Giya Kancheli: Exil (ECM New Series 1535)


Giya Kancheli

Maacha Deubner soprano
Natalia Pschenitschnikova alto and bass flutes
Catrin Demenga violin
Ruth Killius viola
Rebecca Firth cello
Christian Sutter double bass
Wladimir Jurowski conductor
Recorded May 1994 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“When a person goes into a church, synagogue or mosque where there’s not service going on, there’s a special kind of silence. I want to turn that silence into music.”
–Giya Kancheli

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will have noticed my penchant for the word “beautiful” when describing the music of ECM. And while I do invoke the word sincerely whenever I use it, at the risk of diluting it even further I should like to make a case for it in the context of this album over all others, for nowhere have I heard music that takes the concept to a level beyond even itself. For composer-in-exile Giya Kancheli, beauty is romantic only insofar as it stems from nostalgia, recognizing as it does the stoic enchantment in all that emerges from destruction. Exil (1994) draws its humble sentiments from, and sketches its permeable borders around, biblical Psalms and the poems of Paul Celan and Hans Sahl, and is scored for soprano and mixed chamber ensemble. Within the latter, alto and bass flutes constitute a vivid presence.

When my uncle, Anthony Grillo, was on his deathbed, losing his battle with stomach cancer, the sound of his brother’s voice reading Psalm 23 were the last he ever heard before his passing. Exil came into my life soon after. And so, when I first received the album, only to see that the selfsame Psalm was the basis for its pinnacle composition, I took solace in the confluence of its arrival. The opening alto flute invocation of Kancheli’s setting stills my heart every time and brings with it a host of angels. The tapping of bows and subtle violin accompaniments throughout extract an immeasurable potency from the depths of Maacha Deubner’s unaffected voice. I imagine the score looks just as empty as, say, that of Pärt’s Tabula rasa, but it is precisely those spaces that Kancheli seems intent on populating with pensive, unmoving figures. Listeners will recognize much of the thematic material from his Life Without Christmas cycle in crystallized form, and indeed it would seem to be the backbone of his entire oeuvre. It enacts a profound sense of development, flexing with every prostration. A distinct instrumental economy makes the work’s one explosive moment that much more jarring. As the music moves, so does its heart, borne along like a coffin in a slow and steady procession into sunset.

Deubner’s boy-like soprano haunts the divine understandings of Celan’s postmodern verses that follow, while Sahl’s reiterative “Exil” lends equal weight to pause as to utterance. Like the gaps between rosary beads, one cannot exist without the other. It brings that sense of hope, of sanctuary, back into view, symbolized by glassy harmonics on strings. And as the music reacclimates to the central theme, it curls into itself and sleeps in almost Messianic hibernation, awaiting the moment when it can spread its joy across the universe like a supernova unbounded.

This was one of my earliest New Series acquisitions and came right on the heels of my already profound exposure to the work of Arvo Pärt. My mother had heard “Psalm 23” on the radio and was so moved by it that she ordered a copy of the CD and sent it to me as a surprise. And what a surprise it was, for it opened my internal eyes to things I never thought expressible in human terms. The voice of Maacha Deubner is a revelation in and of itself. Stripped of its ornamentation, it sings a seemingly unmitigated song, shaping each phrase with the practiced lips of a priestess. The supporting musicians match her delicacy with an astonishing blending of tone and register. Performances such as these place a stethoscope to the divine and make audible the heartbeat that binds us all. The music’s sacredness speaks beyond printed pages and the ideological glue that binds them. It is the kind of music that makes one feel supremely grateful to have been born in an age where one could hear it.

(Session photo by Roberto Masotti)

As with many ECM releases, the accompanying liner notes include photographs of the recording session. Of these, one image remains permanently etched into my mind: that of engineer, musicians, and producer listening to playback, and the shattered depths of their faces. Many are on verge of tears, if not shedding them already. It makes me want to have been there, not only as a fly on the wall but particularly as a musician, to have had a hand in contributing to something greater than the sum of one’s musical parts. This photograph allows us a unique insight into that very dynamic that those of us on the consumer end of the recording process almost never get to witness, much less experience firsthand. Kancheli’s music nevertheless reveals, on its own terms, a juggernaut of spiritual proportions that comports itself with the gentility of a newborn lamb, its head struggling to look up into the light as it learns to negotiate those divine forces that shape its balance into being. This is music we humble ourselves before, yet which demands nothing of us.

For what it’s worth, this is my favorite ECM release thus far and belongs in the collection of anyone seeking the expansion of heart and mind that only art can bring. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, I can only feel blessed for having beheld this.

<< John Surman Quartet: Stranger Than Fiction (ECM 1534)
>> Lena Willemark/Ale Möller: Nordan (ECM 1536)

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.

<< Egberto Gismonti Group: Música de Sobrevivência (ECM 1509)
>> John Abercrombie Trio: Speak Of The Devil (ECM 1511)

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

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.

<< Dmitri Shostakovich: 24 Preludes and Fugues (ECM 1469/70 NS)
>> Heinz Holliger: Scardanelli-Zyklus (ECM 1472/73 NS)

Giya Kancheli: Little Imber (ECM New Series 1812)


Giya Kancheli
Little Imber

Nederlands Kamerkoor
Raschèr Saxophone Quartet
Klaas Stok conductor
Mamuka Gaganidze voice
Zaza Miminoshvili guitar
Matrix Ensemble
Rustavi Choir
Children`s Choir
Recorded May 2006 at Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam (Amao Omi)
Recorded August 2003 at Imber Village, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire (Little Imber)
Children’s Choir recorded October 2003 at Georgian Records, Tbilisi
Recording supervisor: Giya Kancheli
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“There is this saying that beauty will save the world. But who will save beauty? I think when you sit down at the piano and write music you are trying to do just that.”
–Giya Kancheli

During a total eclipse, there is only a small window of opportunity to watch the event with the naked eye when the moon has completely covered the sun, leaving a corona visible in near darkness. After totality is achieved, the first bead of sunlight peaks beyond the shaded moon in a phenomenon known as the Diamond Ring. This is the moment when viewers must either look away or otherwise protect their eyes. The two pieces on this album are very much like an eclipse, except that they are filled with Diamond Rings, moments of sheer musical intensity that blind the mind’s eye with their urgent desire to be heard.

Amao Omi (2005), the title of which translates to “Senseless War,” is uniquely scored for mixed choir and saxophone quartet. Through an exceptionally unified palette, quartet and choir echo one another in a microtonal journey of ascents and descents. The reeds are played by the phenomenal Raschèr Saxophone Quartet and recorded so as to become an extension of the voices, and vice versa. Like much of Kancheli’s music, Amao Omi swells to moments of dynamic rapture before quickly retreating into quiet solace. Often the choir and the quartet exchange roles: one passage finds the choir bolstering a series of saxophonic solos, while the next finds the latter in a more supportive role as the choir hangs its linear melodies in the airspace above. In those brief moments when the voices do shine their light, the effervescent nebula of the piece bursts into solar flares. Yet rather that shield ourselves from the glare, we willingly open ourselves to it.

Once in a great while, there is an inexplicably effective merging of sound, place, and intent that turns one’s heartstrings into music. Little Imber (2003) is one such composition. In June of 1944, the village of Imber, in Wiltshire’s Salisbury Plain, was evacuated as a strategic training ground for German-bound US troops. Its residents were never able to return, despite repeated protests before and after the war. To this day the village remains in the hands of the Ministry of Defence, which opens Imber’s St. Giles church once a year on the Saturday closest to the feast day (September 1) of its patron saint. Because the performance here was captured in that very church, this isn’t simply a landmark recording, but more importantly the recording of a landmark. The piece is scored more expansively than Amao Omi, though by no loss of intimacy, for small ensemble, voice, children’s and men’s choirs, and uses as its core text an anonymous poem about Imber:

Little Imber on the Downe,
Seven miles from any Towne,
Sheep bleats the unly sound,
Life twer sweet with ne’er a vrown,
Oh let us bide on Imber Downe.

The verse ends the piece on a bittersweet note, resounding with playful verve in the children’s voices before being taken up more somberly by the adults. Captivating solos from Georgian singer Mamuka Gaganidze take Little Imber to even greater heights and clearly manifest the music’s global reach.

When traversing the Kancheli landscape, one can always expect to come across something familiar. He makes use of weighty pauses to ensure that moments of resplendence never develop too far, lest we lose sight of the central path from which they deviate. Staying to true to that path is a spiritual task, and it is only to our benefit to keep our feet moving forward.