Anja Lechner/François Couturier: Lontano (ECM 2682)

Anja Lechner
François Couturier

Anja Lechner violoncello
François Couturier piano
Recorded October 2019, Sendesaal Bremen
Engineer: Christoph Franke
Cover photo: Erieta Attali
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: October 16, 2020

On Lontano, the cello of Anja Lechner and the piano of François Couturier play the roles of scenery and camera. As the lens bends the light into a discernible image yet changes that image in the process of fixing it within a frame, Couturier funnels Lechner’s sunbeams laden with stories that can only be heard with the eyes (and vice versa). If such a description seems too cerebral or even bogus, it’s only because the music it seeks to capture doesn’t accompany it. Even “capture” feels like an inappropriate word to interpret the relationships being explored by this symbiotic duo, especially when one considers that the music is half improvised and slips through the pores of any enclosure that surrounds it. Echoes reveal themselves to have been in the air they breathe all along, thus nullifying categorization as a political shadow that has no business casting itself here.

If the “Praeludium” tells us anything, it’s that awakening in this scenario can only take place when there is both sun and dew. Otherwise, the dawn might have nothing to kiss as it peers over the not-so-distant mountaintops. In so much of what follows, the inverted images in those pinhead orbs find themselves repeated in blissful aberration. Whether in the churning sediments of “Solar I” and “Solar II” or the flowering “Triptych” for two, there is a sense of agitation beneath the surface. The deepest point of these dialogues is mined in “Gratitude,” where Lechner skims the edges of notes as if to welcome melodic wanderers just long enough to feed and clothe them before sending them back into the wilderness, listless and without instruction until an ear catches them again—maybe tomorrow, maybe a millennium beyond.

That which is composed is carefully torn and folded from the pages of life itself. With each new crease, once-distant letters cohere into a new language. Among these homages, Anouar Brahem’s “Vague – E la nave va” inspires an astonishing piece of aural cinema, a tracking shot that shows us a wall and glimpses of the victims on the other side of it. The sensitivity of Henri Dutilleux’s “Prélude en berceuse,” too, reveals a pathway to revival, where awaits the closing door of the “Postludium.” Like the “Memory of a Melody,” which threads an excerpt from the Bach cantata aria “Wie zittern und wanken der Sünder Gedanken” (BWV 105) through the needle of the here and now, it reminds us that all melodies are memories.

Lontano is, above all, most wondrous for standing as a corrective to the phrase “effortless execution.” Tempting as this descriptor is, I find evidence of the untold hours of patient corporeal shaping and experience that feed every note. A flow like the one preserved here is made possible only by the sacrifices that dug its trenches.

François Couturier: Un jour si blanc (ECM 2103)

Un jour si blanc François Couturier
Un jour si blanc

François Couturier piano
Recorded September 2008 at Auditorio Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After a handful of collaborative efforts (most notably with oudist Anouar Brahem) at last we encounter François Couturier unaccompanied, feeling his way through an artful selection of 17 (mostly) improvised vignettes. Although nominally distinct from his first leader date, Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky, it is in fact the continuation of that very project, the second in a trilogy completed in 2011 by the self-titled Tarkovsky Quartet. Continuing with the cinematic theme, Un jour si blanc takes its title from a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky, as recited in the 1975 film The Mirror, directed by son Andrei. Drawing from a distilled yet no less vivid palette, Couturier pursues themes spanning the robust and the fleeting across an ever-shifting terrain. The album traces a diurnal arc, waking in the soft hues of “L’aube” and “Un calme matin orange” and drifting off to sleep in the shadows of “Par les soirs bleus d’été” and “Moonlight.” Between them runs an elemental cross of fertility and fantasy. Couturier treats every note carefully at these outer margins, cradling it like a blown eggshell primed for his delicate scrim. Within that frame stretches a vast pond, the surface of which quivers with the raindrops of an oncoming storm. Reflections of trees are lifted like decals by his right hand in “Lune de miel” and stuck to sky in the highly charged “Le soleil rouge.” Yet despite my own vivid associations, the music is for the most part earthy and unmasked. In this regard, the program’s three homage pieces are clearest in their expressivity. Bearing dedications to Arthur Rimbaud (“Sensation”), J. S. Bach (“L’intemporel”), and Andrei Tarkovsky himself (the title track), each embraces a different fragment of the mirror, much like the film it honors, as if it were the cell of a larger, divine body. They harbor scents of memories, of places soon to be reduced to ashes…

The Mirror

While connections to certain images may be clear, also clear is that this is no soundtrack. Rather, it is a tracking of sound in a way only synaesthesists might fully appreciate. Much of it feels aquatic, for example, but only the subtlest of changes tells us whether we are floating in fresh or swimming in salt. Of the former flavor, we have the four-part “Colors,” which, unlike the piano on which it is played, echoes with the hymns of an amphibian cloister. Of the latter, the diptych “Clair-obscur” grinds a tangier brand of jazz against the crags. This intriguing album—one of ECM’s most intimate solo piano recordings to date—reveals an artist sensitive to the personal science of adaptation. Like the track “Voyage d’hiver,” it sails on waves of depth magic and brings forward a profound realization that, although experience and memories may be ephemeral, the past is infallible. (To hear samples of Un jour si blanc, click here.)

Dominique Pifarély/François Couturier: Poros (ECM 1647)



Dominique Pifarély violin
François Couturier piano
Recorded April 1997, Festburgkirche, Frankfurt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Dominique Pifarély—violinist and former co-leader of clarinetist Louis Sclavis’s acclaimed Acoustic Quartet—and pianist François Couturier—who since Anouar Brahem’s Khomsa has recorded a string of varied albums for ECM—team up for this unique collaboration. The resulting admixture of folk and modern classical influences finds the duo charting waters that might have otherwise remained glassy and still without the cut of their oars. The image is no mere metaphor, for the album’s title comes from French philosopher Sarah Kofman, who characterizes the concept in precisely these oceanic terms: a path through aquatic expanse that is just as vulnerable to erasure as it is to discovery. Its trailblazing implications rest on a blade of uncertainty, and therein lies their beauty.

One might be hard-pressed, however, to read any of this into the music in the absence of such a setup. The listener is instead confronted with a tantalizing, if restless, chain of events. “Trois images” awakens in a fit of pique, only to realize that the object of its scorn has already fallen away like the house of cards that is any dream. The musicians seem to run frantically trying to rebuild it before it gives up the ghost of reality. In other pieces like “Retours,” “Vertigo,” and the title piece we encounter an even more gnarled grammar. It is a dialectical assemblage of action and thought, of secrecy and exposition. The album is a constellation of references whose stars belie hues of the French modernists, free improvisation, and Bartók, among others. We therefore never rest for too long on one idea. The occasional locks stand out for their beauty, only to drown in a sea of cat cries prancing into blackout. What with the bubbling streams of “Labyrintus” and the grinding gears of “La nuit ravie” there is far more going on below and within, locked away behind a shell of almost ritual design. Pifarély brings the occasional jazzy inflection to the arc of his swing, most notably in Mal Waldron’s “Warm Canto” (from his 1961 album, The Quest), in which he blends tiptoeing pizzicato into explosive resonant chords in a chromatic whirlwind. “Gala” offers a pileated ending.

As on the album’s cover, the duo crosshatches incidentals in a knitted bruise. Pifarély trembles with the motion of a leaf obsessed with the fear of falling. His attention to detail and the precision of his agitations are thus remarkable. Couturier’s intricate astrology calls strangely from below, goading that leaf into decomposition. Only then do we see that the forest has been there all along, tilting, spinning, blurring into a looming mask of greens and browns. Traction is hard to come by, paths invisible. Our mind becomes the score, the stand on which its pages are turned, the sound dying to be released from within it. In thinking we believe, and in believing we know.