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.

Kim Kashkashian: Lachrymae (ECM New Series 1506)

Lachrymae

Kim Kashkashian viola
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded December 1992
Engineer: Peter Laenger

Lachrymae was my second exposure to the brilliance of violist Kim Kashkashian, after her ECM recording of Paul Hindemith’s viola sonatas. It has long been one of my favorites of hers, as its emotional and tonal complexities are high points of the New Series catalog. The program here is modest—consisting of only three pieces—but heavy. The opening strains of Hindemith’s Trauermusik paint a grave and darkening picture. Composed in a six-hour stretch of creative fervor in the afternoon following the death of King George V in 1936, the piece mourns the fall of the monarchical figurehead by describing a musical effigy in his place. Hindemith gave the premier performance that very evening in a special BBC live broadcast. And indeed, the music has that very quality: a lost message somehow regained and spread across the airwaves in a time of great sorrow.

The album’s title work comes from Benjamin Britten and is performed here in its glorious 1975 orchestrated version (for the earlier viola/piano version, check out Kashkashian’s Elegies, also on ECM). Britten has subtitled the work “Reflections on a Song of John Dowland,” thereby lending it a rather bold intertextual potency. And while it goes without saying that Kashkashian’s soloing is first rate here, the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra casts an even more enchanting spell as it binds each motivic cell with fluid grace.

Which brings us to Krzysztof Penderecki’s Konzert für Viola und Kammerorchester. The result of a 1983 commission from the Venezuelan government in honor of freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, the concerto marks a distinct shift in the composer’s aesthetic of virtuosity. Much in contrast to the density of his earlier concertos, here Penderecki cultivates a more intimate sound palette. Yet none of the color his work is known for is lost. We still get a meticulously constructed object adorned with all manner of timbres and percussive details.

In my opinion, Lachrymae showcases some of the most powerful music written for the viola. And who better than Kashkashian to wring out every last tear from this trio of captivating scores? This music is wrought in sadness and refined through a nurturing touch from its composers and musicians alike. It is not the spirit made manifest, but the manifest made spirit.

Mozart: Piano Concertos – Jarrett/Davies (ECM New Series 1565/66 & 1624/25)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concertos I and II

Keith Jarrett piano
Stuttgarter Kammerorchester
Dennis Russell Davies conductor
Recorded November 1994 and January 1995 (I); May 1996 and March 1998 (II), Mozart-Saal/Liederhalle, Stuttgart
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Taken as a whole, the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) remains one of European classical music’s most indestructible pantheons. Among the many symphonies, operas, songs, and chamber pieces in his formidable oeuvre of over 600 works is a handful (at least in Mozartian terms) of twenty-seven piano concertos. Theatrical, eclectic, and epic in scope, the concertos are the epitome of instrumental music written in the eye of an operatic storm. Their dramaturgy is put on full display in these two stunning double-albums from Keith Jarrett and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra under the baton of Dennis Russell Davies. The selections therein were approached improvisationally—that is, Davies never knew exactly what Jarrett was going to do, and vice versa. The end result is warm, spontaneous music-making that tickles the ears and invigorates the soul.

The first set, released in 1996, instituted a major breakthrough in Jarrett’s classical career. If no one had taken him seriously with his ECM recording of the Shostakovich 24 Preludes and Fugues, then certainly he was turning a few heads now. From the moment he lays his fingers upon the keys, Jarrett transports us—and himself, I imagine—to a spacious and familiar world of sound, and in the company of such a finely tuned and responsive orchestra his pianism soars to new heights.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 23 in A Major K.488 (1786)
This concerto moves in sweeping gestures, spreading its arms over grand vistas, secret gardens, and mazes from which one never wishes to escape. The Allegro is sprinkled with moments of colorful synchronicity in which the piano doubles the flutes, further underlining the symbiotic relationship between the soloist and the landscape he inhabits (this doubling is later picked up by strings for an even broader sense of cohesion). The Adagio pulls away its own skin to expose an arduous inner conflict before trusting its resolution to the pianist’s capable hands. An ever-changing ensemble pairs the piano with different combinations of winds, all “strung” together by the orchestral whole of the infectious final movement. The wind writing is superb throughout and provides some of the concerto’s most insightful moments.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 27 in B-flat Major K.595 (1791)
Mozart’s final piano concerto opens on a playful note, swinging its way confidently through the branches of a singular musical path. The piano solos glow like childhood, which is to say they are entirely without fear. The central Larghetto begins with a light solo before French horns signal the orchestra to follow, weaving a solitary song. Only then do the piano and orchestra find each other after what feels like eons of separation. The Allegro begins again with piano alone, and as the orchestra picks up the theme in a grandiose call-and-response we find ourselves bathed in a scintillating resolve. The many solo moments injected into the final passage make for a provocative finish.

Masonic Funeral Music K.477 (1785) was written for two of the composer’s Masonic brethren, though sources suggest the piece was more indicative of the Society’s ideological spirit than it was of its dedicatees’ service to it. Nevertheless, its minor shifts and mellifluous wind writing make it an elegant experience all the same.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 21 in C Major K.467 (1785) is heavier on the strings and is distinguishable by its overtly march-like rhythms. The piano seems to act in the opening movement as a complicated ornament rather than as the focus of attention. The ubiquitously famous Andante sounds fresh and crystal clear as Jarrett carries the orchestra along its pastoral journey with a precise left hand, dropping a trail of breadcrumbs into the encroaching twilight. The virtuosic final movement is nothing short of breathtaking.

The Symphony No. 40 in G Minor K.550 (1788) is one of only two Mozart symphonies in a minor key and is almost as recognizable as Beethoven’s 5th. It comes gloriously alive in this passionate performance, of which the third and fourth movements stand out for their stately precision.

The second set of Jarrett/Davies Mozart collaborations, released in 1999, shows the two interpreters exploring this fine material from an even deeper point of articulation.

The Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 20 in D Minor K.466 (1785) is the most somber of either program. Its Allegro builds a structure of monumental darkness. Ironically, the slow movement has far more energy than its predecessor, while the third is one of the masterpieces of collection, bristling with plenty of Mozart’s character-defining trills.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 17 in G Major K.453 (1784)
This is an epic concerto with another gorgeous Andante and an inspiring Presto that abounds with the liveliness one would come to expect from the younger Mozart.

Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 9 in E-flat Major K.271 (“Jeunehomme”) (1777)
The ninth concerto is the earliest piece of either album, written when the composer was just 21. This picturesque concerto is considered exemplary of the classical aesthetic. The opening Allegro is deceptively simple and endlessly colorful; a lush Andantino seems to yearn for an impossible love; and the final movement dutifully carries out its joyful mission, reporting back with most resplendent success.

The piano concertos are so long that, on a 2-CD set, they only leave room for shorter fillers, like the humble Adagio and Fugue in C Minor K.546 (1788), one of his most “filmic” pieces. While the Bach influence is clear, there is a dramatic undertone that is distinctly Mozart’s own and which provides a fitting close to another thoughtful and finely executed album.

Mozart constructed his piano concertos in such a way as to encapsulate all of the space embodied by the strings in the piano’s introductions. In this way he delved microscopically into the larger orchestral organism, revealing hidden biologies with laboratorial precision. Every movement is like a pianistic symphony in and of itself, a fully fleshed musical entity whose relationship to its neighbors is more genetic than it is formal. Davies shows a profound aptitude for the music at hand, as does Jarrett, who breathes clear diction into every phrase. Jarrett also excels in the ornamentations, especially in his many exuberant trills. This is classical music at its “grooviest” and is sure to please. Despite the epic length of the concertos, many surpassing thirty minutes, this could be a demanding listen were it not for Mozart’s continual innovation and unwavering commitment to circumstance. At any rate, the combined forces of Jarrett and Davies make even the heftiest doses easy to swallow.

I find it baffling to see that what little criticism these recordings have garnered focuses solely on Jarrett’s playing, calling it mechanical and lacking in the improvisational flair one would expect from the consummate jazzman. For what it’s worth, I find his performances to be nothing less than inspired and uplifting. I should make the reader aware, however, of the recording itself, which in the first set places the piano curiously distant in relation to the orchestra, as if at the back of the hall or even in a separate room. While this positioning works more fluidly in certain movements over others, ultimately the listener’s discretion will determine whether or not it is a successful arrangement. I find that it takes some getting used to every time I put the album on, but that once I do the effect is quite haunting.