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Giya KANCHELI (b. 1933)
Magnum Ignotum Simi
Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Koninkijk Filharmonisch Orkest van Vlaadderen/Jansug Kakhidze
ECM New Series 289 462 713-2 [50.38]
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Kancheli's best music is sad, dramatic, and intermittently terrifying. The piece Simi, which has the gloomy subtitle "joyless thoughts for violoncello and orchestra," admirably accomplishes these moods. Its opening adagio begins by suggesting a disquieting threat on the cello. Soon Mstislav Rostropovich's cello rides on exquisite rails of tension, as the thematically clotted adagio continues to tweak the listener's sense of dread. A crescendo rises and threatens to explode, but vanishes, leaving all but a ripple of sound. But there is no peace as fff chords crash suddenly, jolting and thrilling the ears. Such eruptions are standard in Kancheli's musical arsenal; in this piece, they work splendidly. Unaccountably, like tragic accidents, they are over quickly. Conductor Jansung Kakhidze's Koninkijk Filharmonisch Orkest van Vlaadderen lurks in the background, providing a dark tone color accompanying the doleful cello. Like Webern's music, sometimes small tone rows carry the piece, subtly inferring emotional stress rather than plunging the listener into them (as Mahler often does). Later in the piece, other orchestral eruptions take place, each time more intense and severe. Simi grabs the listener by the lapels like a social reformer shouting "can't you see what's happening?" There are other ingenious effects in this piece, like Kancheli's skilful balancing of percussive effects with rests, which heightens the disquiet in this piece. The piece ends as it began, a poem of sorrow and regret that dissolves diminuendo, diluted like a homeopathic remedy down to ppp. This disturbing piece is difficult to ignore.

I wish I could summon the same enthusiasm for Magnum Ignotum ("the Great Forgiving"). It begins adagio, and soon an odd pallor settles over the piece. A taped voice half-chants Matthew 1:18-25 (This biblical citation recounts the angel's message to Joseph that Mary is pregnant and the man's subsequent reaction.) This four-minute segment sets a discomforting mood. Not dramatically spoken like the reading from Ezekiel 37:1-10 Penderecki uses in his Seventh Symphony, the segment is monotonous - it is also tonally and thematically irrelevant. Kancheli places the tape player so far back it's difficult to tell if the language is Latin or Georgian. Does he think by injecting religion into a piece it inures it from criticism? The middle segment is unremarkable, drifting on a placid chromatic sea until interrupted by a tantalizingly short and undocumented Gurian song. The piece concludes with a passage from the Georgian hymn Upalo Ghmerto - lovely but also undocumented - and clanging bells. While well played by the Koninkijk Filharmonisch Orkest van Vlaadderen orchestra, Magnum Ignotum ultimately fails. It is a noble attempt at what the composer calls "a formally enigmatic, mysteriously beautiful piece," but it lacks direction and sustained mood.

Peter Bates

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