Heinz Holliger/György Kurtág Zwiegespräche (ECM New Series 2665)

Zwiegespräche.jpg

Heinz Holliger
György Kurtág
Zwiegespräche

Heinz Holliger oboe, English horn, piano
Marie-Lise Schüpbach English horn, oboe
Sarah Wegener soprano
Enresto Molinari bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Philippe Jaccottet recitation
Recorded June 2018, Radiostudio DRS Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Philippe Jaccottet was recorded August 2017
in Grignan by Nicolas Baillard, Studios La Buissonne
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.
–Philippe Jaccottet

If it comes as no surprise that Heinz Holliger and György Kurtág, perennial names in the ECM New Series roster, studied composition under Sándor Veress (cf. ECM 1555), then neither should the inevitability of blending their artistry in one of the most seamless programs to grace the imprint in recent years. Holliger, for his part, found a kindred spirit in Kurtág from day one: “Every note he writes is essential; there is never an idea of small talk…of wanting to please somebody or an audience.” The overarching title Zwiegespräche (“dialogues”) accurately describes the music. For indeed, when their works are placed side by side, a distinctly conversational rapport grows. These dialogues, however, extend beyond the composers themselves and into realms of texts, other musicians, and spaces of interpretation, so that in the listener’s walk from one end to the other, it becomes difficult to tell where Holliger’s terrains end and Kurtág’s begin.

If both are melodic composers, a memorial heart distinguishes a significant portion of Kurtág’s output. Most poignant in that regard is his …Ein Brief aus der Ferne an Ursula (2014) for oboe solo. Written just days before the death of Holliger’s wife Ursula (see, e.g., Lieder ohne Worte), it’s a loving tribute that wants to dance but instead curls into itself. The follow-up …für Heinz… (2014) is scored for piano, left hand, thus symbolizing Ursula’s absence. Its dissonances rest in brief catharsis.

A brighter pairing finds itself represented in both composers’ settings of the same text by 17th-century mystic and poet Angelus Silesius. Dating from 2010, they feature soprano in the leading role. Where Holliger adds oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet, Kurtág pairs the voice with English horn only. Holliger’s version was written while in hospital, where he challenged himself to write a madrigal each day during his recovery. Kurtág’s likewise pulls on inner filaments of mortality.

A standout of the album is Holliger’s Berceuse pour M. (2015), performed on English horn by his pupil Marie-Lise Schüpbach. Like her teacher, Schüpbach displays immaculate breath control and a balance of light and shadow. Holliger’s interpretations of seven poems by Philippe Jaccottet are equally moving. Each is read by the poet himself, and the words, written beneath corresponding notes in the score, are matched by oboe and English horn in extractions of hidden messages. The piercing altissimo of “Dans l’étendue…” and vocal inflections of “Je marche…” are especially visceral. Even the programmatic touches of “Oiseaux” feel more than reactive: they are cocreators in an extra-linguistic process.

Back in Kurtág’s world, a sequence of dedicatory aphorisms unfurls. Of these, the most naked are those written for contrabass clarinet solo. Schatten makes delicate use of key clicks and barest breath, and Kroó György in memoriam, written for radio editor and music critic György Kroó, rarely transcends a whisper. At more than six minutes, the latter feels like a novel compared to the short stories that surround it. The Hommage à Elliott Carter (for English horn and contrabass clarinet) and In Nomine – all-ongherese (Damjanich emlékkö) for English horn solo are vibrantly noteworthy as well.

Holliger finishes with his solo oboe Sonate. Composed in 1956/57 and revised in 1999, it is recorded for the first time here, after 63 years of sitting on paper since he penned it for Veress’s composition class. In it we can hear Veress’s influence on the younger composer, if not also Holliger’s on the older. From the leaping Präludium to the virtuosic Finale, ponderance of nature outweighs the nature of ponderance, leaving us with nothing short of a masterpiece.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Reto Bieri and Meta4: Quasi morendo (ECM New Series 2557)

Quasi morendo.jpg

Reto Bieri and Meta4
Quasi morendo

Reto Bieri clarinet
Meta4
Antti Tikkanen violin
Minna Pensola violin
Atte Kilpeläinen viola
Tomas Djupsjöbacka violoncello
Recorded November 2016, RSI Studio Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 10, 2019

When clarinetist Reto Bieri made his solo ECM debut with Contrechant, Salvatore Sciarrino’s Let Me Die Before I Wake (1982) was the most memorable piece of that program. Here, its unaccompanied wonders make a welcome reappearance, inciting an altogether different journey through works of Johannes Brahms and Gérard Pesson. Sciarrino’s sense of color is downright prismatic, separating the white light of breath into its constituent spectrum through deft use of multiphonic and overtone techniques. There is a tenderness to this music’s unfolding, the occasional outburst from which feels somehow delicate, as if the materiality of it all were but a blip on the listener’s dreaming radar. Bieri himself would be the first to agree on the enigma of it all: “How the sounds come about in this piece,” he says, “is a mystery even to me.” That air of separation between knowledge and production, catalyst and effect, is at once tangible and immaterial. For while Bieri has total control over the sounds emitted by his clarinet, there’s that same daunting sense of physics found in Heinz Holliger’s 1971 Studie über Mehrklänge for oboe (documented by the composer himself on ECM 1340).

Brahms’s Quintet in b minor, Op. 115, finds Bieri in the dynamic company of the Meta4 String Quartet, themselves making an ECM debut. Written in 1891, after Brahms had already decided to retire from composing yet opened that door again when clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld came knocking, this masterwork is what Roman Brotbeck in this album’s liner essay calls “a swan song.” It is, he goes on to write, “freer, more idyllic, less ‘controlled’ than Brahms’s earlier chamber music, but is in fact one of his most strictly constructed compositions.” The opening Allegro is an exercise in dark exuberance, clarinet playing the role of voice among the voiceless. There is lyricism, robust anatomy, and fortitude of reasoning at work in every thematic shift. The following Adagio sees itself reflected in the opening mirror, tracing memories of younger days with fingers dipped in sunlight, but always returning to a baseline of melancholy resignation. The Andantino seems to cradle the most happiness in these shadows, and somewhat recalls the third movement of Brahms’s First Symphony with its subdued pastoralism. The final movement takes all the self-regard that preceded it and turns it into moving images. Like a cinema that predates its own technology, it flows across the screen of the mind in glorious performance.

Pesson’s Nebenstück (1988), what Brotbeck calls “an estranged instrumentation, or rather arrangement, for clarinet and string quartet of the ballade for piano, Op. 10 No. 4, that Brahms composed in 1854,” takes a decidedly internal approach to homage. With a frailty that rivals even the Sciarrino, it speaks in a shaded and subliminal language while peeling back layers of awareness graspable only behind closed eyes, as if the very sight of things would interrupt its grammar with unnecessary punctuation. A brilliant gesture of continuity in summary of a wonderous recital.

Danish String Quartet: Last Leaf (ECM New Series 2550)

2550 X

Danish String Quartet
Last Leaf

Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen violin, harmonium, piano, glockenspiel
Frederik Øland violin
Asbjørn Nørgaard viola
Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin violoncello
Recorded January 2017, The KirstenKjær Museum, Frøstrup
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Mixed June 2017 at Tritonus Studio, Stuttgart, by Rone Tonsgaard Sørensen, Manfred Eicher, and Markus Heiland (engineer)
Produced by the Danish String Quartet
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 22, 2017

After an intimately electrifying 2016 ECM debut, the Danish String Quartet follow with this program of original arrangements so well suited to the source material that if their collective heart were a moon, it would be full and bright in the night sky of their creativity. The album’s seed is the Danish Christmas hymn “Now found is the fairest of roses.” First published by poet-theologist H. A. Brorson in 1732, it’s played as if in slow motion and captures the musicians in a film of artful restraint. That the tune concludes rather than begins the sequence is indicative of an underlying philosophy at play, in which stars regress back to their gaseous birth, mere wisps of galactic thought rendered sentient by the incubator of time.

At the other end of the spectrum is “Despair not, o heart.” This Lutheran funeral hymn, first notated in 1517, adds the elegiac cast of a harmonium, and with it the feeling of the open sea unraveled in “Shore.” Written by the quartet’s cellist, Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, this self-described “folk fantasy” evokes sand and tide while also tracking the footprints left behind and washed away along its canvas. It finds later parallel in Sjölin’s “Naja’s Waltz,” a heartfelt piece of latticework that feels like a gift from father to daughter, and “Intermezzo,”a beautiful segue into “Shine you no more,” by lead violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen. A reel partly inspired by John Dowland’s “Flow My Tears,” it moves kaleidoscopically and jigs its way across the grasslands.

Much of the liminal material at hand is Danish in origin, including the graceful “Minuet No. 60” from a 1760s collection of folk melodies transcribed by Rasmus Storm. Coordinated to the point of feeling untethered by convention, it moves as dancers in their prime. The song “Hur var du i aftes så sildig” (Where were you last night so late), from the same collection, treats pizzicato like a series of semantic puzzle pieces. Other highlights from this geographical focus are “The Dromer,” a so-called English dance collected by the Bast Brothers between 1763-1782, and “Æ Rømeser,” an example of the dance form known as the “sønderhoning,” unique to the southern Danish island village of Sønderho. Slow and sure, but transitioning into a more forthright sway, it grounds the listener as a prerequisite for leaving the earth behind.

Further travels take the quartet from the Swedish traditional “Polska from Dorotea,” attributed to fiddler Johan August Andersson (1866-1902) and filled with luscious interplay from the violin and the Faroese mythology of “Stædelil” to the astonishing sonorities of “Unst Boat Song,” an old Norse song from the Shetland Islands, and “Fastän,” a contemporary Swedish polska by Eva Sæther that ends with a trail of piano.

Regardless of origin, the quartet plays these all with such grace, attention to color, and scenic integrity, that where they’re going is never in question. In their handling, the last leaf becomes the first of another in a cycle of decay and burgeoning life, for which they are humble interpreters. We, in turn, are humbled to witness their unfurling.

Steve Reich: The ECM Recordings (ECM 2540-42)

Steve Reich

Steve Reich
The ECM Recordings

Recorded 1976-1981
Release date: September 30, 2016

Steve Reich creates more than music; he renders his sound so systematically as to make it seem organic. Like the frond of a fern or the edge of a tide’s diurnal crawl, it reveals internal order upon inspection, working its fractal splendor at the most intimate of listening levels. At their heart, Reich’s compositions are precisely that: aggregates of base elements working toward a larger conveyance of meaning. Their pulse is their nervous system, insisting on linear paths in a tangle of mortal spirals. But as Paul Griffiths notes in his booklet essay for this essential boxed set, Steve Reich struggled to find a recording home, despite a few standalone releases on other labels, and the fact that by this time he was in his forties and had established himself as a musician and composer of international renown. Part of the problem was how to market it. It wasn’t quite or just classical, but a unique amalgam drawn as much from rock music as West African drumming. And while Deutsche Grammophon had made a recording of Music for 18 Musicians in Paris, it wasn’t until ECM head Manfred Eicher heard it that it saw the light of day. “It spoke to the time,” Griffiths goes on, “and to some extent it still speaks of that time, when the Vietnam War was recently over and in most western countries a social revolution had been accomplished under pressure from below. It speaks of optimism and harmony and drive and progress.”

Reich ECM 3D

Whatever their political, social, or geographic connections, the three albums collected here are as historical in scope as they are in ECM’s preservation. With barest means—the primordial contact of living flesh on dead—Reich and his cadre of dedicated musicians offer a three-dimensional experience unlike any other. And while it’s easy to differentiate the intimate details between each recording, hearing them under a single banner reveals powerful interrelationships and dialogues in service of a growing aesthetic. From the unhidden methodologies of Music for 18 Musicians to the numerological mysteries of Tehillim, one finds a spectrum of emotional receivers flipped on in glorious succession.

Music for 18 Musicians

Music for 18 Musicians (ECM New Series 1129)

Shem Guibbory violin
Ken Ishii cello
Elizabeth Arnold voice
Rebecca Armstrong voice
Pamela Fraley voice
Nurit Tilles piano
Steve Chambers piano
Larry Karush piano, maracas
Gary Schall marimba, maracas
Bob Becker marimba, xylophone
Russ Hartenberger marimba, xylophone
Glen Velez marimba, xylophone
James Preiss metallophone, piano
Steve Reich piano, marimba
David Van Tieghem marimba, xylophone, piano
Virgil Blackwell clarinet, bass clarinet
Richard Cohen clarinet, bass clarinet
Jay Clayton voice, piano
Recorded 1976, Studio des Dames, Paris
Recording engineer: Klaus Hiemann
Mixing: Rudolph Werner, Klaus Hiemann, and Steve Reich
Produced by Rudolph Werner

Music for 18 Musicians makes no efforts to obscure the methods behind its construction. It shows us mysteries never notated. The piece is scored for violin, cello, 2 clarinets doubling bass clarinet, 4 women’s voices, 4 pianos, 3 marimbas, 2 xylophones and metallophone (vibraphone with no motor). With his characteristic attention to detail, Reich utilizes these instruments not necessarily for their evocativeness, but for the varied ways in which their timbres can be blended in a nearly hour-long wash of sound. Movements herein are at once linear and multidirectional. Reich’s notecraft commits to its own agenda while grafting on to many others along the way.

It all begins with a living metronome of piano and mallet instruments before a chorus of breaths (via throat and woodwinds) convenes. The interweaving of these strands reinforces the compositional density, like marrow and nerves attaching themselves to a spinal c(h)ord of aural design. Indeed, what develops is one active body of which instruments are the genetic code. And while vocal utterances function as extensions of manufactured instruments, they lend fragility to the underlying spirit at hand. They rise and fall, slowly replaced by clarinets as if one and the same.

Sudden changes in rhythm serve to reconfigure our attention to the intervention of the composer’s hand: just as we are being lulled into a sense of perpetuity, akin to a natural cycle studied from afar, we are reminded of listening to a human creation. This awareness invites us to share in its re-creation through the act of listening. Like much of Reich’s music, Music for 18 Musicians is nothing if not accommodating. Rather than patronize or proselytize, it bares its bones. This brackets Music for 18 Musicians off from much of the histrionic art music in vogue at the time of its creation (1974-76).

The recording quality of this album is ideally suited to its subject matter. A sense of “clusteredness” prevails, such that the performers never stray too far from the nexus of their unity, while also providing just enough breathing room (performers’ lung capacities determine the length of sonic pulses throughout) for individual elements to shine. Most of the mixing, as it were, is done live by the musicians themselves, and requires attentiveness on the part of the engineer to highlight that interplay without overpowering the core.

Reich Octet etc

Octet / Music for a Large Ensemble / Violin Phase (ECM New Series 1168)

Russ Hartenberger marimba
Glen Velez marimba
Gary Schall marimba
Richard Schwarz marimba
Bob Becker xylophone
David Van Tieghem xylophone
James Preiss vibraphone
Nurit Tilles piano
Edmund Niemann piano
Larry Karush piano
Steve Reich piano
Jay Clayton voice
Elizabeth Arnold voice
Shem Guibbory violin
Robert Chausow violin
Ruth Siegler viola
Claire Bergmann viola
Chris Finckel cello
Michael Finckel cello
Lewis Paer bass
Judith Sugarman basse
Virgil Blackwell clarinet
Richard Cohen clarinet
Mort Silver flute
Ed Joffe soprano saxophone
Vincent Gnojek soprano saxophones
Douglas Hedwig trumpet
Marshall Farr trumpet
James Hamlin trumpet
James Dooley trumpet
Music for a Large Ensemble / Octet
Recorded February 1980 at Columbia Recording Studios, New York
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Violin Phase
Recorded March 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Mixing: Manfred Eicher, Martin Wieland, and Steve Reich
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Have you ever repeated a word over and over again until it loses meaning? Cognitive science calls this “semantic satiation.” Now imagine that someone could do the same thing for instruments and you’ll have a clear idea of the power of a Steve Reich composition. In this selection of three longer examples, we get exactly that: an unraveling of music’s linguistic shapes, transformed from within.

The instruments in Music for a Large Ensemble fit into a vast sequence of aural DNA, as logical as it is mystifying. Every voice is given ample space in a piece that, while densely layered, is as airy and fractally ordered as a puff of windblown dandelion. Strings waver with the unrelenting heat of a desert sun, horns ebb and flow in a brassy wash of equilibrium, and a vibraphone rings out like magic over all. Although the music moves mechanically, its texture is organic. This earthiness is maintained in Violin Phase, which consists of a repeated motif that, as with all of Reich’s “phase” pieces, is knocked just slightly out of alignment by the doubling voice, like two turn signals rhythmically staggering and realigning. This is the most localized of Reich’s phases, clearly rooted in the bluegrass fiddling tradition. The violin grinds like sand, small particles swirling and separating yet holding fast to some invisible predictability. After two such strikingly different pieces, the Octet somehow comes across as the most intimate. The inclusion of wind instruments, in particular the clarinet and flute, adds a crystalline contrast, leading to a glorious and sudden silence.

Albums like this and Music for 18 Musicians will easily make one lose track of time. Both are tessellations in sound, each image shifting through time and space like an Escher print, so that what begins as a diamond ends up a bird in flight. Naturally, the precision required to play Reich’s music is a feat in and of itself. That such a synergistic cast of musicians could arise out of the work of one composer is by all accounts spectacular, and when so lovingly recorded their cumulative effect is heightened. This is music that finds its expansiveness internally, charting the waters of our biological oceans until we come to our beginnings anew.

Tehillim

Tehillm (ECM New Series 1215)

Pamela Wood voice
Cheryl Bensman voice
Rebecca Armstrong voice
Jay Clayton voice
Bob Becker percussion
Russ Hartenberger percussion
Garry Kvistad percussion
Steve Reich percussion
Gary Schall percussion
Glen Velez percussion
Virgil Blackwell clarinet, flute
Mort Silver clarinet, piccolo
Vivian Burdick oboe
Ellen Bardekoff English horn
Edmund Niemann electric organ
Nurit Tilles electric organ
Shem Guibbory violin
Robert Chausow violin
Ruth Siegler viola
Chris Finckel cello
Lewis Paer bass
George Manahan conductor
Recorded October 1981 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Recording engineer: Martin Wieland
Mixing: Manfred Eicher, Martin Wieland, and Steve Reich
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Human languages are contrived, insofar as they have undergone extensive sociopolitical reshaping. In Steve Reich’s Tehillim, however, words take on a self-sustaining feel, deeply rooted in the nutrient-rich soil of the composer’s instrumental configuration, and serve to dictate the flow of a seminal shift in American “minimalism.” Being the first document of this new path in Reich’s personal and professional development, this recording matches an endearing trepidation to every practiced gesture. This music, says Reich, may be “heard as traditional and new at the same time,” as it was both a way for him to explore his Jewish roots while weaving a fresh brand of secularism into the many liturgical threads at his back. At just under 30 minutes, Tehillimis a fleeting unraveling of that very fabric.

Tehillim, meaning “praises” and referring to the Hebrew Book of Psalms from which it borrows its texts, is more than a remarkable work. It is also a work of remarks. The scoring is built around a core of drum and clapping before introducing a female voice doubled by clarinet. This opens into a series of four-part canons against a backdrop of electric organs and maraca. Each melodic line—human and instrumental alike—moves distinctly, unaffected by the trappings of vibrato or other flourishes, as an imitative counterpoint works its way into the smoke of this short-burning votive candle. Part II carries the women’s voices into higher elevations in which the passage of time is marked by a light interplay of drums. Part III is the slowest of the four, ebbing and flowing with a breath’s involuntary precision. Like the most engaging of Gavin Bryars’s ensemble pieces, this section pulses with the quiet splendor of a deep-sea organism. The final part opens our eyes again to sunlight. With the barest assortment of auditory keys, it unlocks just enough doors to usher us into a more personal understanding of exultation. It can be no coincidence, then, that the derivation of the title—Hey, Lamed, Lamed (HLL)—also forms the root for “hallelujah.” And so, when the hallelujahs that close the piece spring up like so much plant life, they seem inevitable. Tehillim is the Tree of Life feeding off itself, bathing in the spores of the Word made flesh.

Despite having turned this triangle around in the inner ear more times than can be counted, I discover something new every time: proof positive that calling it “minimalism” is unfair both to Reich and to the ones among whom he makes these demanding journeys. Thankfully, all we need to join them is a mind prepared to receive every shift of terrain with humility and a body in which to house it.

Eicher Reich
(Photo credit: Deborah Feingold)

Mieczysław Weinberg: Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet (ECM New Series 2538/39)

 

Weinberg Chamber Symphonies

Mieczysław Weinberg
Chamber Symphonies / Piano Quintet

Kremerata Baltica
Gidon Kremer principal violin
Andrei Pushkarev timpani, triangle, percussion
Yulianna Avdeeva piano
Džeraldas Bidva violin
Dainius Puodžiukas violin
Santa Vižine viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Mate Bekavac clarinet
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla conductor (Chamber Symphony No. 4)
Chamber Symphonies Nos. 1-3
Recorded live June 13, 2015 at Musikverein Wien
Piano Quintet, Chamber Symphony No. 4
Recorded June 9/10, 2015 at Latvian Radio Studio, Riga
Tonmeister: Vilius Keras, Aleksandra Kerienė
Engineer: Varis Kurmins (Riga)
Mastering by Christoph Stickel, Manfred Eicher at MSM Studio, München
Album produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: January 13, 2017

Following his first examination of Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996), violinist Gidon Kremer returns with his eponymous ensemble for another album devoted to the Polish-born Soviet composer. “No other composer has entered my own and Kremerata Baltica’s repertoire with such intensity,” writes Kremer in a liner note for the album, citing the four chamber symphonies recorded here as his finest examples. Despite Weinberg’s penchant for chamber music, if not also because of it, in these pieces one finds heartbreaking intimacy.

The Chamber Symphony No. 3, op. 151 (1990), loosely transcribed from his String Quartet No. 5, opens the program’s descending first half. The string orchestra for which it is scored opens in the mode of Lento with such clarity that it feels like a mirror in which every listener is reflected in high definition. Its tactility of history finds purchase wherever it can, clawing its way slowly into the inner ear, where it nests like a dying bird. Its afterlife is marked Allegro molto, lively yet underlined by melancholy, shifting into a tutti passage of chords that teeters on the brink of decay. The Adagio that follows is Weinberg’s default state of mind, giving itself over to thoughts of fog and shadows. The cello arising from shimmering violins gifts us one of the great solos of modern music. Lastly, the Andantino, a macabre dance interspersed with surprising Baroque textures utters a transfixing farewell.

This piece and its predecessor come from a time when Weinberg was fading into obscurity. Sick and isolated, he could only watch as his friends died or emigrated beyond his reach. Still, works like these continued to be premiered and touch the lives of those fortunate as we to hear them.

Chamber Symphonies Nos. 2 and 1 are further reworkings of string quartets and both supplement new movements in their reiterated forms. The Chamber Symphony No. 2, op. 147 (1987) adds to the orchestral milieu a pounding timpani, and with it a layer of storm. It circles, dances, and flirts with romanticism even as it transcends boundaries with the ease of breathing. The second movement shifts from lacey dance to exuberant outpouring, capped by a solo violin that also figures centrally in the final Andante. The strings are gnarled like tree roots, only some of which are visible aboveground. The Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 145 (1986) closes out the first disc, balancing the Tchaikovsky-esque textures of its first movement with the final Presto’s full-on desperation, treading the edges of collapse between them with a strange mixture of glee and fear. Although no timpani is to be heard, it may just be the most percussive of the symphonies.

The Piano Quintet, op. 18 was composed in 1944, a year into Weinberg’s settlement in Moscow, where he would spend the remainder of his life, following a harrowing escape from the Nazis in 1941. By influence of Shostakovich, it takes a five-movement structure, and is presently arranged for piano, string orchestra and percussion by Andrei Pushkarev and Gidon Kremer. The gentlest of persuasions eases us into its sound-world, brittle enough to snap at the merest hint of impropriety. In the interest of its protection, Kremer and company lend it an evenness that never ruptures, except at choice moments of catharsis. That said, there’s very little in the way of redemption. In its place are the anxieties of its faster movements, which in their headlong rushes of detail reveal many possible outs, none of which are taken until the mighty Largo that follows. Over its 14-minute duration, as much urgency as recall feeds into the final movement. Appropriately designated Allegro agitato, the latter mocks the army of time.

Last is the Chamber Symphony No. 4, op. 153 (1992). Scored for clarinet, triangle and string orchestra, and bearing dedication to composer Boris Chaykovsky as a gesture of reconciliation to their waning friendship, it was to be Weinberg’s final completed work. Its opening Lento is his crowning achievement. Here, as in all subsequent movements, the clarinet flows as if through the prism of a traumatized yet resolute soul. The second movement, a fierce Allegro molto, treats the clarinet as a voice among voices, a representative of its community, vying for attention in the push and shove of a politically overwhelmed life. Again, a cello figures sagaciously at the end, tracing wisdom born of conflict. The Adagio is another patient stroke of genius, drawn like an ink-laden brush until every last drop is elicited. The final Andantino is a ballet without dancers in which microtonal plies are front and center before collapsing into a funereal drone.

If Shostakovich, with whom he was a close friend, can be said to be pathos, then Weinberg is the pathos of that pathos. Kremer’s focus on this music is therefore more than a recovery effort, but a philosophical resurrection. Under his direction, the music leads itself, and in that spirit walks crosswise with regard to every expectation, head bowed and hand dashing across the page before the flesh expires.

Tigran Mansurian: Requiem (ECM New Series 2508)

2508 X

Tigran Mansurian
Requiem

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
Asko|Schönberg
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)

2598 X

Stefano Scodanibbio
Alisei

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.