Maacha Deubner: Bessonnitsa

Soprano Maacha Deubner, whose voice has graced such masterpieces as Giya Kancheli’s Exil, folds her operatic pleats into the tapestry of the KAPmodern-Ensemble in a program of latter-day chamber music. Bessonnitsa is Russian for “insomnia” and points both to an overarching theme and to Valentin Silvestrov’s eponymous piece for soprano and piano. Reminiscent of Francis Poulenc’s songs, it is the album’s crown jewel. Its flowing sense of time and evocation is like a storm turning into ocean and touching the shore with its final breath. One can also trace a line of continuity between this and Edison Denisov’s At the Turning Point for soprano and piano (1979), a set of temporally brief yet spiritually far-reaching evocations of flesh and word in a self-shadowing mode. Deubner navigates them as one might tell the story of their life.

Sofia Gubaidulina’s Brief an die Dichterin Rimma Dalos for soprano and violoncello (1985) begins with the solo voice, floating yet carrying the weight of a monument carved in time. “My soul is a Sphinx,” she sings as if to give that monument a name, setting the immaterial self upon an altar of ruins and unfinished verses. The words come from writer Rimma Dalos, whose texts have also been lovingly set by Hungarian composer György Kurtág. Gubaidulina’s approach, however, is never so compact, as proven by the solo cello commentary that follows.

Most of the pieces here belong to the mind and heart of Elena Firsova, for whom the poetry of Ossip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is a touchstone. Sorrows (Tristia II), op. 145 (2013) carries over the same scoring from Gubaudulina’s contribution and bears a dedication to Deubner. The music is at once a reflection of and counterpoint to the poetry, which looks deep into the night to uncover its many layers of shadow:

Who knows, when the word ‘departure’ is spoken
what kind of separation is at hand.

Such words point not to dialogue but to prayers walking parallel paths. They can see but not hear each other, ever caught in cycles of pain and healing.

In Towards the Starlight for soprano and string quartet (2017), receiving its world premiere recording, we have a different side of Mandelstam. Whereas in Sorrows he praised the uninterrupted life, now we get:

I hate the starlight’s
monotonous spectrum.

Such is the duality of consciousness. In the second movement, “How slow the horses go,” we encounter a more sorrowful glow. The poet sees things he cannot see, speaks of things that have no voice. Cello and soprano engage in subliminal communication as delicate pizzicato and high strains give way to flowers of darkness. In the final movement, lyrical self-deprecation:

To read only children’s books,
To cherish only children’s thoughts.

Yet another facet of Mandelstam catches the light of From the Voronezh Notebooks, op. 121 (2009). This cantata, also for soprano and string quartet, moves into organic textures following a nervous prelude. From the raindrops dripping from leaves in “Greens” and the pouncing delicacy of “A Cat” to the frantic trajectories of “In the Sky” and the final “Madness,” fear is never far behind. Deubner expresses these states of mind with lucid projection.

Peppered among Firsova’s more substantial assemblies are three monologues, of which Starry Flute, op. 56 (1992) is the most intimate. Dedicated to the late Aurèle Nicolet, it captures the brilliant flutist’s penchant for extended techniques, each of which naturally extends the breath. Sustained notes float as if made of vapor (and indeed, that is what our life can only be), so that by the end, we are left in stasis with memories of those enchantments now wilting in the hot sun of reality.

Taking account of these works in the aggregate, I am inclined to treat them as a face seen from different angles of light. It smiles and frowns, sleeps and awakes, screams and whispers, showing us that the continuity between states of mind is where our existence is defined.

Giya Kancheli: Caris Mere (ECM New Series 1568)

Giya Kancheli
Caris Mere

Eduard Brunner clarinet
Maacha Deubner soprano
Kim Kashkashian viola
Jan Garbarek soprano saxophone
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded April 1994 – January 1995
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The music of Giya Kancheli is firmly rooted in emptiness, in those silent spaces between musical gestures where the voice is born behind the words it sings. Kancheli seems also aware that silence can rarely be disconnected from violence, that in our configurations of human relations and conflict there are moments when one’s history ceases to exist in the utterable, moments that animate his musical frameworks with echoes of a distinct cultural memory. Such is the impetus for the composer’s Life Without Christmas cycle, which was begun on Abii ne viderem and is concluded with the present release.

Midday Prayers (for solo clarinet, soprano, and chamber orchestra) opens the album’s trio of compositions with a protracted meditation on Passion texts. An airy wash of sustained tones and rich orchestral timbres is broken by intermittent declarations of hidden sentiment. A certain dis-ease informs the winds, even as strings paint the thinnest veneer of hope. The seasoned Kancheli listener will have come to expect the intense dynamic distance to be found here, the balance of which focuses our attention on the details of quietude and an outburst’s potential to enlighten. A piano gives us the briefest glimpse into a time before strife ravaged a onetime joy. The piece’s sparseness makes its fuller moments shout with the force of an ensemble twice their size.

Caris Mere (for soprano and viola) moves with the same sense of unfolding as Midday Prayers, with the added hint of Medieval monophony. The title means “After the Wind” in Georgian and recalls that of his earlier piece, Vom Winde beweint (Mourned by the Wind). Where the latter expands with the looming presence of an entire orchestra, here we find that piece’s soloist with a voice that isn’t so much added as it is drawn from the viola’s heart. Kim Kashkashian and Maacha Deubner (previously heard to magical effect on Kancheli’s Exil) each carry their own weight, shedding it little by little as they scale new heights with every phrase. This music is arid but alive, the voice its only inhabitant, the lone survivor of a catastrophe immune to erasure.

Kronos Quartet fans will recognize the final piece, Night Prayers, from their album of the same name. This extended version (for saxophone and string orchestra) begins with very deep voices, resounding from the liminal realm that is tape, accentuated by a knotty fringe of strings. As saxophonist Jan Garbarek pierces the gloom with his light, the piece flaps its thematic shutters like a quiet storm. Generally a very meditative journey, though not without its moments of rapture, Night Prayers is a captivating highpoint of Kancheli’s spiral of sound. Jan Garbarek gives due respect to the music at hand, and makes the most of a brief improvisational window in an otherwise precisely notated architecture.

Kancheli’s music is a hall of mirrors, each one distorting us differently. Ruptures of energy inflict the pain of restriction upon a population that knows only freedom, and we become implicated among the oppressed. This is music that clearly delineates the boundary between the influence of tradition (such as it is conceived) and the power of hegemony.

<< Terje Rypdal: Double Concerto (ECM 1567)
>> Alexandr Mosolov: Sonatas for piano Nos. 2 and 5, etc. (ECM 1569 NS)