Frode Haltli: AIR (ECM New Series 2496)

2496 X

AIR

Frode Haltli accordion
Trondheim Soloists
Arditti Quartet
Irvine Arditti 
violin
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.

Carolin Widmann: Mendelssohn/Schumann (ECM New Series 2427)

Widmann Mendelssohn

Carolin Widmann
Mendselssohn/Schumann

Carolin Widmann violin, direction
Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Recorded July 2014, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Engineer: Rainer Maillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: August 26, 2016

Until now, violinist Carolin Widmann has reexamined mostly chamber territories on ECM. For this disc, recorded in 2014 and released two years later, she leads the Chamber Orchestra of Europe as both director and soloist in a program of two marquis-worthy concertos by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Robert Schumann.

The opening theme of Mendelssohn’s Opus 64, composed in 1844, in addition to being one of the most recognizable in the Romantic violin repertoire, shines from Widmann’s interpretative sun like the dawn. What follows in this monumental movement, marked “Allegro molto appassionato,” is more than fiery sermon of the bow, but a full narrative rich with character development, conflict, and hyperrealism. As Jürg Stenzl writes in his liner notes, Mendelssohn was caught between something of a rock and hard place, unsure of whether to continue in the virtuosic fashion of Paganini or follow the orchestral persuasion of Beethoven. If anything, he struck an unprecedented balance between the two, allowing the soloist to shine while also giving the orchestra something lyrical and texturally relevant to say. The central movement—an Andante leading into a transitional Allegretto—is a lyrical bridge to the famous finale, across delicate leaps of intuition turn into robust statements of purpose. Playfulness undergirds every chromatic arc and emboldens Widmann’s benchmark performance with a subtle combination of grit and fluidity. That each of these three movements is shorter than the last is indicative of a distilling approach, whereby the composer peels away one unnecessary layer after another until an unblemished fruit remains.

CW
(Photo credit: Lennard Rühle)

Schumann’s concerto of 1853, unlike Mendelssohn’s widely heralded masterpiece, went unpublished until 1937, dismissed as it was along with his late works as insubstantial. How much of that perception was due to musicological analysis and how much to a growing mythos around his mental downfall is difficult to quantify. Following in the immediate wake of his Opus 31 Fantasy, the concerto is both a return to form and an eschewing of it. If Mendelssohn’s first movement was a short story, then Schumann’s is a novella. Yet despite it gargantuan form, taking up nearly 16 minutes of duration in the present performance, it leaves more than enough room for the listener to find solace, reflection, and understanding. And despite its many colors, there’s a certain trustworthiness to its flow, as emphasized by Widmann’s choices of tempo and dynamics. The second movement, designated “Langsam” (slow), nevertheless speaks with urgency, while the restrained third dances but always keeps one foot on the ground. With bolder, more jagged lines, Schumann expands his vocabulary in and through the score. Widmann’s translations thereof make it understandable in any language.

ECM New Series Anthology (ECM New Series 1405)

ECM New Series Anthology

Staatsorchester Stuttgart
Dennis Russell Davies
conductor
The Hilliard Ensemble
Gidon Kremer violin
Keith Jarrett piano
Meredith Monk voice, piano
Heinz Holliger oboe
Kim Kashkashian viola
Tamia voice
Pierre Favre percussion
Shankar double violin
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone, flute
Paul Hillier voice
Stephen Stubbs lute
Erin Headley vielle
Thomas Demenga cello
Paul Giger violin

ECM made history in 1984 with the release of Tabula rasa, the first of the jazz label’s equally influential New Series. Not only did this beloved recording introduce many to the music of Arvo Pärt, but it also clarified producer Manfred Eicher’s classical roots and fed into the likeminded sensibilities Eicher was then bringing with increasing confidence to his groundbreaking approach to jazz. It is therefore appropriate that Pärt, the imprint’s shining star, should be represented here more than any other composer or performer. His Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Britten, a haunting secular homage to a composer he would never meet, is the disc’s open door. Its quiet sweeps and intoning tubular bell resemble little in all recorded music. Pärt comes to us further through his spiraling Arbos for brass and percussion and through Fratres, a touchstone in his compositional career. Existing in many treatments, here it is given one of its most powerful through the greatness of violinist Gidon Kremer. Accompanied by Keith Jarrett at the piano, his simple yet burrowing progressions capture (and release) the essence of something so physiological that one cannot but help feel it in the veins.

If Pärt is the New Series’ mainstay composer, then the phenomenal singers of the Hilliard Ensemble are its star performers. Since making their label debut with a flavorful rendition of Thomas Tallis’s Lamentations Of Jeremiah, of which the Incipit is given here, they have redefined the art of the chamber vocal ensemble.

Meredith Monk shifts the light considerably in a selection from her Vessel: An Opera Epic. The New York-based composer and performer has established a loyal group of vocal artists, all of whom find in her voice a depth of inspiration all too rarely encountered. One would feel tempted to call her world mysterious, were it not for the fact that it sounds undeniably familiar. “Do You Be” is a representative work in this regard, an aria of sorts that blows her ululations through the branches of a faraway tree.

Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger is another major compositional force in the New Series catalogue, and his Studie Über Mehrklänge for solo oboe is as good a place as any to start for those adventurous enough to wander his musical paths. As the title (A Study in Multiphonics) already informs us, Holliger wrings a wealth of sounds and colors from the single woodwind. Whether unsettling or ethereal, they never fail to enchant and reinvent with every listen.

The peerless Kim Kashkashian gives us the final movement of Paul Hindemith’s fifth Viola Sonata. This 11-minute masterpiece is the first of a smattering of solo pieces on the album, the others being Thomas Demenga’s astonishing Sarabande from the fourth Cello Suite of J. S. Bach and an all-too-short excerpt (only three of its original twenty-two minutes) from “Crossing” by Swiss violinist Paul Giger. The album, Chartres, from which the latter was taken is one of the finest violin recordings ever released and is a must-have for those interested in exploring more of what the New Series has to offer.

Singer, scholar, and early music specialist Paul Hillier gives us “Can Vei La Lauzeta,” a haunting lilt of troubadour stylings by Bernart de Ventadorn (fl. 1145-1180). It is a fitting inclusion in a program that is but a thread in an ongoing tapestry—more than I can say about the album’s filler. Why, for example, do we find not one but two selections from saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s Legend Of The Seven Dreams? A fantastic album, to be sure, but not a New Series release. The same goes for “Ballade” by singer Tamia and percussionist Pierre Favre and “Adagio” by Carnatic violinist L. Shankar. Both are lovely sonic constructions yet neither appears under the New Series title. I realize that perhaps these were an attempt to show that the music of ECM proper can sometimes carry over into fuzzier areas of genre, but isn’t that what the far more numerous anthologies from the very same are for?

Another addition—that of actor Bruno Ganz’s recitation of “Vom Abgrund Nämlich” by Friedrich Hölderlein—may also seem curious, if only for its politics, but its opening lines at least ring to the tune of the ECM spirit, which has cast its sonic lessons into the widening sea of listening in which we are all embedded:

We began of course at the abyss
And have gone forth like lions

By and large, this is an adequate introduction to a side of ECM that some may feel hesitant to explore. Yet rather than pay for a well-chosen, if sometimes puzzling, collection, I would instead encourage the curious to get their hands on any one of the above recordings in full.