Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Violin Solo (ECM New Series 2705)

Gidon Kremer
Mieczysław Weinberg: Sonatas for Violin Solo

Gidon Kremer violin
Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2
recorded December 2019
at Studio Residence Paliesius, Lithuania
Engineers: Vilius Keras and Aleksandra Kerienė
Sonata No. 3 recorded July 2013
at Lockenhaus Kammermusikfestival
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Cover photo: Max Franosch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher

When Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) fled his homeland to escape the Nazis in the early stages of World War II, little could he have known the fate that would befall those left behind. It was Dmitri Shostakovich who eased his way into Russia, where the Stalinist regime would surely have killed him again had not the despotic leader died a month after Weinberg’s arrest for “Jewish bourgeois nationalism” in 1953. With more than a decade separating those events and his composing of the three solo violin sonatas recorded here, by which time his entire family had long perished in the concentration camps, there was yet room in his battered heart to amplify the need for humanity.

Violinist Gidon Kremer, who has championed Weinberg’s music on two previous discs with his Kremerata Baltica, offers the present program in reverse chronological order, starting with the Sonata No. 3, op. 126 (1979). Dedicated to his father and ostensibly taking form as a single movement, it is marked by borders that, like those in his life, were blessedly surmountable. It sharpens its blade of experience, forged in the fire of history, across stone-hard double stops before carving its way delicately through softer actions, snaking high lines, and bruised leitmotifs. Kremer navigates every chamber as if it belonged in his home, describing the furniture, curtain, and artwork hanging on the wall down to the last detail.

The concentrated sections of the Sonata No. 2, op. 95 (1967) take on descriptive titles. “Monody” digs up bare bones, while “Rests” shines a light on Weinberg’s brilliant personality. From “Intervals” to “Replies,” we see other sides of his visage—in the former, an angular nose; in the latter, a hair that refuses to stay combed. “Accompaniment” switches acrobatically from pizzicato to programmatic upswings as a magician might shuffle cards. “Invocation” cries for salvation, leaving only “Syncopes” to cut its jagged figure into the air with tactile dissonances.

Last is what came first: the Sonata No. 1, op. 82 (1964). There is a sad ebullience to its opening movement, characterized by alarming calls to action, which then turn on a dime into Bartókian flavors. The Andante is its dark side, churning as sediment in a river, slowed to the pace of a careful hunter. From there, the pointillism of a rotating Allegretto adds more stars to this sky, constellated by pliant bow work. After a multifaceted fourth movement, the final Presto recalls Bartók once again in its soil-scented urgency. Scratching motifs, strummed strings, and insistent harmonies pull each other in many directions, never straying from their handling. They know where they are going, even when everyone else around them is lost or falls behind.

As incredible as these pieces are, they are by no means “pleasant” to listen to. If anything, they listen to us, placing a stethoscope on our collective chest to amplify events we would rather ignore. If Bach’s solo violin works are of heavenly height, then Weinberg’s walk the valley of the shadow of death between them.

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.

Kremerata Baltica: Hymns and Prayers (ECM New Series 2161)

Hymns and Prayers

Kremerata Baltica
Hymns and Prayers

Gidon Kremer violin
The Kremerata Baltica
Roman Kofman conductor
Khatia Buniatishvili piano
Andrei Pushkarev vibraphone
Marija Nemanytė violin
Maxim Rysanov viola
Giedrė Dirvanauskaitė violoncello
Sofia Altunashvili voice on tape
Recorded July 2008, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, Lockenhaus
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Gidon Kremer and Manfred Eicher

A recent album released of solo piano music by Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer bears the title Gaps, Absences, which best describes the music of the composer, pianist, and essayist who, born 1963 in former Yugoslavia, has since 1991 called France his home. His life as an improviser has brought him in collaboration with Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, and many others of the avant garde, while on the classical side he has enjoyed fruitful collaboration with violinist Gidon Kremer and the Kremerata Baltica, having served as composer in residence at the renowned Lockenhaus chamber music festival, where this album was recorded in 2008, and more recently at the Kremerata Baltica’s own festival in Latvia. His Eight Hymns (1986/2004), written in memory of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, begins a tripartite program of monumental works for various ensembles. Scored for violin, strings, vibraphone, and piano, each of Tickmayer’s hymns bears a title of calm strength. His atmospheres are deceptively minimal, at times spectral and at others hovering as mist over a lake at dawn. The instruments interlock in alternating tides and continental shelves. The piano paints evening skies as single notes break off into satellites of a deeper gravitation. The violin is a thin yet utterly present voice, an omniscient myth-keeper whose experiences of assumption, redemption, and remembrance all answer to the same voice. The vibraphone is a pinwheel moved by breath of slumber. Strings move in the draw of a paintbrush from behind a veil of ash and harmonic light. All of this ends in a flower, as fragile as it is trembling, leaving us indeed with gaps and absences of profound resonance.

Such soul-nourishing music finds like spirit by way of Giya Kancheli, who wrote his 2007 Silent Prayer in honor of Mstislav Rostropovich (for his 80th birthday) and Gidon Kremer (for his 60th). The familiar Kancheli themes crystallize in the prerecorded singing of one Sofia Altunashvili. Her pure-toned voice, carried like a feather on exhale, rings authentically for its vulnerability. It’s an unusual voice, an untrained voice, a voice unafraid of a misshapen psalm. As in the Tickmayer pieces, the violin feels thin and unchained, and puts into relief the spaciousness of strings dragging hands across water from methodical vessels. Their occasional interjects feel like proclamations from above, chances to restring the universal lyre. Still, there is a feeling of oppression to this piece, as if the sky had become weighted with death, so that the lively center almost blinds. Even more cinematic in feel than the Tickmayer, Kancheli’s hymnal cast turns wine into water in a single tracking shot.

Equally affecting, if by relatively compressed dynamic force, is César Franck’s Piano Quintet in f minor (1878/79), which occupies program center. A dramatic and chromatically ecstatic work that met with criticism at the time of its premiere, it also makes expert use of its formidable combination of instruments. What appears short and sweet by name becomes epic in performance as Kremer and his colleagues muscle their way through the first movement with heartfelt aplomb, chipping away at the music’s calcified soul as they proceed. Each drift into the major is a barrel over the waterfall of reality. The most genuine passages are the quietest. On that note, the second movement turns an elegiac frame into a window on fertile land. The legato phrasings of the final Allegro, then, are a bittersweet harvest, tempered by the promise of winter’s freeze. In anticipation of that cold, the piano holds a fire in its belly, changing from blue to orange to white as echoes return with nourished grief. For indeed, mourning is the final message of even the brightest day. The tinge of mortality knows no limits of sun.

Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica: Gustav Mahler/Dmitri Shostakovich (ECM New Series 2024)


Gidon Kremer
Kremerata Baltica
Gustav Mahler/Dmitri Shostakovich

Gidon Kremer
The Kremerata Baltica
Yulia Korpacheva soprano
Fedor Kuznetsov bass
Recorded October 2001 in Riga (Mahler) and November 2004 at Musikverein, Vienna (Shostakovich)
Engineers: Niels Foelster (Mahler) and Martin Leitner (Shostakovich)
Album produced by ECM

All-powerful is death.
It is on guard
even in the hour of happiness.
In the moment of our highest life it suffers in us,
it waits for us and thirsts—
and weeps within us.
–Rainer Maria Rilke

As Inna Barsova has noted, the two symphonies on this massive disc both “share a concern with parting and death.” Each was written in its respective composer’s twilight, and unfolds in varying shades of darkness. Appropriate, then, that we should begin in the throes of the Adagio from Mahler’s unfinished Tenth Symphony (1910). Although originally scored for larger orchestral forces, in this 1971 string version by conductor Hans Stadlmair the young musicians of the Kremerata Baltica find themselves admirably well off. It begins more like a concerto than a symphony, a mournful solo echoing across time. That same quality prevails as the orchestra lifts off its fleet into darkened harbors. This wave repeats itself, each time with greater deference to the tide. “Lush” doesn’t even begin to describe the overwhelming beauty of the strings in full cry. Some crackling moments do crop up, each like an insect dying gracefully on the sands. And as dusky violins streak jade skies with their trembling light, a bold cry issues from the lower strings, pushing ever upward the ether upon which our spirits rest. Cosmic forces spread in earthly tones, leaving behind the faintest traces of an aurora borealis in anticipation of the coming dawn. This music may be unfinished, but it surely lingers.

Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Symphony (1969) for soprano, bass, and chamber orchestra sets texts by Lorca, Apollinaire, Küchelbecker, and Rilke along the contours of some powerful soloists. In this crystal clear live recording, marred slightly by a persistent cough during the most pregnant pauses, Shostakovich’s sense of playful morbidity shines through. This piece may not have the same concentrated sense of narrative (here, more spliced) as his masterful Execution of Stepan Razin, but its effect is still engaging. The operatic slant gives it flair, and the excellent percussion is a joy to behold. The voices are fully invested in their roles, each a fine example of method singing at work.

The music on this disc is about as far from background listening as one can get. It requires us to face the finitude of our mortality, to look closely into its eyes and see ourselves reflected, craning our necks across the gap of time into the infinity that awaits.

Gidon Kremer/Kremerata Baltica: Schubert – String Quartet G major (ECM New Series 1883)


Gidon Kremer
Kremerata Baltica
Franz Schubert
String Quartet G major

Kremerata Baltica
Gidon Kremer violin and conductor
Victor Kissine orchestration
Recorded July 2003, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, Lockenhaus
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

As a tireless champion of new interpretations of the old, the ever-adventurous Gidon Kremer has over the years forged a lasting relationship with, above most others, the music of Franz Schubert. One can only imagine, then, the excitement he must have felt when he learned of composer Victor Kissine’s having finished a string orchestral version of Schubert’s G-major String Quartet (op. posth. 161, D 887). The arrangement of this notorious masterpiece at first seems to embody a curious double bind, for while it certainly enhances the music’s dramaturgical spectrum, it simultaneously softens the edges thereof. The result is a rounded idol of the original. And yet, like a piece of glass that has been worn down by river’s flow or ocean’s tide, it takes on a new shape, becomes a jewel in the hands of a child, a glint of light noticeable even in an already vast and glowing population.

From the five seconds of silence that begin every ECM album made in the last 20 years, the orchestra emerges with a mounting proclamation that immediately justifies the means. Amid the dance of major and minor that ensues, the occasional soliloquy, like that of the pizzicato-ornamented cello in the opening movement, rings all the clearer. Here one must also note the Kremerata Baltica’s honed dynamic control, by which, despite the youthful magnitude of its combined forces, the music’s ruptures are allowed to sing with all the philosophy of their emptiness. Magisterial tempos give greater lift to the score and throw us into its spirals with swooning regard. The Andante enacts a veritable play of shadows, comporting its thematic actors with Beethovenian stagecraft. The cello reemerges as a voice with one foot behind closed eyes and one outside of them, and fades tear-like into the relatively brief Scherzo, where skittering motives place many a deft footstep through an agitated waltz before reworking the flames, only now more scintillating, in the final Allegro, which gallops its way through pages of light and shadow, leaving us to ride its ripple effect back into the open silence from which it awakened.

This project has Kremer written all over it. From his never-superfluous gildings to even the cover photograph (entitled “Heading for the North Pole” and taken by the man himself in 1990), Kremer has given his all to the finished product. This has nothing to do with ego, but with a reverence for Schubert, whose heart he and his entourage draw with the care of an anatomist. Kissine’s arrangement likewise allows us to hear the beating of this heart through a steady flow of melodic blood. And the sound? Wondrous. A sequins without the kitsch.

As I listen to this album it is snowing outside, yet the ground is warm enough to melt the snow on contact, giving the illusion that every flake continues to fall through the earth. I cannot help but map this sensation onto what I am hearing, for even as this music touches us it continues to fall through our skin and into a place in our minds where footsteps will never mar its confection.

Gidon Kremer: Edition Lockenhaus (ECM New Series 2190-94)

Gidon Kremer
Edition Lockenhaus

The Lockenhaus Chamber Music Festival is the brainchild of violinist Gidon Kremer. Once called an “anti-festival,” it is more a gathering of friends bound by a love of all things chamber and a certain haphazard brilliance: its constant cancellations, rescheduling, and daunting thematic choices somehow coalesce into a coherent yearly event. And an event, it most certainly is. As Peter Cossé writes in his liner notes: “In Lockenhaus, awareness, the casualness of a holiday atmosphere, a creative commitment bordering on musical revolution, and even instrumental mishaps that result from nightly round-the-clock socializing induce a shimmering acoustic ‘painting’ that the totally immersed chamber music fan views in alternating states of torpor and enlightenment.” This potent energy and the communal spirit that animates it abound in every note. For this five-disc Lockenhaus Edition, Kremer and coproducer Manfred Eicher have chosen from out of literally hundreds of recordings these highlights from the festival’s 30-year history.

Disc 1

Shedryk Children’s Choir, Kiev
Markus Bellheim 
Christine Rohan 
ondes Martenot
Khatia Buniatishvili 
Andrei Pushkarev 
Dmytro Marchenko
Igor Krasovsky 
Kremerata Baltica
Simon Rattle 
Roman Kofman 
Recorded 2001 and 2008 at Lockenhaus Festival
Engineer: Peter Laenger

The Metamorphosen of Richard Strauss (1864-1949) makes for a formidable opener. This study in strings was dedicated to the great Paul Sacher and penned as the doors of the Second World War were closing. In light of its circumstances, one can hardly resist reading an almost Wagnerian shade of grey into its opening gestures, tinged as they are with a certain disillusionment with reality. The music is constantly finding itself through a blurring of conflict and resolution. It is a hall of mirrors where self-awareness is an understatement, in which every vague pizzicato turns the mirrors to new angles. The solo instruments don’t so much arise out of this swirling mass as glint off them. The double bass lines are especially overwhelming, while the violin becomes a looping sentiment curled ever so gently around the throat of trauma. It is as if a single molten thread were running through it, our vision of it but one of countless beads strung along its path. It finds its peace in little dissonances, casting a critical eye on platitudes, and in that way one finds perhaps only in Schubert recedes into the foreground. It is the flow not of water, but of the algae that visualizes the current’s direction. Lovingly played by the Kremerata Baltica and conducted by Simon Rattle, this performance shows Rattle’s eclectic talents in the raw, turning over as he does the sweltering underbelly of this piece. He is an ideal choice, for he knows how to make the lush feel like a drop in the bucket. He sees what the music nests itself in and works his baton around and through every twig. One of ECM’s finest live recordings.

Although Olivier Messiaen (1909-1992) composed his Trois petites Liturgies de la Présence Divine not long before Strauss’s Metamorphosen, its register could hardly be more different. Where the latter is a meditation on memorial, Messiaen’s aural triptych is an unfolding flower of light. The synaesthetic Frenchman has brought a profound imagination into palpable dimensions here. A wistful combination of piano, strings, and women’s voices opens the first liturgy, each the side to a nebulous triangle of forces. The agitations at the keyboard are like a broken crystal, drawing its light from vocal lamentations. The violin seems to rise with a spindly charm that is as alluring as it is self-destructive. We get the internal musings of an ondes Martenot, as well as various percussive accents falling like stardust in the religious imagination. In the second liturgy, jubilation quickly turns into a discomforting beauty, the piano jumping from a subterranean crawl to unmarked flight in but a fluttering of the keys. The third unravels a chant into its constituent lines, each an iridescent tether to sentiments performed rather than spoken. Passages of transcendence sit somehow comfortably alongside dips into magma, ending in a brushstroke of heavenly choirs.

ECM 1304_05

Discs 2/3 (originally Vols 1 & 2, ECM New Series 1304/05)

Gidon Kremer violin
Eduard Brunner clarinet
Oleg Maisenberg piano
Irena Grafenauer harp
Christine Whittlesey soprano
Ursula Holliger harp
Hagen Quartett
Kammerorchester der Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded 1984, 1981, and 1982 by Austrian Broadcasting Corporation (ORF)
Engineers: Roland Pulzer and Martin Frobeen
Remix and editing: Martin Wieland

If the first disc was an introduction, then the Quintet in f minor for piano and strings by César Franck (1822-1890) is a rich first chapter. From the opening violin proclamation we are plunged headfirst into the depths of Romanticism proper: the piano as heartbeat, the strings as lifeblood. It is a plaintive world, at once cloudy and broken by light, unnamable except through sound. The piano vies for constant resolution, knowingly situated at the center of an unsolvable debate, sometimes leaping and sometimes falling back into the despair that first gave it meaning. As we tread softly into the distance of the second movement, the young Lukas Hagen displays profound versatility with his clarity of tone and burrowing vibrato. As the central melody emerges into arid light, our ears come into focus as might a pair of eyes. The piano’s high note phrases are like droplets laddering down leaves on a solitary tree. The third movement lays down an almost Philip Glassean ostinato in the strings develops with fractured intensity. The piano promises hope, but settles altruistically into shadow, where pizzicati lurk like a guitar in Death’s hands.

So begins a lush pairing of French and Slavonic works, which offers dramaturgical insight into the festival’s vibrant mentality. The former side of things continues with a curious piece by André Caplet (1878-1925), a composer whose orchestrations of the works of Claude Debussy outshone his own musical visibility. Based on Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Conte phantastique sounds like Maurice Ravel’s Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé turned into an opera, stripped of voices, and condensed into a string quartet. Add to this the aquatic brilliance of Ursula Holliger on harp, and you get a truly distinct experience. Holliger plays pianistically and extracts a profound power from her instrument. The music vacillates between the programmatic and the omniscient. Strings jumble together as the masquerade intensifies, the harp descending like Prospero in gracious intervention. A knock interrupts the action, prompting glassine whispers from the violins. Agitation mounts, only to flutter its eyelids for the last time.

Two songs from “Fiançailles pour rire” make for a fine entry from Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). These somber settings grab our attention with their potency. With empathetic effect, soprano Christine Whittlesey shapes every note with locative color. Her dynamics fall like ripe fruit from a tree of implication, caught in the capable hands of pianist Robert Levin. Every last shred of hope is laced with painterly melancholy, leaving only scars to show for its passing.

Leoš Janáček (1854-1928) was an intensely confessional composer, and nowhere more so than in his string quartets, of which we get his first. From the urgent suggestions and biting interjections of the opening movement to the enigmatic veil of the fourth, we are pulled through a diorama of illusory scenery. Clemens Hagen is especially brilliant here, his cello lighting the way through a fog of folk tales, while second violinist Annette Bik provides moments of rhythmic brilliance. The Quartet No. 1 is a blind spot in the Janáček oeuvre. We accept its disorienting illusions without fear of what lies behind them. We hear carriages drawn by spooked horses, the cries of a forlorn father, the hunting calls of an aristocracy in decline. Thus populated by our imaginations, the music brings us closer to our own internal dramas.

After such inescapable opacities, the neoclassical clarity of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) comes as a pleasant surprise. Scored for violin, clarinet and piano, these three dances from L’Histoire de Soldat show the composer at an evocative peak. Kremer brings characteristic fire to every nuance. His sonorous gypsy acrobatics are a joy to behold. Clarinetist Eduard Brunner peeks in for the opening Tango, offering constructive support. The beautifully syncopated Waltz holds to its core with enthusiasm, Aloys Kontarsky’s occasional high notes adding confectionary flavor. The final Ragtime brings a mounting complexity to these brief but vivacious utterances.

An enthralling performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto in D follows. Under the passionate direction of Heinz Holliger, the Kammerorchester der Jungen Deutschen Philharmonie springs to life with the opening pizzicato. Noticeable idiosyncrasies abound, such as a strikingly textured moment when the inside of piano is plucked for added effect during the Vivace. The flexibility of the second movement is intensified in hands of such bright young musicians, dancing lithely between pathos and fleeting awareness. Plunked double bass accents punctuate every moment of this graceful interlude. The final movement displays an astute sense of division, especially in the solo cello and its immediate refraction. These musicians bring an almost manic sense of multiplicity to music that is already beyond alive.

Who better to end this portion with than Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975)? A far cry from the monochromatic intensities of his quartets, the wonderfully Mozartean waltzes for flute, clarinet, and piano glisten with salon-like ebullience. The interplay between Brunner and flutist Irena Grafenauer makes for a clever listening experience. The second waltz is especially alluring in its ascending harmonies, its last flutters eliciting audible smiles from the audience.

The Two pieces for String Octet op. 11 comprise a more complicated diptych. After a dense opening statement in the Prelude, the lower strings spread out as violins dissolve like mist in the dawn. We get a hint of later Shostakovich in the Più mosso. Its mature balance of aggression and delicacy betrays a forward-looking mind. The final passages writhe in agitated beauty. A solo cello draws a long energetic line, accompanied by pizzicati and distant calls. More dissonant pairings and threats of a fall that never materializes draw us into a tensely mystical finish.

<< Terje Rypdal: Chaser (ECM 1303)
>> Ralph Towner/Gary Burton: Slide Show (ECM 1306)

… . …

Edition Lockenhaus Vol. 3 is excluded from this set (you can see my full review of it here).

… . …

ECM 1347_48

Discs 4/5 (originally Vols. 4 & 5, ECM New Series 1347/48)

Gidon Kremer violin
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Yuzuko Horigome violin
Philip Hirschhorn violin
Kim Kashkashian viola
Nobuko Imai viola
Veronika Hagen viola
Boris Pergamentschikow violoncello
David Geringas violoncello
Julius Berger violoncello
Thomas Demenga violoncello
James Tocco piano
Recorded Lockenhaus Festival 1985 and 1986
Engineers: Peter Laenger, Andreas Neubronner, and Stephan Schellmann

Although one is wont to paint a morose picture of Shostakovich, continues our melodic bridge into the final portion of the set, I think we can hear in these late string quartets especially that within him beat a vibrant heart of passion. Music cannot have been for him so much of an escape as it was simply a voice. We need only cast a careful ear toward the String Quartet No. 14 op. 142 to hear its vibrancy. The distorted jig that works out of the opening crawl is something of an achievement on paper and at the bow. David Geringas at the cello proves to be the ever-present anchor, guiding the quartet as a whole through a variety of registers—from gentle to ecstatic and back again. In the Adagio, his strings throb like ventricles. The more we listen to its words, the less we know of their origins. It is as if they have reached us only light years later, like a star long dead yet still visible. The cello cuts these shadows into a string of glassy shards in the final Allegretto, of which the violins are ecstatic reflections. This movement is more porous and waves its gossamer threads as might a plant to attract insects. Its intimate yet vast cross-pollination achieves something close to transcendence before taking its unnoticed leap into fantasies.

The String Quartet No. 13 op. 138, on the other hand, is a single-movement opus in twenty-two and a half minutes. Its gorgeous beginning unrolls a flat landscape along which a violin comes hopping, not unlike a creature from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Others take up the call in a widening circle of light, launching into a spiral of percussive attacks (which in this performance never come across as declamatory but as clarity incarnate). The congregation disperses as quickly as it came together, leaving solitary voices, though distant, to unknowingly harmonize. And the landscape of mourning through which we have slogged opens itself to a beam of light in the violins,  reminding us that sometimes music matters only where it ends.

The Two Movements for String Quartet add yet another hue. These are more majestic and deftly spun through a slow-motion slalom course of light and dark. The higher and lower strings achieve delicate mutuality, seesawing on a fulcrum of potent stillness.

Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), a forgotten ideologue-in-arms of Shostokovich, was an intensely dynamic composer. His music lies somewhere between the Russian and Górecki, and provides a fitting cap to an altogether fascinating Lockenhaus portrait. After an exultant introduction, his opus 45 Sextet wanders varicose paths with trembling caution. The violins shimmer like the surface of a moonlit pond in the second movement, under which glide the cello and viola, each an electric eel that lights up the night. In the chambers of this heart, the only blood is a silence that hangs from the trees, gripped like a branch beneath an owl’s talons. Some stellar pizzicato passages in the third movement add hope to our dreams, puncturing the backdrop until it resembles an artificial sky. The final movement is a fractured look back on the first three, a heavy and romantic flower whose weight barely bends the stem, its desires never spoken louder than a whisper.

A high energy and passionate execution make the Duo for Violin and Cello a true highlight of the entire set. Philip Hirschhorn, along with Geringas, navigates a landscape of varying tensions, moving from the snaking opening lines to crunchier motives for a broad, almost orchestral palette. The piece is always flowing in spite of its sometimes-abrupt movements, and is a testament to Schulhoff’s effervescent spirit. Yet it is in the slower passages where we most hear Shostakovich, lingering like a spirit overcoming limitations of time and space.

Pianist James Tocco turns out another star performance the Cinq Études de Jazz op. 58. These inventive pieces draw more upon the rhythmic than melodic colors of the genre. The result is an exposition that is not only delightful fun, but also one that provides foiled insight (especially in the second etude) into composers like Satie and Poulenc who were keyed into popular music idioms. The third etude has the majesty of a Gershwin yet the bleeding colors of the French impressionists, while the fourth is a romp and a cascade rolled into one, leaving the fifth to return full circle with the verve of the first, drawing a lively signature on which to end.

In an interview, Kremer remarks on the difficulties that inevitably arise in putting together such a festival. Quintessential are the tense circumstances surrounding the Franck Quintet, which apparently failed to come together to the musicians’ satisfaction during rehearsals. In spite of this, they managed to pull off one of the most lauded performances of that year (1984). Such is the spontaneity that Lockenhaus creates, encourages, and promotes. This is an exciting limited edition for reasons too numerous to list in full. Not least among them is the fact that the original recordings marked the debut of New Series stars Eduard Brunner, Thomas Zehetmair, Heinz Holliger, and Robert Levin. It is a stream-of-consciousness narrative linked in the fluidity of real-time recollection, the immediacy of which is only heightened by the superb musicianship and live recording. This treasure trove belongs on your shelf.

<< Terje Rypdal & The Chasers: Blue (ECM 1346)
>> Zakir Hussain: Making Music (ECM 1349)

Giya Kancheli: In l’istesso tempo (ECM New Series 1767)


Giya Kancheli
In l’istesso tempo

Gidon Kremer violin
Oleg Maisenberg piano
The Kremerata Baltica
The Bridge Ensemble
Recorded December 2000, Festeburgekirche, Frankfurt; July 2003, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, Lockenhaus; June 1999, Festeburgkirche, Frankfurt
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann, Peter Laenger, Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“I hope that listeners will be touched by my compositions and not confuse my deliberate simplicity with what I consider the most dangerous thing—the feeling of indifference.”

These words from Giya Kancheli—a composer-in-exile who is not “in between,” but rather who inhabits his “outsiderness”—speak for something beyond music, for it is the simplicity of life itself that glows at the heart of his works. Each inhabits the same vast country, as mythical as it is real. Together they are a landscape torn asunder and rebuilt through a passion that only strings, hammers, bows, and the occasional tongue can articulate. In such a country, Time…and again is not only a 1997 composition for violin and piano, but also the sign of a mind steeped in the tea of remembrance. It writes itself into existence with unified declarations, any given sentiment deeper than the last. Violinist Gidon Kremer draws breath from Oleg Maisenberg’s low rumbles at the keyboard, the latter of a storm on an uncertain path. Themes are incidental, their background as present as a thought. Shades of dislocation reveal themselves, sometimes secretly (the allusion to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel at 4:41 provides a clue). Outbursts forgo catharsis in favor of renewed self-awareness. Flashes of dances and folk melodies paint familial pictures, if only to remind us that we have traveled far.

Yet the singing in V & V (1994) for violin, taped voice, and strings seems to bridge that distance, flowering directly from within us. As orchestra and soloist unravel the deeper implications of that voice, we are ever on the verge of fading with it into the surrounding dust. Persuasion is rare, dynamic contrasts wide, and callings deep. And it is in their vale that the title piece for piano quartet travels in caravan. Maisenberg traces a steadying presence, setting the tone from which the strings may work their way into soft glides and terse spirals. The strings, in fact, seem to inhabit a parallel dimension where the implications of an incomplete statement are the norm (Another allusion to Pärt at 21:57 pulls the threads lost therein through an enigmatic loophole, thereby binding us to a circular breath).

These are ponderous works, never concerned with virtuosity, shying away from injury, stretching out even the densest element into translucence. A challenging program for some, to be sure, but one that can never be faulted for following its own path with the gentle reassurance of a mortal gaze.

Bach: Sonatas and Partitas (ECM New Series 1909/10 & 1926/27)

Johann Sebastian Bach
The Sonatas and Partitas for Violin Solo
as played by John Holloway and Gidon Kremer

Recorded July and September 2004, Propstei St. Gerold (Holloway)
25-29 September 2001, Lockenhaus, Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, and 10-15 March 2002, Riga (Kremer)
Engineers: Stephan Schellmann (Holloway) and Niels Foelster (Kremer)
Produced by Manfred Eicher (Holloway) and Helmut Mühle (Kremer)

I first heard Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin on vinyl under the bow of Thomas Zehetmair in his awe-inspiring Teldec recording, which remains my interpretation (and format) of choice. Ever since Zehetmair signed with ECM, I have constantly wondered what untold pleasures a repeat performance for the label might bring. Sadly, this has yet to be realized. Thankfully, however, ECM listeners have two complementary representations to choose from, and for this reason I review them side by side.

Looking Back
As one of the world’s foremost Baroque violinists, John Holloway brings four decades of intimate engagement with these masterworks to the proverbial table. Working from the original autograph score, Holloway takes meticulous care in observing every detail of articulation as a means of arguing for the composer’s own deeply informed knowledge of the instrument. His supple playing and humble approach make for one of those rare “historically informed” performances that actually dusts off the ravages of time and breathes cleanly rather than calling attention to its antiquity. Not only does he bring a visceral robustness to the Adagios and a refreshing regularity to the Prestos, but he also makes sure that every tempo in between is given its own dynamic quality.

I have always cherished the Allemanda of the B minor Partita over all, as it is the last piece I learned to play on the violin before I abandoned the instrument to focus on training my voice. It is typically the standard I go by when encountering a new version for the first time and I am proud to report that Holloway draws from it a wealth of seductive material for our auditory perusal. He adopts a similar posture in the Fuga of the A minor Sonata and in the Siciliana of the G minor sonata, both of which scintillate like dark pools in moonlight. But the true gem of this collection is the D minor Partita, where we encounter one of the most heartrending Sarabandes imaginable, an absolutely resplendent Giga, and as finely executed a Ciaccona as one could hope for. The C major Sonata brings out another exemplary performance, especially in the haunting vulnerability injected into the Allegro assai. The E major Partita is pitch-perfect. Its immediately recognizable Preludio shines with renewed verve in Holloway’s hands.

Looking Ahead
What can one say about Gidon Kremer? He is one of the leading innovators among contemporary classical performers, having inspired a wealth of commissioned music and a somewhat controversial discography of variable projects. Kremer first recorded these pieces for Philips in 1980 and returns to them here in a self-professed “final statement” on Bach. As any avid Kremer listener can expect, this interpretation is at once fiercely idiosyncratic and deeply aware of its roots. His G minor Sonata is appropriately subdued and sets an introspective tone for the entire performance. Kremer truly stands out in the fast movements, such as in the Double Presto of the B minor Partita and the delicately executed Allegro assai of C major Sonata, where he is able to put his dynamic energy on full display. He also puts his “GK” stamp on the more dance-like movements, such as his ravishing Tempo di Borea from the B minor Partita and the Gavotte en Rondeau of the E major Partita. This is not meant to imply, of course, that he is without sensitivity. Under Kremer’s agile fingers the Andante of the A minor Sonata weeps with unrivaled ardor, the Sarabanda of the D minor Partita stumbles with an unusually supplicatory air, and his C major Sonata Adagio brings a whole new sense of tortured emotion to a movement so often played with reserve. Kremer revels in the rhythmic possibilities afforded to him by the score, stretching out as many moth-eaten holes in its musical fabric as he can, so as to emphasize its polyphonic structure and harmonic integrity. He also shows a predilection for sharp attacks. Witness, for example, his crisp Ciaccona, which punctures the ether with the power of a thunderclap. And what of my beloved B minor Allemanda? It has taken some getting used to, but I can now appreciate Kremer’s halted style and flawless tuning, and the liveliness he brings to this somber dance is uniquely his own.

I would never venture to say which of these performances is “better” than the other. Holloway plays at period pitch, while Kremer opts for a modern tuning, resulting in two entirely different experiences. Holloway’s opaque sonorities become Kremer’s airy glitter. These are both recordings to be savored and revisited. The reverberant acoustics and attentive microphone placement put Holloway’s a head above the rest in sound quality, while its somber undertones speak to the violinist’s humility in the face of Bach’s complex symmetries. Then again, Kremer’s staggering attention to detail and variation prove once again why he is one of the instrument’s sharpest proponents. I can only recommend both for their technical spread and complementary attitudes. Not to mention that the pieces themselves belong on any music lover’s shelf.

Arvo Pärt: Arbos (ECM New Series 1325)

Arvo Pärt

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.

<< Jan Garbarek: All Those Born With Wings (ECM 1324)
>> Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy: Avant Pop (ECM 1326)