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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

Georges GURDJIEFF (1877 - 1949) and
Thomas DE HARTMANN (1885 - 1956)

Piano Music, Volume 7 "Derviches Trembleurs", Volume 9 "Les Cercles"

Alain Kremski (pf.)
Recorded at Opus Systeme (Vanves, France) September 1998

AUVIDIS NAIVE V 4881 (vol. 7), V 4890 (vol. 9) [71'11, 71'16]



Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS








Crotchet   AmazonUK   AmazonUS


Have you noticed how, the deeper into the supposed mire the leviathans of the recording industry sink, the more prolifically the "little fish" breed. If your fingers are inclined towards the green, you might say that as the big plants in your garden thin out, the faster the little weeds spring up. If perhaps I sound a touch sardonic, itís down to my choice of metaphors - Iíve absolutely nothing against the "little weeds" of the record industry: just so long as I can get my sticky mitts on decent, or at the very least passable, recordings of the music I love, I donít really care tuppence from whence they come. Well, maybe not quite - the "tuppence" that I do care about is the price, or more precisely "value for money".

The other side of the coin is that the "little weeds", in order to compete with the leviathans (who remain a force to be reckoned with, even when half-immersed in nasty, sticky mire), have to rummage the cul-de-sacs that line the musical B-roads, winkling out the juicy morsels overlooked by their bigger brothers. This approach was pioneered, more or less, by Vox, who gave many of us the old "Vox Box" principle: the only constraint on a punter, tempted to chance his arm on something unknown, is price. If Iím looking to further my voyage of musical discovery, I for one will tolerate even poor playing and sound, so long as it doesnít cost me an arm and a leg - the "value for money" factor must be high enough to ensure that any possible musical disappointment wonít be exacerbated by an agonising lance of pain in the region of my back-pocket.

Right then, time for a little application. These CDs are of solo piano pieces by Gurdjieff and Hartmann. Iíve never heard of them. Have you? That makes it arm-chancing time, so letís check the price. I had a little peek on Amazon.com, and they were quoted at £13 each. Now I reckon thatís a bit on the "ouch!" side for the average arm-chancer. Ah, but then they each contain over 70 minutes of music. Is that "value for money"? Well, letís say that if I had been in a shop, turning this Unknown Quantity over in my hand from flat cold, Iíd have been seriously pondering why, when all the pieces are only a few minutes long, they couldnít have made it a straight 80 minutes a disc! The alternative is a "warm start". Having had my initial curiosity sparked by some erudite wordsmith, I might be looking at rather shorter odds, and moreover if it turned out that I didnít like it, there would be someone else to blame for it. I start to feel this Burden of Responsibility, so perhaps Iíd better get on to the nitty-gritty!

Neither Georges Gurdjieff nor Thomas de Hartmann is listed in my trusty old Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music (which is that well thumbed that itís been reduced from one volume to four!). In the case of the former, this is hardly surprising - he is not a musician but a philosopher. According to the liner note, "During his life [Gurdjieff] had considerable magnetism and influence among many artists and intellectuals". Influential, eh? I grabbed my copy of Russellís History of Western Philosophy, first published only a year or so before Gurdjieffís death. I found not even a mention. Perhaps, even though Gurdjieff had lived in France since 1922, Russell considered his philosophy insufficiently "western"?

This is pretty likely. Gurdjieff had trekked over more territory than even Marco Polo, boldly going where no man had gone before, seeking out old "truths" and "teachings" in the remotest corners of the Orient, fulfilling his conviction that "a true knowledge of man and nature had existed in the past, and that it was still possible to find it again". In passing, I wondered why he thought that any such "true knowledge" didnít exist in the present. Anyway, from all this emerged "The Work", a philosophy otherwise called "The Fourth Way", though from what I have read I canít easily enlighten you as to what that is, hampered as I am by uncertainty as to what the first three "Ways" might be!

Now, it seems that a happy by-product of Gurdjieffís travels was that he collected a substantial number of tunes along the way. This, though, was no research on the lines of Bartok and Kodaly. Gurdjieff simply happened to have a good - and capacious! - memory for tunes. These he could play on his "little instrument" (which, I hasten to add, was a kind of portable harmonium), or pick out on a piano, or even just whistle. It so happened that one of Gurdjieffís disciples was Thomas de Hartmann, a "musician of repute" (though insufficiently reputable to make the Concise Oxford take note!) and "of classical training". Over a period of years Hartmann notated these themes and "[made] them compatible with the musical instruments available to us", bequeathing to us the piano pieces enshrined in these CDs.

This apparently simple act of dedication and preservation opens a real can of worms. The crux is that phrase, "making them compatible", which is an implicit admission that in their original forms the tunes were not compatible. Down the ages, and across civilisations, musical intonation has developed following the proclivities (and the physics) of the human ear. Ask two singers, without any artefactual assistance, to sing a "fifth" and you will find that they sing two notes whose pitches are in the ratio 3:2. To the best of my knowledge, there is only one exception to the use of the hierarchical system of just intonation - the introduction of equal temperament to further the practical convenience of keyboard instruments. On a piano, the notes of a "fifth" are in the ratio 1.4983070768766814987992807320298 . . . and so on ad infinitum (because thatís 27/12, which is an irrational number). OK, but isnít 1.498 (ish) near enough to 1.5 for all practical purposes? It would seem so, seeing as we have around 300 yearsí worth of Western European "classical" music as living proof. Hum. We also have upwards of 600 yearsí worth of a capella vocal music as living proof that it isnít. The unavoidable tendency of the ears of an unaccompanied chorus to return to what is natural to them is, I would suggest, the reason why such ensembles can resonate with a purity that is so extraordinarily beautiful.

Iíve laboured this point, but with good reason: Alain Kremski is at pains to point out that "a feeling of great purity emanates from this music", while elsewhere the importance of "celestial" or "natural" harmoniousness is repeatedly underlined. With all due respect, you simply cannot take such purity and harmoniousness and "make it compatible" with a piano - thatís tantamount to making the Mona Lisa compatible with a toilet window for a frame. The piano inevitably renders such pieces "through a glass, darkly", giving us merely a rough idea of the import, a coarse outline with the crucial details of the "purity" scrambled in the morass of irrational intervals. Certainly, a good number of these pieces inadvertently sound like those ersatz orientalisms you find in certain old black-and-white films, where some blacked-up bloke wearing a fez and a stripy nightgown does the old Egyptian "sand-shuffle", usually (and with a degree of geographic licence) to the tune of "It was in Baghdad". In any case, weíve no idea to what extent Hartmann has "dressed them up" for western consumption.

For these reasons I suspect, strongly but regretfully, that these arrangements for piano do these ancient tunes no favours whatsoever. However, before somebody mounts his high horse and charges me down, Iíd better add at once that this is not the same as saying that they have no value at all. Enter my next serious misgiving: the booklet note. Of the nine pages in English (the other language is French), two concern the pianist (one in relation to the music, and one to biographical background), one gives a potted resumé of Gurdjieff and Hartmann, one contains some acknowledgements, and four discuss Gurdjieffís philosophy. In Volume 7 the ninth displays the "eneagram", a "secret symbol in certain early esoteric schools". Basically, this is a circle whose circumference is divided into nine equal parts, seven of which are labelled with the notes of the equal temperament key of C major, and two of which are, well, not. The circumferential points are cross-connected by a symmetrical tracery of straight lines, a close study of which reveals absolutely nothing whatsoever of any musical significance, and neither do the notes deign to enlighten us otherwise. Perhaps the real significance is buried in the observation that in the Volume 9 booklet this page is blank, the "eneagram" having mysteriously translated to a space that was vacant in the French section of the Volume 7 booklet?

I should also mention that, apart from the minutiae of track listings, titles, and a couple of quotes inside a front cover, the booklets are identical in content - even to the extent that both volumes claim to be "the last of a series", and to "complete the anthology of works", and this in spite of there being ten volumes! From this, you may deduce that there is no commentary on the pieces of music themselves. Should you so deduce, you would be spot on. This is a pity, because whilst we can make a fair stab at what titles like Dervish Dance, Adam and Eve, Womenís Dance, Tibetan Masks, and Kurd Shepherd Melody are "about", we donít stand a cat in hellís chance of guessing several others, such as Fontainebleu 1 October 1925, Big Seven, and Multiplication of 9 October.

Then again, why is over half of the text given over to what is, in the context, such a detailed philosophical discourse? This philosophy is of the sort that you either find profoundly mystical, or common sense dressed up in arcane jargon, or simply pretentious twaddle, depending on your background, education, and prejudices. Personally, I am deeply suspicious of philosophies that hint at knowing the Answer to the Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, yet proceed to merely sound revelatory: "The ray of creation develops, covering the cosmic octave. In this scale man finds his place participating more or less consciously, according to his Ďdegree of objective reasoningí, his comprehension [et cetera]", or aphoristic pronouncements like "Judge a man not by what he says, but what he thinks", which sounds impressive but at rock bottom is obvious and moreover misses out on the all-important "how?". The other aspect that bothers me is this prevalent tendency to try to demonstrate that the ancient mystics had already "invented" things like Relativity and Quantum Theory, and that modern science has simply rediscovered them. I donít deny that there are parallels of thought, largely perceived through the concept of the Unity of Nature, but analogues arenít necessarily identities (and in this particular case you can strike out that "necessarily").

Anyway, on to the Real Question: what has all this got to do with the music? Unfortunately, the booklet is rather less forthcoming on what I would have thought was the most important bit. When Iíd finished boiling down the fat, all that seemed to remain was pretty much the same impression of the relationship between Man and Art that I already possessed. So I had to smile when I got to the last sentence of Alain Kremskiís exposition: "After all these commentaries, I would add mischievously: why not forget everything and simply listen to the music for its profound beauty, simplicity, purity and authenticity". I would suggest that those who either read the booklet or listen to the CDs on the morning of April the First do so at their peril. I couldnít believe that "authenticity"!

Letís return to that proper practical philosophical question of "value for money". Should you buy either of these CDs? Well, are you already averse to the mild "orientalisms" of such as Rimsky-Korsakov (and I know one or two who are)? If so, you should steer well clear, because these pieces positively ooze perfumed "orientalism" out of their every pore. If youíre still with me, do you get bored by repetition? If so, then you should steer well clear, because these pieces (or at least quite a lot of them) have a distinct tendency to hypnotic repetition. Still here? Right: do you insist on plenty of meat on the bone? If so, you should steer well clear, because these pieces, in their professed simplicity, are often quite sparsely fleshed. Still here? (I think youíd better start checking your wallet!) If, on the other hand, you have a taste for the exotic - even if viewed "through a glass, darkly"! - and youíre ready, willing and able to sample something from off the beaten track (!), then this is going to be right up your street.

Your wallet will be relieved to hear that the recording beautifully captures the gorgeous tone of the Steinway piano. The instrument is set forward, but not over-much, so that the livelier numbers have a fresh immediacy and plenty of sparkle, while still allowing the pianist to draw a thin muslin veil over the musing songs and religious chants. It gets better, for I found Kremskiís playing technically exemplary and otherwise thoroughly enchanting. If we disregard that "authenticity" bit, his "mischievous" comment said it all - he plays these pieces exactly as he asks us to listen to them. His right hand negotiates the vocally-inflected twiddly bits as if born to the task, and he knows just when to let his left hand off the leash in the more resonant accompaniments. Moreover, he does just about all you could reasonably expect to coax the most convincing equal temperament approximation to the implied just intonation of the exotically undulating melodic contours.

Technique is one thing, but feeling is another entirely: for me, Kremski succeeds partly because heís always finding subtle little touches to spice up the repetitions, but mostly because his playing of these pieces draws me, as if on some magic carpet, from my armchair, and in my mindís ear transports me to "faraway places with strange-sounding names". In other words, for £13 I get a package touring holiday without leaving the comfort of my own front room. Now, thatís value for money!

Paul Serotsky

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