Valentin Silvestrov: Metamusik/Postludium (ECM New Series 1790)

 

Valentin Silvestrov
Metamusik/Postludium

Alexei Lubimov piano
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded April 2001 at ORF Studio, Vienna
Engineer: Anton Reininger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Meta” is a prefix often thrown around without much thought as to its origins. The academic world of which I am a part is especially fond of it. Yet the nuance of “meta” as “transcending” (as in “metaphysical”) is a mistake born of frequent misuse and reinforcement. Its origins lie in the Greek preposition, which means “in the midst of, in pursuit or quest of.” These get us closer to the heart of Metamusik, the title of a one-movement symphony for piano and orchestra from Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov that forms the bulk of the third album dedicated to his music on the ECM New Series. And indeed, the opening proclamation of the selfsame composition already sounds as if it were in the midst of, if not in pursuit of, something. And while I normally find that Silvestrov’s motivic denouements emote more effectively in concentrated settings, in this case I find that the 48-minute running time allows both listeners and performers all the breathing room they need to delineate its finer anatomies. The soloist here is Alexei Lubimov, who first introduced us to Silvestrov in the ghostly recital, Der Bote. His role, however, is neither to lead nor respond, but to inhabit as many particles as he can of the piece’s opening Big Bang. These, he connects through a wavering orchestral environment with planetary care. He opens every note like an ocean in and of itself, ebbing and flowing simultaneously, redrawing the same lines along the shores of unpopulated worlds. It is that rare sound which mesmerizes by way of dark matter and black holes, falling without end into a void of shifting pathos. Whether our eyes are closed or open, we see nothing but the nebulae of our own consciousness, naked and diffuse.

If by now any of us expect to achieve familiarity in the accompanying Postludium, then we need only still ourselves before we are ready to see. The title here is another didactic one. It is Silvestrov’s default modality, the aural afterword to a non-existent referent. In short: an epilogue to silence. And though these same musicians may exert themselves and the composer may labor over the staves that engender the music’s emergence, our experience of it lacks the immediate visceral connection of having performed it. (It is just such a chain of meteoric intentions that binds us to the postlude as “genre.”) In acknowledging an emptiness from which forms all matter, we also know there is emptiness to be squeezed from the tangible, somehow beautiful in the embrace of our acoustic validations. We may float without direction, but Silvestrov seems to say that our voices, the very notecraft of our being, are the only compasses we need.

The power of this music speaks differently to all of us. It is a living force that mimics whatever vessel contains it. It is also a blank page: present yet weightless with meaning. Silvestrov’s is a sound-world of punctuation marks. It is up to us to fill in the words.

Giya Kancheli: Caris Mere (ECM New Series 1568)

 

Giya Kancheli
Caris Mere

Eduard Brunner clarinet
Maacha Deubner soprano
Kim Kashkashian viola
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded April 1994 – January 1995
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of Giya Kancheli is firmly rooted in emptiness, in those silent spaces between musical gestures where the voice is born behind the words it sings. Kancheli seems also aware that silence can rarely be disconnected from violence, that in our configurations of human relations and conflict there are moments when one’s history ceases to exist in the utterable, moments that animate his musical frameworks with echoes of a distinct cultural memory. Such is the impetus for the composer’s Life Without Christmas cycle, which was begun on Abii ne viderem and is concluded with the present release.

Midday Prayers (for solo clarinet, soprano, and chamber orchestra) opens the album’s trio of compositions with a protracted meditation on Passion texts. An airy wash of sustained tones and rich orchestral timbres is broken by intermittent declarations of hidden sentiment. A certain dis-ease informs the winds, even as strings paint the thinnest veneer of hope. The seasoned Kancheli listener will have come to expect the intense dynamic distance to be found here, the balance of which focuses our attention on the details of quietude and an outburst’s potential to enlighten. A piano gives us the briefest glimpse into a time before strife ravaged a onetime joy. The piece’s sparseness makes its fuller moments shout with the force of an ensemble twice their size.

Caris Mere (for soprano and viola) moves with the same sense of unfolding as Midday Prayers, with the added hint of Medieval monophony. The title means “After the Wind” in Georgian and recalls that of his earlier piece, Vom Winde beweint (Mourned by the Wind). Where the latter expands with the looming presence of an entire orchestra, here we find that piece’s soloist with a voice that isn’t so much added as it is drawn from the viola’s heart. Kim Kashkashian and Maacha Deubner (previously heard to magical effect on Kancheli’s Exil) each carry their own weight, shedding it little by little as they scale new heights with every phrase. This music is arid but alive, the voice its only inhabitant, the lone survivor of a catastrophe immune to erasure.

Kronos Quartet fans will recognize the final piece, Night Prayers, from their album of the same name. This extended version (for saxophone and string orchestra) begins with very deep voices, resounding from the liminal realm that is tape, accentuated by a knotty fringe of strings. As saxophonist Jan Garbarek pierces the gloom with his light, the piece flaps its thematic shutters like a quiet storm. Generally a very meditative journey, though not without its moments of rapture, Night Prayers is a captivating highpoint of Kancheli’s spiral of sound. Jan Garbarek gives due respect to the music at hand, and makes the most of a brief improvisational window in an otherwise precisely notated architecture.

 

Kancheli’s music is a hall of mirrors, each one distorting us differently. Ruptures of energy inflict the pain of restriction upon a population that knows only freedom, and we become implicated among the oppressed. This is music that clearly delineates the boundary between the influence of tradition (such as it is conceived) and the power of hegemony.

Schnittke/Raskatov: Symphony No. 9/Nunc dimittis (ECM New Series 2025)

 

Alfred Schnittke
Alexander Raskatov
Symphony No. 9/Nunc dimittis

Dresdner Philharmonie
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Elena Vassilieva mezzo-soprano
The Hilliard Ensemble
Recorded January 2008, Lukaskirche, Dresden
Engineers: Markus Heiland and Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away…. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”
–Arnold Schoenberg

Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) is another in a long line of composers who have fallen to the so-called “curse of the ninth.” And while in Schnittke’s case the curse doesn’t quite hold water (it is, technically, his Tenth when one takes his Symphony No. 0 into account), the circumstances of its completion are prime material for the lore that surrounds such configurations of creative output. Regardless of how much we believe in the numerical significance of Schnittke’s Ninth, it was the last work he ever committed to paper. That he mustered the ability to do so after suffering four strokes, which had left his right side paralyzed, makes the work’s existence all the more enigmatic. Said debilitation forced Schnittke to write with his non-dominant hand, making for a virtually unreadable score. Famed Schnittke conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky subsequently prepared, under apparently spurious authority, a “performing edition,” which Schnittke vehemently rejected upon hearing a tape of its performance. Following his death soon thereafter, the score was entrusted by widow Irina to one Nikolai Korndorf, a fellow composer who sadly died of a brain tumor before he was able to do anything with it. Irina then passed the work along to Alexander Raskatov, who felt so moved in his attempts to provide a more definitive manuscript that he added an elegiac fourth movement of sorts to Schnittke’s already monumental three in the form of the Nunc dimittis (“Lord, let thy servant now depart into thy promis’d rest”) that rounds out this landmark recording.

The visceral Andante that opens the Ninth—which, in Raskatov’s estimation, acts as a “voice from beyond”—is like a string of blocks sagging over time. Harmonies move from consonance and dissonance in fluid sweeps, their ambiguity neither inviting nor repelling us. If anything, they signal a maturity that accepts those experiences that embolden us through their difficulty as well as those that refashion us through their proverbial beauty. Schnittke preserves his special sensitivity for the orchestra, treating it at times as a solo instrument, as if each section were its own string, and at others as if those voices were so distinct that they existed only through the vast spaces that separate them. It is this constant balancing act that makes the Schnittke experience so alive with nuance, easily adapting to our changing temperaments. In such a world of sound there is no self yet stable enough to hold on to for a lifetime. There is only the constant negotiation of our own musicality and the indeterminacy that binds it. And so, when the timpani announces itself at last, it sounds less like a declamatory statement and more like the heartbeat of a feeble and weary body. The addition of a harpsichord in the Moderato as a sort of tangential continuo of times past is a perfect example of Schnittke’s asymptotic grace. It also gives the symphony a concerto-like pathos, ever offset by a cryptic aftertaste and recumbent winds. As a whole, the Ninth is dominated by scales, which take a most blatant turn at the tail end of the Moderato, during which a trumpet runs through a chromatic line (perhaps in acknowledgment of its pedagogical roots?) as a lead-in to the final Presto, where we hear this modal motif echoed in the strings, and again in the lone oboe that welcomes the harpsichord’s unassuming return. Such fundamental utterances are, I think, keys into the piece’s inner energies, and prepare us for the gentle letting down of its cessation.

Raskatov’s intriguing companion piece, written in memoriam, is scored for mezzo-soprano, men’s voices and orchestra. It opens with verses by Joseph Brodsky, a favorite poet of Schnittke’s, and imparts its remaining attentions to a text by hesychast Staretz Silouan (who ECM listeners will recognize as a name of interest on Arvo Pärt’s Te Deum). Raskatov delves deeper into Schnittke’s symphonic territory, trail-marking it with voices along the way. Brief outbursts from harpsichord and marimba, along with some Ligeti-inspired vocal articulations, lend a ceremonial cast to the glowing mood. Dense brass swellings recall Górecki’s Old Polish Music, while a watery gong and shadowy electric guitar work their way into an ending that is but a mirror image of its own intentions.

A professor once told me: “Only a fool would think the answer is the most important part of the question.” Such a statement suits the music at hand, if only because the death(s) it circumscribes are as inexpressible as my unworthy attempts to relate it to the silent reader. In this regard, the present recording may be a give and take for the Schnittke admirer. On the one hand, it lacks the conviction of, say, his often-hailed Eighth. On the other, listeners will delight in the familiar presence of his beloved harpsichord and mellifluous scoring. By far one of the most stunning ECM New Series entries, this album is a more than fitting testament to a glorious composer and an opportune introduction for another who, though not so well known, walks humbly in his shadow.

Giya Kancheli: Abii ne viderem (ECM New Series 1510)

 

Giya Kancheli
Abii ne viderem

Kim Kashkashian viola
Vasiko Tevdorashvili voice
Natalia Pschenitschnikova alto flute
The Hilliard Ensemble
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded April 1994
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

My first exposure to the music of Giya Kancheli, with which the composer once said, “I feel more as if I were filling a space that has been deserted,” was through Exil, which remains in my opinion the finest ECM New Series release to date. Much in contrast to the tearful beauty of that most significant chamber album, the orchestral arrangements on Abii ne viderem—drawn as they are from the same thematic sources—lend extroverted articulation to essentially “monastic” material. This music may speak the same language, but in a far more distant dialect. The Life without Christmas cycle, from which two pieces bookend the present recording, is central to the Kancheli oeuvre. Not only is it his wellspring, but it also comprises, it would seem, the overarching worldview under which he musically operates. It is the gloom of a life of displacement, the full embodiment of what Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich calls “measured gravity,” which may perhaps be likened to the heavy emptiness of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. As in said film, every gesture makes a footprint, a remnant of human presence left to sink into the submerged wasteland of a silent future.

Morning Prayers (1990) is immediately distinguished by an angelic boy soprano, whose taped voice is never fully grounded but which hovers throughout. The piano adds another haunting element, seeming to pull at the barbed ends of nostalgia even as it pushes the orchestra down a flight of descendent chords. Occasional violent moments startle us into self-awareness and only serve to underscore the power of the prayers that surround them. The most profoundly effective moment occurs when the piano echoes in a dance-like theme, the orchestral accompaniment slightly off center—a distant memory ravaged by time and circumstance.

The title of the album’s central piece, Abii ne viderem (1992/94), translates to “I turned away so as not to see.” The more one listens to it, the question becomes not what is being turned away from but what is being observed upon turning. Its paced staccato bursts are linked by a profound silence, escalating with every reiteration. This silence eventually opens into a full orchestral statement, italicized again by the piano’s audible pulse. We find ourselves caught in the middle of a larger web of sentiments, until we can no longer see ourselves for who we are but only for who we have been. Personally, I find this piece to be a touch overbearing, if only because the import of its ideas is easily crushed by the heft of its dynamic spread.

The presence of the Hilliard Ensemble rescues Evening Prayers (1991) from the didacticism of its predecessor. It is a more fully unified narrative, linked by a lingering alto flute. A gorgeous “ascension” passage marks a rare contrapuntal moment for Kancheli, while David James’s voice creates magic, ever so subtly offset by a skittering violin. Occasional bursts, some punctuated by snare drum, break the mood and ensure that our attention is held. Inevitably, the piece ends like a ship sailing into a foggy ocean, leaving behind only a blank map to show for our travels.

Don’t let any comparisons to Arvo Pärt lure you astray. Kancheli’s music, while transcendent, cannot be divorced from its rootedness in upheaval. And while this album may be filled with beautiful moments, I cannot help but feel that something gets elided in these grander arrangements. I say this with the gentlest of criticisms, and perhaps only because my first foray into this world was on such a small scale. The sound of Exil stays with me, and sometimes I just cannot hear it in any other context, and for those wishing to hear this composer for the first time I would recommend starting there. That being said, the scale of these pieces makes them no less evocative for all their historical understatements and sensitivity. And perhaps that is Kancheli’s underlying observation: that, in our current climate of convalescent ideologies, all we have to hold on to are those rare flashes of fire in which our communion with something greater has transcended the rising waters of sociopolitical corruption.

Kim Kashkashian: Lachrymae (ECM New Series 1506)

Lachrymae

Kim Kashkashian viola
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded December 1992
Engineer: Peter Laenger

Lachrymae was my second exposure to the brilliance of violist Kim Kashkashian, after her ECM recording of Paul Hindemith’s viola sonatas. It has long been one of my favorites of hers, as its emotional and tonal complexities are high points of the New Series catalog. The program here is modest—consisting of only three pieces—but heavy. The opening strains of Hindemith’s Trauermusik paint a grave and darkening picture. Composed in a six-hour stretch of creative fervor in the afternoon following the death of King George V in 1936, the piece mourns the fall of the monarchical figurehead by describing a musical effigy in his place. Hindemith gave the premier performance that very evening in a special BBC live broadcast. And indeed, the music has that very quality: a lost message somehow regained and spread across the airwaves in a time of great sorrow.

The album’s title work comes from Benjamin Britten and is performed here in its glorious 1975 orchestrated version (for the earlier viola/piano version, check out Kashkashian’s Elegies, also on ECM). Britten has subtitled the work “Reflections on a Song of John Dowland,” thereby lending it a rather bold intertextual potency. And while it goes without saying that Kashkashian’s soloing is first rate here, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra casts an even more enchanting spell as it binds each motivic cell with fluid grace.

Which brings us to Krzysztof Penderecki’s Konzert für Viola und Kammerorchester. The result of a 1983 commission from the Venezuelan government in honor of freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, the concerto marks a distinct shift in the composer’s aesthetic of virtuosity. Much in contrast to the density of his earlier concertos, here Penderecki cultivates a more intimate sound palette. Yet none of the color his work is known for is lost. We still get a meticulously constructed object adorned with all manner of timbres and percussive details.

In my opinion, Lachrymae showcases some of the most powerful music written for the viola. And who better than Kashkashian to wring out every last tear from this trio of captivating scores? This music is wrought in sadness and refined through a nurturing touch from its composers and musicians alike. It is not the spirit made manifest, but the manifest made spirit.

Giya Kancheli/Alfred Schnittke: Works for Viola and Orchestra (ECM New Series 1471)

Kancheli/Schnittke
Works for viola and orchestra

Kim Kashkashian viola
Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn
Rundfunk Sinfonie-Orchester Saarbrücken
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded November 1991, Beethovenhalle, Bonn (Kancheli)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recorded May 1986, Saarländischer Rundfunk, Saarbrücken (Schnittke)
Engineer: Helmut David
Remixed by Peter Laenger and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

This powerful record brings together two of the most seminal works for viola and orchestra of the twentieth century. Although these pieces are as different as they are similar, together they form a distinct balance of sentiment and execution.

Giya Kancheli: Vom Winde beweint (Mourned by the Wind)
Kancheli’s self-styled “liturgy” is an exercise in patience and surrender. Its opening slam of piano chords is a big bang in and of itself, and sets the stage for the soloist’s epic journey. Wilfred Mellers, in his liner notes, posits the viola’s emergence from such chaos as the “birth of consciousness.” And indeed, one can extrapolate from its startling abruptness the inklings of a life yet lived, fresh and devoid of self-awareness in the greater void of silence. The orchestra skirts the periphery, gradually uniting with the soloist. This contrast mimics the arbitrary stability of human values—at once sacred and mutable—so that moments of resolution always tread a downward slope. Luminous winds, a cosmic harpsichord, and trails of harmonics characterize the first movement. Brief horn blasts introduce the second, throughout which the viola wanders without fortitude into a minefield of piano and timpani, singing without carrying a tune. The harpsichord again works its galactic magic, feeding stardust into the viola’s arterial core. A passage of intense and sustained volume leads into an epic swan song. The third movement is brought forth on the strings of the harpsichord, the viola a mere flit of wings in the surrounding air. An oboe threads the hesitation like the beginning of an incomplete statement. The fourth movement is a violent implosion and balances out the first with its selfish gaze. As with seemingly every Kancheli composition, it ends as quietly as an evening breeze. One hears the rustling of leaves in the distance, only to find that it was a trick of the ears all along. Vom Winde beweint is rich with sharp dynamic peaks that are short-lived and sporadic, the hallmarks of an ode to process over progress.

Alfred Schnittke: Konzert für Viola und Orchester
For this monumental work, Schnittke has chosen to invert the standard concerto form, sandwiching an Allegro Molto between two Largos. The piece opens with a viola solo held aloft by shimmering orchestral waves. Every melodic line is like the root of an ever-growing tree of voices. In the second movement, the viola skips across a landscape of consonances and dissonances at the behest of a passively insistent harpsichord. Schnittke maintains the fascinating sense of rhythm and energy that distinguishes his faster turns, scratching at the surface of a larger unfathomable world. Harpsichord, flute, and viola congregate in a Mozartean danse macabre at the movement’s center. The strangely wooden pizzicato toward the end haunts as the piano jumps impatiently on its lower notes. The last movement gives the viola a demanding solo, which is eventually overtaken by horns and winds. A deep pause marks a change in intent. The harpsichord once again comes to the fore, the final cameo of a strong orchestral cast, before bowing to a beautifully dissonant double stop from the viola.

Schnittke would suffer a stroke just ten days after completing the score for his concerto.* Said the composer: “Like a premonition of what was to come, the music took on the character of a restless chase through life (in the second movement) and that of a slow and sad overview of life on the threshold of death (in the third movement).” Such narrative approaches to one’s own work speak of a pragmatic mind that seeks order in the flow of a creative life. Yet rather than a premonition, I experience the concerto as an affirmation of what one already knows. If Kancheli’s is an unanswered question, Schnittke’s is an unquestioned answer.

This is a profoundly emotional album, by turns confrontational and mournfully resplendent. Kashkashian brings her usual heartrending strength to even the subtlest gestures and is never afraid to betray the fragility of her pitch. The orchestras, under the direction of Dennis Russell Davies, are forces to be reckoned with that scintillate in a slightly distanced mix. A benchmark recording in all respects.

*My thanks to Christopher Culver for the correction.

Arvo Pärt: Miserere (ECM New Series 1430)

Miserere

Arvo Pärt
Miserere

The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
John Potter tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Paul Hillier director
Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn
Western Wind Chamber Choir
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Pierre Favre percussion
Recorded September 1990, St. Jude-on-the-Hill, London (Miserere, Sarah Was Ninety Years Old)
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Recorded December 1990 at Beethovenhalle, Bonn (Festina Lente)
Engineers: Peter Laenger and Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For reasons perhaps too numerous to list here in full, Arvo Pärt’s Miserere remains my most cherished of the Estonian composer’s ever-growing book of masterworks. Suffice it to say that its magic lies in its stillness. For such an expansive piece—scored as it is for choir, soloists, organ, and ensemble—it is remarkably introspective. Its opening invocation of Psalm 51 fleshes out a corpus of spoken language made melody. A statement from the clarinet follows every word, not so much commentative as dialogic. Once harmony is introduced in the second vocal line, the pauses become even more gravid and rich in spatial detail. The soloists gather up all remaining threads, persevering through mounting tensions with the blunt instrument that is the interjected “Dies irae.” This is more than just a thunderous meditation. It is a wringing-out of the heavens, the earth a mouth gaping to catch all that drips down. Voices burst like supernovas around thunderous timpani, crashing into the oceans until only a tubular bell is left to caress the newly razed soil. The heartfelt baritone of Gordon Jones describes the ruins with mellifluous sensitivity. A wind section breathes through every pause like a ghostly antiphon and provides a dark interlude. As the soloists arise en masse, David James flares with his resplendent countertenor colors, whereas the deep intonation of soprano Sarah Leonard marvels amid the fumes of destruction. Another stunning interlude, this time introduced by Christopher Bowers-Broadbent on organ, coaxes the winds into more independent recitations, accentuated by a crystalline tambourine and triangle. We arrive to an a cappella passage that is transfiguration incarnate, each soloist pawing the air like a sleeping lion. The winds slog through the valleys, heavy sins in tow, while voices linger in the firmament. Leonard is unmatched in her ability to put her entire being into a high note, and the moment one finds at the 30:13 mark is perhaps her finest example. This touches off one of the most breathtaking lifts ever set to music, as all the voices scale a ladder of chaos into a world of silent order. Miserere is all about the “in between,” the lesson of interrupted thought, and our fearful awe over the mystery of creation.

Festina Lente (1988) for orchestra and harp is dedicated to Manfred Eicher. The title means “make haste slowly” and acknowledges the importance of flux in any creative endeavor. Like Eicher’s own aesthetic path, it is a resonant spiral that goes both downward and upward.

Awe is the operative concept in Sarah Was Ninety Years Old (1977/90). Drums cycle through an arithmetic exploration of high and low beats, cradling wordless passages from tenors Rogers Covey-Crump and John Potter. This process repeats until the organ makes its humble entrance, even as Leonard pushes her voice to dizzying heights. One would think such a piece might escape today’s trigger-happy musical culture, but I have recently encountered the drums from Sarah, as effective as they are surprising, being sampled by German electronic artist HECQ in his track “Aback,” off the wonderful album Night Falls.

This disc has been with me for nearly half my life. The Miserere in particular drew me into a love of singing. As a teenager I used to spend hours singing along alternately with the baritone and alto lines until the booklet yellowed and nearly fell apart from excessive handling (I even went so far as to purchase a backup, just so I would have a pristine copy on my shelf). After so much physiological engagement with its textual and aural shapes, it has become an integral part of my person. Listening reminds me that with each new step I take on the path to independence, I grow closer to who I have always been: a human soul sustained by all others in a world where time is infinitely malleable, and the only thing that’s real is my surrender to the moment.

Mozart: Piano Concertos – Jarrett/Davies (ECM New Series 1565/66 & 1624/25)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concertos I and II

Keith Jarrett piano
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded November 1994 and January 1995 (I); May 1996 and March 1998 (II), Mozart-Saal/Liederhalle, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Taken as a whole, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) remains one of European classical music’s most indestructible pantheons. Among the many symphonies, operas, songs, and chamber pieces in his formidable oeuvre of over 600 works is a handful (at least in Mozartian terms) of twenty-seven piano concertos. Theatrical, eclectic, and epic in scope, the concertos are the epitome of instrumental music written in the eye of an operatic storm. Their dramaturgy is put on full display in these two stunning double-albums from Keith Jarrett and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies. The selections therein were approached improvisationally—that is, Davies never knew exactly what Jarrett was going to do, and vice versa. The end result is warm, spontaneous music-making that tickles the ears and invigorates the soul.

The first set, released in 1996, instituted a major breakthrough in Jarrett’s classical career. If no one had taken him seriously with his ECM recording of the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues, then certainly he was turning a few heads now. From the moment he lays his fingers upon the keys, Jarrett transports us—and himself, I imagine—to a spacious and familiar world of sound, and in the company of such a finely tuned and responsive orchestra his pianism soars to new heights.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 23 in A Major K.488 (1786)
This concerto moves in sweeping gestures, spreading its arms over grand vistas, secret gardens, and mazes from which one never wishes to escape. The Allegro is sprinkled with moments of colorful synchronicity in which the piano doubles the flutes, further underlining the symbiotic relationship between the soloist and the landscape he inhabits (this doubling is later picked up by strings for an even broader sense of cohesion). The Adagio pulls away its own skin to expose an arduous inner conflict before trusting its resolution to the pianist’s capable hands. An ever-changing ensemble pairs the piano with different combinations of winds, all “strung” together by the orchestral whole of the infectious final movement. The wind writing is superb throughout and provides some of the concerto’s most insightful moments.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 27 in B-flat Major K.595 (1791)
Mozart’s final piano concerto opens on a playful note, swinging its way confidently through the branches of a singular musical path. The piano solos glow like childhood, which is to say they are entirely without fear. The central Larghetto begins with a light solo before French horns signal the orchestra to follow, weaving a solitary song. Only then do the piano and orchestra find each other after what feels like eons of separation. The Allegro begins again with piano alone, and as the orchestra picks up the theme in a grandiose call-and-response we find ourselves bathed in a scintillating resolve. The many solo moments injected into the final passage make for a provocative finish.

Masonic Funeral Music K.477 (1785) was written for two of the composer’s Masonic brethren, though sources suggest the piece was more indicative of the Society’s ideological spirit than it was of its dedicatees’ service to it. Nevertheless, its minor shifts and mellifluous wind writing make it an elegant experience all the same.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 21 in C Major K.467 (1785) is heavier on the strings and is distinguishable by its overtly march-like rhythms. The piano seems to act in the opening movement as a complicated ornament rather than as the focus of attention. The ubiquitously famous Andante sounds fresh and crystal clear as Jarrett carries the orchestra along its pastoral journey with a precise left hand, dropping a trail of breadcrumbs into the encroaching twilight. The virtuosic final movement is nothing short of breathtaking.

The Symphony No. 40 in G Minor K.550 (1788) is one of only two Mozart symphonies in a minor key and is almost as recognizable as Beethoven’s 5th. It comes gloriously alive in this passionate performance, of which the third and fourth movements stand out for their stately precision.

The second set of Jarrett/Davies Mozart collaborations, released in 1999, shows the two interpreters exploring this fine material from an even deeper point of articulation.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 20 in D Minor K.466 (1785) is the most somber of either program. Its Allegro builds a structure of monumental darkness. Ironically, the slow movement has far more energy than its predecessor, while the third is one of the masterpieces of collection, bristling with plenty of Mozart’s character-defining trills.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 17 in G Major K.453 (1784)
This is an epic concerto with another gorgeous Andante and an inspiring Presto that abounds with the liveliness one would come to expect from the younger Mozart.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 9 in E-flat Major K.271 (“Jeunehomme”) (1777)
The ninth concerto is the earliest piece of either album, written when the composer was just 21. This picturesque concerto is considered exemplary of the classical aesthetic. The opening Allegro is deceptively simple and endlessly colorful; a lush Andantino seems to yearn for an impossible love; and the final movement dutifully carries out its joyful mission, reporting back with most resplendent success.

The piano concertos are so long that, on a 2-CD set, they only leave room for shorter fillers, like the humble Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K.546 (1788), one of his most “filmic” pieces. While the Bach influence is clear, there is a dramatic undertone that is distinctly Mozart’s own and which provides a fitting close to another thoughtful and finely executed album.

Mozart constructed his piano concertos in such a way as to encapsulate all of the space embodied by the strings in the piano’s introductions. In this way he delved microscopically into the larger orchestral organism, revealing hidden biologies with laboratorial precision. Every movement is like a pianistic symphony in and of itself, a fully fleshed musical entity whose relationship to its neighbors is more genetic than it is formal. Davies shows a profound aptitude for the music at hand, as does Jarrett, who breathes clear diction into every phrase. Jarrett also excels in the ornamentations, especially in his many exuberant trills. This is classical music at its “grooviest” and is sure to please. Despite the epic length of the concertos, many surpassing thirty minutes, this could be a demanding listen were it not for Mozart’s continual innovation and unwavering commitment to circumstance. At any rate, the combined forces of Jarrett and Davies make even the heftiest doses easy to swallow.

I find it baffling to see that what little criticism these recordings have garnered focuses solely on Jarrett’s playing, calling it mechanical and lacking in the improvisational flair one would expect from the consummate jazzman. For what it’s worth, I find his performances to be nothing less than inspired and uplifting. I should make the reader aware, however, of the recording itself, which in the first set places the piano curiously distant in relation to the orchestra, as if at the back of the hall or even in a separate room. While this positioning works more fluidly in certain movements over others, ultimately the listener’s discretion will determine whether or not it is a successful arrangement. I find that it takes some getting used to every time I put the album on, but that once I do the effect is quite haunting.

Arvo Pärt: Arbos (ECM New Series 1325)

Arvo Pärt
Arbos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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