Tarkovksy Quartet: s/t (ECM 2159)

Tarkovsky Quartet

Tarkovsky Quartet

François Couturier piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Recorded December 2009, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“What she thought about death was childish, but what could never have touched her in the past now filled her with poignant tenderness, as sometimes a familiar face we see suddenly with the eyes of love makes us aware that it has been dearer to us than life itself for longer than we have ever realized.”
–Georges Bernanos, Mouchette

Forever striking about the cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky is its commitment to silence. Whether unfolded in the inner expanse of Solaris or cupped like the candle in Nostalghia, it breathes. For Tarkovsky, the latter sequence was indeed a representation of human existence: birth as inhale, and life as a flame trembling in protracted exhale. Likewise exhaling is this self-titled album from François Couturier’s Tarkovsky Quartet, which completes the pianist’s envisioned trilogy for ECM around the work of the master Russian filmmaker. More than a tribute, it is a tribune, quietly defending the right to sing without words as a way of opening the heart. Flipping through the aortal pages of its namesake, this album treats every concerted pump as a point along a line, from which dangles twelve tracks encased in solemnity.

TQ

The title of “A celui qui a vu l’ange” (A person who saw the angel), being carved on Tarkovsky’s tombstone, begins with the end. Couturier’s introduction discloses a ponderous reel of undeveloped film that unspools to the keystrokes of accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier and the threading of cellist Anja Lechner. Soprano saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché completes the image even as he unsettles it, startling the flow like a bird landing on a pond filled with broken bottles, scrap metal, and sharp stones. If such imaginings already feel cinematic, it is because they speak as much in a language of light as of sound—word and image made flesh through the divinity of direction.

That being said, the shape of this Tarkovsky Quartet is primarily rendered through the sculptor’s press of improvisation. Three pieces—“San Galgano” (which names the setting of Tarkovsky’s 1983 film Nostalghia), “Sardor” (a film for which he wrote the screenplay but never realized), and “La main et l’oiseau” (The hand and the bird), which points to The Mirror—are, in fact, entirely adlibbed, each a tangled web of signs stretching tundra for the feather brush. Like “Sardor,” a good portion of the album references people or places that never stood before his camera. “Mychkine” (named for the protagonist of Dostoyesvsky’s The Idiot, a subject Tarkovsky often spoke of cinematizing) is a remarkable dip into psychological pools. Matinier floats over surrounding fields of cello and piano, a lone blackbird lured by distant sparkle. Thomas Mann’s novel “Doktor Faustus” (which, again, Tarkovsky never filmed), on the other hand, remains grounded like a tree in this stark musical treatment. Tarkovsky’s favorite Bresson film, “Mouchette,” inspires an affectionate cordoning of the piano while the other instruments fragment the center. Even the ostinato backing of “La passion selon Andreï,” the original title of Andrei Rublev, would seem to articulate a parallel universe.

Two tracks snap living family photographs. “Tiapa” (a nickname for Tarkovsky’s youngest son) builds a lighthouse as Lechner underlies the waves before giving way to accordion and soprano, the second of which casts its own melodic torch so far that it becomes indistinguishable from the lighthouse beam, traveling far beyond the boats and never once looking down until the glow of a distant noon becomes visible. “Maroussia” (another nickname, this for Tarkovsky’s mother) splits the piano like a branch, connecting footprints toward a fiery clearing.

Throughout the program, musical nods to Bach, Pergolesi, and Shostakovich cut ghostly figures. Yet the deeper nods go to fundament and firmament. “L’Apocalypse,” for one, draws from the Book of Revelations, the cautions of which occupied Tarkovsky’s later films. This jagged yet somehow dancing music is a deconstructed cross. In the same spirit(uality), “De l’autre côté du miroir” opens with a tender solo from Lechner, whose interest in interstices makes for compelling listening. Couturier draws a slow-motion current, a tracking shot across centuries of growth in a single compression. The other instruments are echoes, ciphers lost on their way to salvation.

Here is a beacon for those who have only experience of the night.

(To hear samples of Tarkovsky Quartet, click here.)

François Couturier: Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky (ECM 1979)

Nostalghia

François Couturier
Nostalghia – Song for Tarkovsky

François Couturier piano
Anja Lechner violoncello
Jean-Marc Larché soprano saxophone
Jean-Louis Matinier accordion
Recorded December 2005, Auditorium Radio Svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“What kind of world is this if a madman tells you you must be ashamed of yourselves? Music now!”

So espouses Erland Josephson as Domenico in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 masterpiece Nostalghia, of which this album by pianist François Couturier takes the name. Domenico is, in many ways, himself a musical figure. As the very madman he admonishes, one who shackled his family in their own home for seven years as protection against an imperfect world, he is constantly refolding his own psyche in a leitmotif of fixation, building reality from blocks of fanciful impulses, each more poetic than the last. Yet as Tarkovsky himself once averred, art exists only because the world is imperfect. Music thrives on insanity.

That said, the even keel of Nostalghia presents the listener with such an expressive compass that even the most elemental sound becomes a northward tug. Anyone who has followed Couturier’s ECM travels will know that he is a musician of many directions. From the taut classical forays of Poros to the border-crossing trio recordings with Anouar Brahem (see Le pas du chat noir and Le voyage de sahar), he is anything but predictable. Counting cellist Anja Lechner, accordionist Jean-Louis Matinier, and saxophonist Jean-Marc Larché among the present company, he darkens Tarkovsky’s blueprints with the press of every key until they are ashen with wayfaring.

The album’s outer circle is inscribed by way of “Erbarme Dich” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which seeds the opening and closing tracks by way of profound lament. In the absence of words, “Le Sacrifice” (Bach’s aria appears in the Tarkovsky film of the same name) holds on to the text of the moment. In the absence of the cross, one feels the intersection of piano and accordion as a sacrifice in and of itself. The feeling of decay is palpable—surely, if imperceptibly, approaching disappearance—as was Tarkovsky’s play of color and shadow. The concluding “L’éternel retour” unravels by way of piano alone. Like a lost entry from Vassilis Tsabropoulos’s The Promise), its hand closes the lid of a box that houses creative spirit. That the song bears dedication to Erland Josephson indicates Couturier’s attention to detail in paying tribute not only to the artist of interest, but also his brilliant actors and collaborators.

“Crépusculaire,” for instance, honors Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s right-hand cinematographer (who also filmed The Sacrifice) and moves accordingly by the touch of Lechner’s picturesque bowing. Her feel for notecraft and harmony is matched only by her attention to atmosphere. Couturier blends pigments with charcoal-stained fingers, each a pontiff reduced to a smudge across gray sky as the accordion finds its peace in the waters below. The combination aches with dew, trembling on grass stems when the three instruments at last share the same breath in focus.

“Nostalghia” is for screenwriter Tonino Guerra, with whom Tarkovsky co-wrote the screenplay for that very film. It opens us to the affectations of the full quartet and takes its inspiration from Schnittke’s Sonata No. 1 for violoncello and piano. This gentle music is a wish turned into stone and laid in stagnant water. The most obvious dedication, “Andreï,” also incorporates the Schnittke. A steady pulse in the left hand frees the right to orbit the keyboard, while the accordion fits like wind to wing over barren plains of consciousness.

“Stalker” gives proper attention to Eduard Artemyev, who wrote the soundtracks for that film and Solaris, and meshes bucolic and hypermodern impulses in kind. Its impactful pianism gives up many relics, each more sacred than the last. Anatoly Solonitsyn, lead actor of Andrei Rublev, is the final dedicatee. With its allusions to the “Amen” from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, “Toliu” multiplies shades of night.

Although Couturier consciously avoided the evocation of specific Tarkovsky scenery (this is more than a concept album), the feeling of pathos is so visual that one might as well be watching a film by the great director. The pianism shines like the water so prevalent in Tarkovsky’s cinema, if not swimming among many artifacts strewn below the surface. And in any sense, Couturier is very much the director of all that one hears throughout the program, as borne out most directly in the freely improvised “Solaris I” and “Solaris II.” In these the soprano saxophone turns the sun into a pilot light, and the world its oven, even as the rest of the ensemble hangs icicles from the eaves. Still, the overall effect is more literary than filmic, picking up words and turning them into actions that grow with listening.

“Ivan” references Ivan’s Childhood, Tarkovsky’s first feature. Its declamatory beginning spawns an almost theatrical feeling in distorted fairytale gestures before the quartet rejoins to finish off strong. In the wake of such confluence, Couturier’s solo “Miroir” wipes the slate clean, leaving superbly engineered ambience as the only evidence of an inner world to be discovered. Each step taken on this Escherian staircase walks a path of light.

Perfection may be an impossible ideal, but this album almost touches it. It’s a sheet of paper curling into its own insecurity for want of inscription. Don’t let it slip through your fingers, no matter what kind of quill you wield.