Tigran Mansurian: String Quartets (ECM New Series 1905)

 

Tigran Mansurian
String Quartets

Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner violoncello
Recorded May 2004 at Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

It was not until his 40s that Tigran Mansurian at last wrenched out the two string quartets presented on this captivating disc. Already known for his labored approach, the Armenian composer has given us in these works something deeply profound and lasting for the genre. Yet in listening to this music, one gets the sense that genre is farthest from his mind. Both quartets are solemn statements for late friends David Chandschian and Eduard Chagagortzian. “The basic idea is to develop a musical style out of the principles of the Armenian language,” says first violinist Andreas Reiner, “and especially out of its stylized expression of grief.” With this in mind, we find that Mansurian’s capillary approach is like an expression of social power, whereby the bane of politics and displacement is dissolved in the tincture of an unfettered melody, in its careful arrangement of musical lines through the discovery of some emotional truth. Each strand of these quartets bows like a spider’s web cast in the wind, tethered to something behind the clouds.

Although both quartets take a three-movement structure, with two somber skins surrounding an active middle, any articulations of shape and size are rendered in moonlight alone, for these quartets are decidedly nocturnal, emphasized by their watery reflections. The Allegretto of the String Quartet N° 1 (1983-1984), for instance, reflects the glow of a moon obscured rather than its direct glittering light. It is unerring in its consistency, in its residual presence. The Agitato unfolds with an unsettling grace, anchored down by an active yet firmly earthbound cello line. This erratic dance is strangely consolatory. A descent carries us into quieter recapitulations, during which the viola sings with singularity. Any rhythmic urgency therein is picked apart by siren calls blending into the Maestoto. Moments of confluence in tutti add graceful flourishes to the inscription, ending in solace.

Mansurian’s quartets describe a world in which both the surface and the interior of the self, and of the material objects with which that self engages, are one and the same, participating as they do in a wider mediation between flesh and spirit. It is a reciprocal relationship, a symbiosis of sound and its notation. And so, the opening Andante of the String Quartet N° 2 (1984) is, while an inversion of the often declamatory instatement of a new piece, appreciative of the shadow that lies within, so that by its end we are not filled with anticipation but rather with the acceptance of the awakening pizzicati and dynamic phrasings in the Larghetto. The final Andante also works its way in spindles, threads spun by candlelight in an evening where silence becomes audible as the humming of the plains, the trees, and the beating of one’s own heart.

The Rosamundes end this already full program with a more recent work. Testament (2004) bears dedication to producer Manfred Eicher, whose tireless efforts in spreading the wonders of such composers as Mansurian is duly felt here. This single Lento moves like an organ with its solemn vocal qualities, bringing us into communion with the promise of a misted evening star.

Many composers can make the individual voices of a string quartet sing, but how many can make them breathe? This music is respiration incarnate. It has been speaking to us since time began. We need only open our lungs to take it in.

Othmar Schoeck: Notturno (ECM New Series 2061)

Othmar Schoeck
Notturno

Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner violin
Diane Pascal violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner violoncello
Recorded December 2007, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

If you continue to dream
Forgetfulness will close your heart’s wound:
The soul sees its sufferings
And itself floats by.
–Nikolaus Lenau

Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957) was a Swiss composer whose musical journey came to a head in Notturno, his most intensely personal work. Schoeck was one of a generation of artists who set out to establish Switzerland as a major presence in European music. Like his contemporaries Arthur Honegger and Frank Martin, he sought to break free from the Brahmsian idealism with which many associated his countrymen in favor of a darker, more tragic stripe of sonic culture. An orchestral conductor and piano accompanist by profession, Schoeck was no mere dabbler in the compositional arts. Yet despite the fact that no fewer than eight operas, four hundred songs, and a smattering of instrumental works flowed from his pen, we hear so little of him on the concert stage. Says Chris Walton, author of Othmar Schoeck: Life and Works and of the album’s liner notes, “That Switzerland should have been home to the cutting edge of art might at first seem odd; but as much as it look to us to be at the center of the map of Europe, it has, in a real sense, long been situated at its ‘borders.’” Such contradictory geography is the seat of Schoeck’s output. At once gravid and untetherable, its rejection of overt nationalist or folk tendencies ripened the composer for easy dismissal during the inter-war years. Though staunchly allied to his homeland, his anti-cosmopolitan music is characterized more by its impermanence than by any socio-cultural currency.

Notturno was composed between 1931 and 1933, and sets the world-weary verse of Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) and one fragment by Gottfried Keller (1819-1890) for voice and string quartet. The cycle is threaded by an elusive leitmotif of regret over a failed extra-marital affair. There is a mournful quality to this music that one also finds, as Heinz Holliger points out in an introductory note, in the tearful lyricism of Alban Berg and Arnold Schönberg. Over the course of five movements, we find ourselves lost in a forest of shadows, hoping for any sign of moonlight to break the silence with its song. All we get, however, are words dripping with liquid night, each a cloud waiting to burst into storm. Replete with moisture, flora, and withered emotions, Lenau’s sentiments range from cynical (“In consternation I desired / That we both should die”) to resigned morbidity (“I love this gentle death”), but always with an “unmannered” (to borrow Holliger’s term) sadness. Bavarian baritone Christian Gerhaher shapes each syllable like a blind carver: that is, as if with his hands and in darkness.

The music is not without its twinge of hope in the fifth movement, in which Keller’s words drip like honey from Gerhaher’s lips. Listen to the gorgeousness of his high note, lifting us ever so briefly into dawn in the final lines:

My soul is as undefiled as a child and will not weigh down your shafts of light. I will keep my sights set on those distant places to where we will travel.

as the violins pour down like those very shafts of light, and try not to be moved. Still, by this point we have grown too used to Lenau’s tattered garments to shrug them off. We also know, as in his last words, that only sadness awaits us in place of sadness, such that solitude seems but a fantasy:

Oh, loneliness, how willingly would I drink
From your fresh forest bottle!

For all its darkness, this is a translucent recording. The performances are raw and impassioned, the Rosamundes adding to an already exquisite résumé. But the real merit here is its voice. Surely, the choice of Gerhaher was not accidental, as the young baritone perfected his technique with the great Liedermeister Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who happens to have been one of Schoeck’s most ardent interpreters. His presence establishes an unbroken chain between composer, score, and studio, at last linking the fortunate listener to nothing short of a hallmark achievement.

Rosamunde Quartett: Webern/Shostakovich/Burian (ECM New Series 1629)

 

Rosamunde Quartett
Webern/Shostakovich/Burian

Rosamunde Quartett
Andreas Reiner violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner cello
Recorded December 1996, Stadttheater Eichstätt
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Rosamunde Quartett began its increasingly fruitful ECM relationship with this lyrically conceived disc, which brings together one of the twentieth-century repertoire’s most widely played and recorded pieces (Shostakovich), one not so widely played (Webern), and one relatively unknown (Burian).

Although Anton Webern penned his Langsamer Satz in 1905, it would not be performed until nearly six decades later. One of many such single-movement string quartets produced at the behest of teacher Arnold Schönberg, it stands out for its balance of ergonomic contours and emotional fragility. In its attempts to gain purchase in the wake of a crumbling Romanticism in which the composer still found rooted value, the piece arches its back like a bridge across a gaping intellectual chasm. The result is an emotive stomach crawl that is quite visceral to hear and, I imagine, even more so to play. Through a series of languid turns, signposted by Ravel-like use of pizzicato, it carries the listener across a tundra of harmonies. It is its own inner fire, the instability of an art in and of being. The transitional agitations throughout are reactive rather than reactionary, and seem to gasp in slow motion toward an incomplete resolution.

Written in a three-day fervor following his diagnosis with polio, Dmitri Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, op. 110 (1960) is a bidirectional memorial, pointing one finger to a world being crushed under the weight of totalitarianism and another to the self caught in the middle. Structured around the intimate pedal point of the composer’s initials—DSCH—and filled with allusions to many of his own works, its power is expressed through a protracted implosion in which not only our ears, but also our philosophical fantasies, come to be implicated. The opening Largo is one of modern music’s most honest statements. Characterized by a sinuous tenacity and burnished chording, its shifts in key and height are painfully organic. By the time of this release, the piece had already made an ECM appearance in orchestral costume on Dolorosa. As a quartet, however, it remains wiser to the score’s vast internal tensions. From the fibrous links and buzzing viola of the Allegro molto to the surprisingly ambulatory Largo reprise, the current version heaves with all the tears of its turbulent milieu. The call of the Allegretto is written off here not with the usual trill, but a restrained waver, and the pizzicati are so biting that one can almost feel them in the chest. The ever-mysterious viola solo is handled with the utmost delicacy as the violins recede farther than I have ever heard. The sustained violin note that follows echoes like tinnitus, a siren of historical malaise that slices through the mind. The staccato attack of the penultimate movement is not so much dramatic as it is traumatic, and in being so makes the resolved chords ring like a scar undercutting the healing process with the acrid fear of recurrence. My standard of reference for this seminal piece has always been the Lafayette String Quartet’s fantastic 1993 rendition on Dorian Recordings, and I must say that here we reach a new level of craftsmanship.

The Rosamundes finish with a name likely unknown to most. In addition to being a composer, Emil František Burian (1904-1959) was a singer, musician, poet, actor, journalist, and playwright. Described as a “one-man Czech avant-garde,” Burian was a strident communist whose primarily theatrical activities throughout the twenties and thirties served as mouthpiece for his leftist leanings. After surviving three German concentration camps, during which time he managed to put together a forbidden performance or two, he returned to his homeland, where he left a lasting mark in the comingling worlds of theatre and politics. His String Quartet No. 4, op. 95 was written just after the war. Though new to this listener, it reads like a synthesis of the Webern and Shostakovich: combining the former’s elegiac veneer with the latter’s tortured soliloquies. Its promises are fleeting, its dances icy and dense. Like a forgotten bottle of wine opened at long last, it contains a host of flavors locked at the peak of their historical creation.

This album is yet another example of how ECM New Series continues to revive the tried and true as no other imprint can. Of the many fine string quartet recordings offered, this is an ideal place to begin.

Dino Saluzzi/Rosamunde Quartett: Kultrum – Music for bandoneón and string quartet (ECM New Series 1638)

Dino Saluzzi
Rosamunde Quartett
Kultrum: Music for bandoneón and string quartet

Dino Saluzzi bandoneón
Andreas Reiner violin
Simon Fordham violin
Helmut Nicolai viola
Anja Lechner cello
Recorded March 1998, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The relationship between Argentinian bandoneónista Dino Saluzzi and ECM’s mainstay Rosamunde Quartett has produced some of the most intriguing cross-culturalisms the label has yet to offer. Not so much a coming together of genres as it is an unraveling of possibilities within them, Kultrum manifests much of the latent orchestrations lurking within Saluzzi’s compelling solo outings of years past. The inaugural “Cruz del Sur” is utterly emblematic of the project’s fecundity, cutting strings from the cloth of Saluzzi’s distinctive sound and winding them into a singular amalgamation of rustling and stillness. At once dolorous and laudatory, the sound strays ever so gently into the ecstatic harmonies of “Salón de tango,” in which sparks of confluence abound at every turn. Here, as in much of the album’s hour-long recollection, Saluzzi asserts his rhythmic and melodic authority with a humble joie de vivre. Generally, the music dons solemn clothing, as in its most potent moments between Saluzzi and Rosamunde cellist Anja Lechner, giving us a foretaste of their untouchable Ojos Negros session some eight years later. Every color they mix is rendered lighter by the surrounding musicians. Brief dissonances either slide with ease or are slowed to the point of non-existence. “Miserere” provides brittle catharsis in a brewing fugal storm. Pizzicato statements flash like lightning without thunder. “El apriete” wrings the heart of its sympathy and rehydrates it with renewed life, as if to shield us from the mournful edge of the album’s remainder, which erases thin lines from a darkening periphery before folding in on itself to end.

Much like Ástor Piazzolla, of whom he is heralded as the only legitimate successor, Saluzzi cuts an unmistakable form in any auditory context. His reach is already so orchestral that the present expansion seems only nature. And while the musical talents thereof are as high as one would expect in an ECM recording of this caliber, the compositions themselves are the real stars here, leading said talents into new directions. This is an album that inhales in black and white, but exhales only color. Assuming we are able to approach it with a blank canvas in mind, who knows what images might come of it?


Alternate cover (?)