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Alexander KNAIFEL (b. 1943)
Agnus Dei (1985)
Louison Renault (percussion, electronics); Jean-Philippe Collard (keyboards, percussion, electronics); Serge Bertocchi (saxophones, keyboards, percussion, electronics); Jean-Paul Dessy (double bass, percussion, keyboards, electronics)
Recorded: Igloo Studio, Brussels, February 2002
MEGADISC MDC 7808/07 [49:12 + 71:08]


Alexander Knaifel was trained as a cellist and studied with Rostropovich in Moscow. He studied composition with Boris Arapov in Leningrad. Apart from a couple of early works, his present output is quite astonishing, and his music is unlike anything else written by his contemporaries. The sometimes extravagant layout of his pieces might be compared with that of his older colleague Ustvolskaya. That said, many of his works are considerably longer than hers, some of them lasting for a couple of hours such as Agnus Dei heard here and Nika. Many of them, too, are for completely unusual instrumental combinations such as 150.000.000 (1966) on words by Mayakovsky for mixed chorus, six piccolos, six trumpets, six trombones, violins, double basses and timpani, or Solaris (1980) for 35 Javanese gongs. Some of you may remember that his opera The Canterville Ghost after Wilde has once been available on disc. His music conjures a sense of the timeless - "Endlessness and oneness in the manifestations of the Sound-World mystery", Knaifel’s own words. It unfolds out of time, as in Agnus Dei for four instrumentalists a cappella (sic) which plays for two hours in the present performance. Frans Lemaire in his indispensable book La musique du Vingtième Siècle en Russie, published by Fayard in 1994, mentions that Agnus Dei plays for two hours and twenty minutes. Agnus Dei was inspired by the sketchy diary of a young Russian girl, Tanya Savichev, who bluntly records the death of various family members in 1942 ending with the cruelly painful comment "The Savichevs dead/all dead/left one Tanya"; nobody knows what happened to her. Agnus Dei may be experienced as a slow-moving, ritualistic Requiem in memory of Tanya and of all suffering souls. According to the composer’s own words, "Agnus Dei may have been created in repentance for my non-existent fault of being born outside Leningrad". Knaifel conjures up an extraordinary sound-world out of some limited basic material and an unusual instrumental ensemble in which each instrumentalist also has to play some percussion and operate electronic processing as well as playing various keyboards - presumably samplers, though we are not told. The electronic sound processing, always subtly and tastefully done, results in a highly original sound palette in which one is never sure of which instrument is playing. This blurring effect is obtained through what might be best described as trompe l’oeil technique, which means that instruments begin to play ‘live’ and that their sounds are progressively transformed into something else, that cannot always be clearly identified. Examples abound in this endlessly inventive score. I find it all quite beguiling and often deeply moving in its apparent simplicity; but slow-moving music such as this may not be to everyone’s taste. As I remarked in an earlier review of a Knaifel disc (ECM New Series 1763), music of this type is likely to fascinate and irritate as well depending on one’s frame of mind.

Megadisc have so far released a number of outstanding recordings of unfamiliar Russian music of the 20th Century (Silvestrov, Ustvolskaya, Smirnov, to name but a few) as well as another Knaifel disc (MDC 7855 - not reviewed) with his piano music played by Oleg Malov. This one is, as far as I am concerned, the finest and a major release by any reckoning, although this is by no means easy stuff to come to terms with. Excellent performance and superb recorded sound throughout.

Hubert Culot



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