Giacinto Scelsi: Natura Renovatur (ECM New Series 1963)


Giacinto Scelsi
Natura Renovatur

Frances-Marie Uitti cello
Münchener Kammerorchester
Christoph Poppen conductor
Recorded June 2005, Himmelfahrtskirche, München
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988) was among the handful of composers I came to admire early on in my contemporary foraging. His galaxies opened my ears as only Gubaidulina, Ligeti, Penderecki, and Górecki could. Here was another whose ability to translate the instrumental utterance into an experience of integrity and parthenogenetic ecstasy, whose sheer reach of vision and inspiring attention to detail, shaped my impressionable mind into an open vessel. And while Scelsi’s music has been profoundly represented elsewhere (most notably on the Mode label), it was something of a momentous occasion for me to see his name fronting an ECM New Series cover at last.


The present recording is the result of various dedications. There is the dedication of cellist Frances-Marie Uitti, to whom the composer imparted the task of archiving and transcribing his hundreds of hours of improvisations on the ondiola, a monophonic instrument that was his mouthpiece. There is also the dedication of Scelsi himself for making those recordings in the first place, and for letting his mind open beyond the body in some audible form. And then there is the dedication of Christoph Poppen, whose commitment to modern music is superseded only by his oneness with the material he conducts. It is as if he were playing it himself.

Scelsi’s ondiola

The program consists of pieces mainly from his fruitful Third Period (1960-69), of which Ohoi (1968) for 16 strings defines the pinnacle of the larger ensemble works. On the surface, it seems to start from somewhere far beyond the earth, working its way ever so slowly toward us. Yet it doesn’t take long for us to realize that in its microscopic clusters thrums something utterly earthly. Every molecule is a building block to discreet crystals of harmony, which en masse achieve an overwhelming beauty through their collective dissonance. Voices ascend into a realm where screams become language and words are the screams that cut language into pieces.

If Ohoi is a knot, then the lyrical Ave Maria (1966) is the blinding love that unties it. Along with the Alleluja (1970) that ends the program, it comes from the Three Latin Prayers for solo cello. Both are nestled in the fur of larger beasts, picking at lice and ticks unseen. With a finely honed solemnity, they breathe with expansive power, made all the more enthralling through Uitti’s afferent performances. Prayers is by far one of the most arresting pieces ever written for the instrument, and to have two of its three sides in glorious ECM sound is a treasure. Uitti continues that brilliance in Ygghur (1965). Another trilogy for solo cello, this self-professed “autobiography in sound” compresses an orchestra’s worth of statements into a microcosm of gut and wood. With two, sometimes three, voices enhancing one another at any given time, it develops humanly. Yet it is not a conversation with the self, but rather a conversation about the self. Not unlike the throat singers of the Tuvan steppes, Uitti treats the extended techniques therein with an organic rusticity. We can wax technical all we like about microtonal double stops, but in the end we are left with handfuls of nutrient-rich soil.


The hapless reviewer is at pains to articulate the sound-world that awaits us in Anâgâmin (1965). Written for 11 strings, it defies categorizations like “modern” and “post-modern,” is neither an example of deconstruction nor of reconstruction. It crawls on its own gelatinous legs with a gait much akin to the album’s 1967 title composition, also for 11 strings, only in the latter the infusions of micro-clusters are even deeper. It is an unbroken string of tension. Bowings grow more agitated, textures denser, and the underline of the lower strings turns gravity inward.

To call this music mysterious would be to do it a great disservice, for it is so internal that we cannot separate it from who we are. Scelsi professes nothing. In being so selfless, his work casts its light on us and us alone. Is this nature renewed, or has the renewal simply been natured? Only we, the individual listeners, can make or break such an arbitrary question. Like the circle above the horizon of Scelsi’s signature we may never know whether it is rising or setting, but we can always be sure that it is singing.

Werner Bärtschi: W.A. Mozart/G. Scelsi/A. Pärt/F. Busoni/W. Bärtschi (ECM New Series 1377)


W.A. Mozart/G. Scelsi/A. Pärt/F. Busoni/W. Bärtschi

Werner Bärtschi piano
Recorded July 1988 at Kirche Blumenstein, Switzerland
Engineer: Andreas Neubronner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In this ECM debut, Swiss pianist Werner Bärtschi offers up an intriguing and carefully conceived program. Having studied with Klaus Huber and Rudolf Kelterborn, Bärtschi brings a decidedly compositional attention to his playing that lends itself well to the material at hand. He begins with Mozart’s C minor Fantasie (1785), which, as the longest piece, reads like a single human life. It is not a simple reimagining of the past but a reliving of it, for to play the piano is to articulate a biography in sound, using the body in imitation of what bore those same feelings in “real time.” After such a piece, the Four Illustrations on the Metamorphoses of Vishnu (1953) by Scelsi may seem like a startling transition. Yet humble quartet presents us with a rare programmatic gesture from the Italian, whose microscopic approach actually balances out Mozart’s broader strokes and veils the turmoil of mortality behind the surface of the spirit made flesh. Bärtshi surprises us yet again with Arvo Pärt’s Für Alina. This early 1976 version is like a dream we question upon waking: Did we really hear it, or did the music rise in our minds out of an unspoken memory? And so, when we next encounter Mozart in the 1788 B minor Adagio, we hear him with fresh ears and open hearts. Rather that scoping out the Mozartean influence in the surrounding works, we see the latter funneling into the former. Bärtschi follows with a piece of his own, Frühmorgens am Daubensee (1986/88), realized during an early morning hike in the mountains surrounding the eponymous lake. In it we hear snatches of something upon the wind, distant conversations, activities, worldly movements, the beginning of an avalanche that never quite forms. This salves us nicely for the relative onslaught of Busoni’s 1921 Toccata, a masterful yet demanding unfolding of theme and counterpoint. After such a towering cascade of notes, Mozart’s B major Sonata (1783) is like a gentle return, a pair of hands lowering us slowly to the earth, leaving us to slumber in a blanket of solid ground.

Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich provides a beautifully conceived essay which, despite risking an overuse of the word “oriental” (it appears no less than five times in the liner notes), makes a viable case for Bärtschi’s musical choices as being firmly rooted in the spirit of magic and fantasy that engenders the program as a whole. Where Jungheinrich characterizes this as a piano recital of “Mozart and…,” I would go a step further and say it is equal parts “…and Mozart.” yet although Mozart bookends the recital and inhabits its fulcrum, his infrastructural presence is no more significant than the validation of the superstructure. As such, the continuity between these pieces is a narrative rather than formal concern—not a linear continuity, but one in which the potential for speech is equally present at every stage.

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