats an equally mixed corpus as a movie screen, working with an auteur’s patience to render establishing shots before allowing full scenes to take shape.

The first stirrings of character development come into view with Mathias Duplessy’s Nocturne, which by its depth of suggestion foreshadows a bittersweet ending. So intimate is its approach to darkness that can almost wear it as a cloak of protection against a blinding world. Boros gives a superb technical performance, especially in her application of harmonics, but even more so an emotional performance that turns gestures into possibilities of new lives.

Next, Egberto Gismonti’s Celebração de Núpcias, a harmonious roll of fragrant arpeggios and falling petals that first appeared on 1977’s Dança das Cabeças, is reborn in the present rendering. It’s the first of a few South American touch points that include Jorge Cardoso’swidely performed yet freshly realized Milonga (its familiar bass line a vital narrative fulcrum) and Anibal Augusto Sardinha’s Inspiração. All are bound by a feeling of kinship and inspiration: reminders to be oneself when all else fails.

Carlo Domeniconi’s Koyunbaba, named for a 15th-century Turkish saint, is another concert favorite, which for all its hermitic solitude is alive with movement. Its distant calls of intuition, achingly beautiful Cantabile, and energizing Presto, for which Boros places paper over the strings before leaping into a full-throated cry of tenderness, make for an intensely tactile experience. Against these, Al Di Meola’s Vertigo Shadow and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh’s Fantasie are spirals of geometric endurance in the puzzle of identity. The latter piece leaves room for improvisation in order to make the story the interpreter’s own. Boros floats around every note, drawing an entire garden’s worth of ideas and melodies. Via muted strings, she expresses unmuted emotions.

Our bittersweet ending is realized in Alex Pinter’s Gothenburg. It’s the sonic equivalent of knowing you will never see a loved one again yet also knowing they’ve become an indivisible part of you. Like strings on an instrument, you and they have their own voice and path, yet echo together in the same chamber of existence, waiting for that divine hand to pluck them before fate has its way of silence.

Frode Haltli: AIR (ECM New Series 2496)

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Frode Haltli accordion
Trondheim Soloists
Arditti Quartet
Irvine Arditti 
Ashot Sarkissjan violin
Ralf Ehlers viola
Lucas Fels violoncello
Recorded October and November 2014, Selbu Kirke, Norway
Engineer: Sean Lewis
Mastering: Manfred Eicher and Christoph Stickel
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 26, 2016

AIRmarks a classical return to ECM for Norwegian accordion player Frode Haltli, who now, as on his label debut, offers a program centered around the music of Danish composer Bent Sørensen. For that album’s title piece, Looking on Darkness, Haltli was required to rethink his approach to the instrument in search of softer dynamics and bent pitches, and deepens those quasi-linguistic impulses here.

Sørensen provides the album’s frame tale. It is Pain Flowing Down Slowly on a White Wall (2010), written for solo accordion and string orchestra, feels vulnerable to something beyond grasp of flesh and time. Despite a lack of footholds, if not also because of said lack, the accordion takes on a winged materiality, destined to never touch solid ground. The relationship between it and the strings demonstrates Haltli’s own views on chamber music, of which he writes: “It demands fellow musicians who really listen, and who can move flexibly and playfully between various levels in the music according to what the music is telling you—not musicians who constantly need to be in front.” Indeed, “soloist” becomes a reductive term in the present context, favoring instead a larger whole. Movements of great distance share breathing room with dreams of proximity in a constantly shifting topography, as if the very earth were struggling to hold its shape. And so, when the string players at last trade bows for melodicas, it comes across—ironically enough—as an act of solidarity. Like Sigrid’s Lullaby (2010), adapted for solo accordion from a nocturne, it dips a hand into the font of time and swirls until all colors blend into one.

Between those two poles stretch the telephone wires of another Dane I expect (and hope) to hear more of on ECM: Hans Abrahamsen. His Air (2006) for solo accordion (2006) not only yields the album’s title but more importantly its spirit. A haunting experience that’s difficult to imagine in anyone’s hands but Haltli’s, it narrates texture and space with autobiographical assurance. Its molecules move so slightly, so continuously, as to appear still. Air is also something of a palindrome, beginning and ending in a wash of chords, while in the middle revealing a dance that returns to dust as quickly as it is born from it. And while the instrumental forces of Three Little Nocturnes (2005) for string quartet and accordion feel much more distinct than on Sørensen’s sound-world, they are deeply harmonized in rhythm, each inhaling the other as deeply as it can before the final exhale.

Haltli’s assessment of Abrahamsen’s music, of which he observes, “Not one note is accidental,” applies to the album in its entirety. Not only because these pieces are capturable on paper, but also because they treat that paper as the skin of an individual life.

Jörg Widmann: ARCHE (ECM New Series 2605/06)


Jörg Widmann

Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
Marlis Petersen soprano
Thomas E. Bauer baritone
Gabriel Böer boy soprano
Jonna Plathe child narrator
Baris Özden child narrator
Iveta Apkalna organ
Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper
Audi Jugendchorakadamie
Hamburger Alsterspatzen
Kent Nagano 
Concert recording by NDR from the opening of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie on January 13, 2017
Tonmeister: Hans-Michael Kissing
Engineer: Dominik Blech
Editing, mix, and mastering: Carl Talbot and Anne-Marie Sylvestre (engineer)
A NDR Production
Release date: October 5, 2018

Let our book of debts be cancell’d!
Reconcile the total world!
E’en the dead shall live in heaven!
Brothers, drink and all agree,
Every sin shall be forgiven,
Hell forever cease to be.
–Friedrich Schiller

Written to inaugurate Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie concert hall in January of 2017, Jörg Widmann’s massive oratorio for soloists, choirs, organ and orchestra was inspired by the architecture of the hall itself. The composer recalls his reaction upon seeing the unfinished building for the first time: “From the outside the building resembles a ship… To me the interior looked like the hold of a ship, an Ark. It breathes the spirit of democracy!” From that initial epiphany followed a work that seeks to encapsulate the thrust of Continental history while parrying its trajectory via politically savvy retrospection.

Sadly enough, despite the obvious amount of heartfelt effort that went into this performance, there’s a certain emptiness to its presentation, not least of all in the fact that no English translations of the libretto are included in the CD booklet. This is an unfortunate omission. We know that Widmann has sewn together writings by Claudius, Klabund, Heine, Sloterdijk, Andersen, Brentano, Schiller, Francis of Assisi, Nietzsche, Schmmelpfennig, Thomas of Celano, and Michelangelo, as well as the German folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Latin Mass for the Dead, and the Bible itself. Without the otherwise excellent liner notes by Dieter Rexroth, the grander scope of what Widmann is doing textually would likely be lost on non-German speakers.

To be sure, however, some fascinating musical dramaturgy awaits the adventurous listener willing to surmount the linguistic barrier, and what few clues we are given are just enough to let the finer nuances get swept away in the experience. The warped blasts of organ and choral surges in “Sintflut” (The Flood) are especially thrilling, and provide strange respite from the text-heavy surroundings. Inclusive of the opening section, “Fiat Lux” (Let there be light), two child narrators link the even broader brushstrokes of creation leading to the repainted canvas of the Flood. Between respirations, voices shift in tectonic frictions of flesh and spirit. Whether spoken or sung, whispered or shouted, each utterance is an open doorway into the fractured nature of time. In this milieu, words seem to act as buoys and anchors alike, while baritone soloist Thomas E. Bauer embodies the oratorio’s titular vessel struggling against raging waves.

Emerging from these troubled waters is the volcano of “Die Liebe” (Love), wherein bubbles the molten sentiments of the Song of Songs, even as a poem by Michelangelo asserts its three-dimensional dominance. The lovers—of which soprano Marlis Petersen’s renderings are alive with virtue and desire—find synchronicity only toward the end of their respective journeys, as if mocking the destination of a tested faith. For as soon as those travelers lock step, the ground falls from beneath their feet in the apocalyptic “Dies irae.” Beneath those voices, whose incongruence bursts through Schiller’s unused “Ode to Joy” verses like water from a broken dam, a visceral percussive landscape splits Hell wide open.

“Dona nobis pacem” pushes the Catholic liturgy against a litany of technological obsessions, chanted by children’s choir as if in defiance of the modern world’s rituals, both sacred and profane, so that when boy soprano Gabriel Böer cuts through the din like a shooting star of reason, it’s with a sharpness more effective than any blade, honed as it is on a metaphysical stone of hope in a higher power.

“Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty; open thine eyes, and thou shalt be satisfied with bread.”
–Proverbs 20:13

Eleni Karaindrou: Tous des oiseaux (ECM New Series 2634)

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Eleni Karaindrou
Tous des oiseaux

Savina Yannatou voice
Alexandros Botinis violoncello
Stella Gadedi flute
Vangelis Christopoulos oboe
Yannis Evangelatos bassoon
Dinos Hadjiiordanou accordion
Aris Dimitriadis mandolin
Maria Bildea harp
Eleni Karaindrou piano
Sokratis Sinopoulos Constantinople lyra, lute
Nikos Paraoulakis ney
Stefanos Dorbarakis kanonaki
Giorgos Kontoyannis percussion, Cretan lyra
String Orchestra
Argyro Seira concertmaster
Recorded October 2017 and January 2018 at Studio Sierra, Athens
Recording engineer: Giorgos Karyotis
Edited and mixed September 2018 by Manfred Eicher and Giorgos Karyotis
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 25, 2019

“Why little birdy don’t you sing
As you used to sing before?
Oh, how could I,
They had my wings severed.”

In her eleventh album for ECM, Greek composer Eleni Karaindrou gifts us with some of her most poignant music yet. Poignant because, on a political level, it intersects with issues deeply relevant to today’s social climate and, while on a personal level shifting from the Theo Angelopoulos era that quietly ushered her artistry into global imagination.

Music for the play Tous des oiseaux by Lebanese-Canadian writer Wajdi Mouawad is subject of the album’s first half. As is characteristic of Karaindrou, it’s more than incidental but a living part of the dramaturgical landscape. And despite a wide array of instruments, including string orchestra, lyra, kanonaki, oboe, harp, flute, accordion, and cello, the mood is as intimate as it should be for a play centering on the love shared between an Arab American and a German-born Jew. The latter’s Zionist father, David, despite his anger over the relationship, must deal with the revelation of his own Palestinian birth, thereby sending him into a vicious spiral of identity politics.

The drone in which opener “The Wind of War” rests is an accurate representation of that spiritual unrest, the symbolic backdrop against which this story unfolds. As with any history, if you zoom back, it seems to unify in texture. But get close enough to regard individual lives within it, and suddenly conflicts of human error become obvious. Vocalist Savina Yannatou, familiar to ECM listeners as a bandleader in her own right, sings wordlessly, here as also in “Encounter” and “The Impossible Journey”—a voice still voiceless, because it is heard from afar. Even in Yannatou’s unaccompanied “Lament,” a 13th-century Greek song, she cannot pull words from their graves. As one of three solos, along with “Towards the Unknown” for flute and “Je ne me consolerai jamais” for cello, it consigns the fate of an entire people, grazed by breath and weaponry of chance.

In “The Dark Secret” and “David’s Dream,” both for string orchestra, individuals vie subtly for attention, but are drowned by collective trauma. Time becomes timeless, a variation on a theme, just familiar enough to feel real yet off-kilter enough to illuminate mysteries of waking life. “The Confession” adds to that milieu the beat of a drum: reality calling. Like the intersection of oboe and harp in “Why?” or the lyra, ney, and kanonaki of “Between Two Worlds,” it’s a dance without ground. A love divided by self.

Music for Iranian auteur Payman Maadi’s film Bomb, A Love Story constitutes the second half. As the first film Karaindrou has scored since Angelopoulos’s death, it’s a bittersweet milestone. Using the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to set in motion its narrative of self-searching, the film shows us not only that the personal is political, but also that the political is personal. Karaindrou’s soundtrack mirrors that philosophy by foregrounding the bassoon of Yannis Evangelatos, whose instrument—a marginal one in the woodwind family—echoes the marginality of the film’s characters. In this instance, the orchestra serves as omniscient narrator, sending shimmers of hope through “Love Theme,” in which the oboe of Vangelis Christopoulos and the piano of Karaindrou herself fall into shadow: dreams never realized. If not for that, “The Waltz of Hope” might not come across so much as a fantasy and “Lonely Lives” as truth. Further sentiments of travel (“Mitra’s Theme – Walking in Tehran”) and innocence (“Love’s First Call”) touch and part across maps of indifference. Which is why in the “Reconciliation Theme” we find the most instruments deployed at once, recalling the richness of Angelopoulos’s character studies. Only now that mist has been lifted, exposing figures whose every feature cries with vivid detail.

Arvo Pärt: The Deer’s Cry (ECM New Series 2466)

2466 X

Vox Clamantis
Jaan-Eik Tulve artistic director and conductor
Mari Poll violin
Johanna Vahermägi viola
Heikko Remmel double bass
Taavo Remmel double bass
Robert Staak lute
Toomas Vavilov clarinet
Susanne Doll organ
Recorded September 2013 and 2014 at Tallinn Transfiguration Church
Veni Creator recorded June 2007 at Dome Church of St. Nicholas of Haapsalu
Engineer: Igor Kirkwood, Margo Kõlar (Veni Creator)
Recording supervision: Helena Tulve
Mastering: Manfred Eicher and Christoph Stickel at MSM Studios München
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 9, 2016

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
–1 Corinthians 13:12

While in Capernaum, Jesus is invited into the house of Simon the Pharisee. There, a woman, identified in the Scriptures only as “a sinner,” approaches Jesus with an alabaster box of ointment. Much to the astonishment of the house, she washes his feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints them. When confronted by Simon about his acceptance of this act, Jesus replies by pointing out the fact that Simon offered no water for his feet or ointment for his head: “Her sins,” he says of the woman, “which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.” This episode, recorded in the Gospel of Luke 7:36-50 and arranged for choir by Arvo Pärt as And One of the Pharisees (1992), is the spiritual center of a new program dedicated to the Estonian composer. Not only for its illustration of salvation through faith, but also because it serves as a loose metaphor for sacred music today. Like that sinner, Pärt washes our ears against the verbal abrasions of pharisaic intellect, his offerings thus denounced by “wisdom” of the popular yet confirmed by the Holy Spirit. In the present setting, countertenor Mikk Dede provides a vulnerable personification of Simon, while baritone Taniel Kirikal balances the equation as our humbling Savior.

Although Pharisees comes later in the sequence, its seeds are already being watered in the opening title work, The Deer’s Cry (2007). Drawing on the words of St. Patrick, it is a meditation on God’s omnipresence. Here, as in the other a cappella prayers that follow, including the Alleluia-Tropus (2008/10) and Habitare fratres in unum (2012), compact structures embody quiet resolution. Each is a link in a chain of infinite being, a harmonization of flesh and spirit through the Word, touched by graces of which we are unworthy.

Longtime Pärt listeners will notice echoes of the familiar, such as Virgencita(2012), which is eerily reminiscent of Psalom (1985/91), and a version of Summafor four voices, wherein the circle of this seminal 1977 piece is squared. Gebet nach dem Kanon (1997), from the Kanon Pokajanen, is a child wandering in search of purity, only to find himself crying in a world of corruption, his voice ignored by all except the Father whose hand shields him from brimstone. Da pacem Domine (2004/06), too, reads differently from previous ECM appearances. Where the latter felt like a telescope, now it is a microscope.

Rounding out this journey are three works for voices and chamber instruments. In Von Angesicht zu Angesicht (2005), scored for soprano, male choir, clarinet, viola and double bass, said instruments evoke the trembling fear that is the beginning of all wisdom. Pärt takes a lived understanding of that precept by following the rhythms of Biblical recitation. Veni Creator (2006), for mixed choir and organ, hovers on the brink of transfiguration and is one of his most haunting compositions. Sei gelobt, du Baum (2007), for male choir, violin, lute and double bass, is another textual wonder. Its words, by Viivi Luik, praise the tree for its wood, by which violins and organs might be built for His glory, each note released therefrom a spore returning to its creator.

Despite, if not also because, Pärt’s marked shift over the years from inner to outer, there’s an ethic of sharing in these shorter pieces. Now that his music is known worldwide, one tastes in it something grander left for listeners to decide, a piece of a mosaic that can only be completed when all us take the time to see it being made up of us all. That such profundity comes across so directly is testament to Vox Clamantis and director Jaan-Eik Tulve’s willingness to let everything speak for itself.