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Giya KANCHELI (b. 1935) profile by Julie Williams

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"Quite slowly I'm walking from the world / into a landscape
further off than far,
I what I was and am and shall remain
as patient, as unhurried walks with me
into a country never trodden yet.

Quite slowly I'm walking out of time
into a future further than any star,
and what I was am and ever shall be
as patient, as unhurried walks with me
as though I'd never been or hardly been."

These stanzas by the German Jewish poet Hans Sahl and are the point of departure for Giya Kancheli's work "Lament" - a piece for violin, soprano and orchestra written in memory of Luigi Nono. However, they aptly sum up the enduring themes recurring throughout Kancheli's music: exile, mourning and timelessness. His fellow post-Soviet composer, Schnittke, says that in his symphonies, "we can live a whole life, or perceive an entire history, unaware of the jolts of time."

The Georgian composer Kancheli's distinctive music has received a certain amount of public attention and interest recently, with a performance last week of his Fifth Symphony by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall (broadcast on Radio Three) and the world premiere of a new double concerto for violin and oboe by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by James MacMillan with the Georgian soloists Lisa Batiashvili and Francois Leleux at the Barbican Centre in London. There was also a major retrospective of this composer's works at the Royal Northern College of Music in 2005 to mark his 70th birthday.

Kancheli's music is characterised by slow, soft, meditative sections upon which sudden fortissimo bursts intrude regularly but not always predictably: there is no middle ground in volume or tempo, and this creates a unique sound-world. It can at times be restful, at times disturbing; haunting, reflective and inspiring in a quite idiosyncratic way. Its at times bleak landscape has been compared to the films of Andrei Tarkovsky.

Kancheli is sometimes compared to the minimalist composers, and even to the holy minimalists. However the composer and conductor James MacMillan -- who had the privilege of meeting Kancheli at the Manchester retrospective, and who has very recently conducted his fifth Symphony - describes being particularly attracted to the dramatic nature of Kancheli's music, which he sees as more maximalist than minimalist. His cycle, 'Life without Christmas', reveals a profoundly ambiguous attitude to traditional religion and religious traditions: we are certainly not confronted here with the dogmatic security of assertive piety. The issues of national identity, belonging and exile are always prominent as influences. Georgia, the composer's homeland, stands at a crossroads between European and eastern civilisations.

Kancheli was born in Tbilisi, Georgia in 1935. He studied both piano and composition at the Tiflis conservatory there from 1959 to 1963 and later returned as a faculty member in 1970. His initial work was as a composer of film and stage music -- not uncommon as an occupation for composers during the Soviet era - Shostakovich, Schnittke and Gubaidulina all having worked in this capacity. Prodigious in his output, two collaborations with the producer Robert Sturua were considerable successes: Shakespeare's 'As You Like It' and "Fantastic Sums of Money" by Ostrovsky.

In 1971, he took up the post of Director of Music at the Rostaveli Theatre in Tbilisi, combining this role with his teaching duties at the Conservatory. He also wrote a series of seven symphonies between 1967 and 1986 and an opera "Music for the Living" (1984). The symphonies are all unconventional in form; often being in one single movement which is always slow in tempo.

The Second Symphony (1970) – (available on CPO recording 999 263-2, paired with the Seventh Symphony) was written whilst Kancheli’s distinctive approach was still developing. It has three movements: adagio; allegro; adagio. It is inspired by, but never quotes directly from, Georgian folk music and its polyphony. The sound of bells -- another characteristic feature of Kancheli's symphonies - is introduced into the third and final movement. At times the influence of Stravinsky can be detected.

The Fourth Symphony (available on an Olympia recording OCD 403, paired with the Fifth Symphony) is subtitled, ‘Dedicated to the Memory of Michelangelo’. Kancheli's distinctive approach is now fully fledged here, and the work is presented in one continuous movement of just under 25 minutes’ duration. Quiet sustained textures are constantly disturbed by vigorous outbursts from the full orchestra. Seldom is dynamic variation characterised by gradual or cautious approaches.

The Fifth Symphony is also commemorative; this time to the composer’s parents. It opens with a solo harpsichord section, having the distinction of being amongst a relatively small number of contemporary works featuring that instrument. Characteristically, this is soon violently interrupted; a pattern of alternation which continues throughout the symphony’s course. It has been described as the most violent and despairing of Kancheli's symphonies, but this aspect is brought out more strongly in the State Symphony Orchestra of Georgia’s recording (q.v.) and was less to the fore in the recent BBC Philharmonic performance, which brought out a softer tone and more hopeful aspect to the work.

The Seventh Symphony – "Epilogue" serves as a postscript to Kancheli's body of symphonic work. There are musical references to Bach and to Beethoven as well as to his own second, fourth, fifth and sixth symphonies.

"From their voices one hears sounds of despair and protest, entreaty and sympathy, believe and hope; they tell us how sorrowful the epilogue to "Epilogue", which has been greeted with the comment "addolorando" (sorrowful), can indeed be." Tatjana Frumkis

Since 1991, following increasing unrest in his own country, Kancheli has lived in Berlin and now in Antwerp: the always-present feeling of exile becoming manifest now in his outward circumstances. There has been a distinct change in his musical output since then and a more radical departure from traditional forms and formats, with strong extra - musical reference points being a usual feature.

One of the first works commissioned from him after his move to the West was "Magnum Ignotum", for the Witten music festival. The organisers asked for a composition containing Georgian folk tunes. Kancheli answered this by using a tape recording of Georgian folk music integrated into his own music being played live. The tape he used was in four sections: a reading of the Gospel for Christmas Eve in the cathedral of Anchiskhati; an archive recording of a polyphonic folk song; an interplay between two layers involving natural and artificial tone colours; and a Georgian hymn, Upalo Ghmerto, sung by a choir. The first part has a live music set simultaneously with the tape; later they diverged and their interplay leads gradually to a dynamic climax in the third section, which is then followed by the mysterious beauty of the hymn.

A very significant composition from this period shortly after his emigration – and one which brought Kancheli’s music to a wider audience - is the cycle, "Life without Christmas". This is in four sections for chamber ensemble and varying soloists entitled "Morning Prayer", "Midday Prayer", "Evening Prayer", and "Night Prayer". Whilst these may be "prayers" in the broadest possible sense - of an invocation of rising out of spiritual need - they also embody estrangement from the traditional Christian view of divine incarnation and look at that perspective quizzically. They are questioning rather than devout, and embody a characteristic ambiguity. If God is here, he is independent of history, although in his concealment from human experience there is somehow also a consoling remnant of hope.

"Morning Prayer", the first part of the cycle, is for chamber orchestra and vocalists, particularly featuring counter-tenor. It has been recorded on ECM (1510) by the Hilliard Ensemble and the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester under Dennis Russell Davies.

"Midday Prayers", the next section, is for 19 instruments, a boy’s voice and solo clarinet. It is dedicated to the clarinettist Eduard Brunner, and in ECM's recording (1568) the vocal part is sung by the soprano Maacha Dubner, who is also featured on the same label’s recording of ‘Lament’ (q.v.) - which is scored for violin, soprano and orchestra. Only late in the work does the vocal soloist enter, with a distant setting of two short phrases from the passion: "My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?" and "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." The sound-world is one of anguish and desolation.

Verses from the passion of Christ are also set in the short piece Caris Mere for soprano and viola which follows on the ECM recording. Here they are supplemented by a quotation from Hyperion by Holderlin,

"Over the flowers of our spirit the present blows like a howling north wind, blasting them even in the bud".

The wind is a recurring theme for Kancheli – and the title ‘Caris Mere’ can be translated as ‘After the Wind’.

"Evening Prayers", the third element of the cycle, features alto flute as well as voices with the chamber ensemble, with singers entering early in the work. Periods of quiet (as one might anticipate for the closing of the day) are shattered by periodic bursts of anguish, with strident brass and alone and forceful clanging of bells. " Night Prayers", the closing section – written between 1992 and 1995 – uses tape as well as a live soloist- soprano saxophone, Jan Garbarek in an excellent performance on ECM449 198-2. This is reminiscent of the techniques used in the approximately contemporaneous ‘Magnum Ignotum’. However, in allowing a measure of improvisation to the soloist, this work is innovative. The nocturne is characterised by nightmare rather than by peace; right at the end the singer’s voice (on tape) makes the plea ‘O Lord, Hear My Voice’. "Night Prayers" has also been arranged for string quartet and tape and has been recorded by the Kronos Quartet on Elektra Nonesuch.

Kancheli has written pieces of varying lengths featuring and inspired by particular musicians that he admired: the cellist Rostropovich (the solo piece Mourned by the Wind) and the violists Yuri Bashmet (Styx q.v.) and Kim Kashkashian (Caris Mere (q.v.) and Abii ne Viderem). Styx is a viola concerto which also incorporates a choral part, thus creating a dialogue between orchestra and singers, which is mediated by the soloist – mimicking the role of Chiron the ferryman, crossing between the world of the living and that of the dead in ancient mythology. The vocal part is principally a prayer for the dead - in particular for the composer’s lamented friends and colleagues Alfred Schnittke and Avet Terterian - it names a series of Georgian monasteries and cathedrals. Later on the figure of Time from Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale - showing Kancheli’s background in the theatre - is introduced. However, the choir is never quite in the foreground, and there is some similarity to the use of taped singing in the slightly earlier Magnum Ignotum. Styx is available on a Deutsch Gramophon recording (471 494-2) featuring the work’s dedicatee and is paired on that disc with the Viola Concerto by Sofia Gubaidulina, also written for Bashmet.

Kancheli’s work Lament has in common with Styx a commemoration of a dead fellow composer; this time the Italian, Luigi Nono. It also shares the use of voice, instrumental soloist and ensemble. This time, the instrumental soloist is the violin, recorded once again on ECM (1656) with Gidon Kremer. A solitary violin sings, refrains from singing, and is burst in on full orchestra. The themes are of sorrow and also of memory. Close to the end, a childlike soprano sings (Maacha Deubner) as the work draws to its conclusion.

Last year a double concerto for oboe and violin was commissioned from him by the Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, which received its world premiere at London’s Barbican Centre on 15 February 2007.

The violin part in this work is more reminiscent of the viola concerto than of Kancheli’s earlier work for violin, and the oboe’s role further demonstrates Kancheli’s fluency in the alto register. The dialogue between the two soloists is reminiscent of the dialogue between soloist, choir and orchestra in Styx. A wide variety of percussion is scored, as is alto flute. Although containing Kancheli’s trademark sudden dynamic contrasts, it is a predominantly gentle work which ebbs and flows through its course. It has a subtle transcendence which draws the listener in gradually, building very gradually to end with a raucous but very brief burst of intense sound.

Kancheli writes of his music: "When I compose music, I don't focus on the everyday collisions of life. I want to see it as a bird in flight, from a height, from an angle. I want to establish a musical progression, note by note, to create a perfect form. I am fighting with myself -- and I must be honest and clean to overcome the obstacles that I myself created."

This composer’s austere and at times stark sound-world of grief and exile is challenging but has its own strange and haunting beauty in which the listener can find hope as well as despair. Its distinctive quality of timelessness has rightly been emphasized by fellow composers and by performers – Schnittke, Yuri Bashmet and James Macmillan.

Julie Williams


Symphony number 1 1967
Symphony number 2 ('Songs') 1970
Symphony number 3 1973
Symphony number 4 ("In Commemoration of Michelangelo") 1975
Symphony number 5 1976
Symphony number 6 1981
Music for the Living -- opera 1984
Symphony number 7 ('Epilogue') 1986
Life without Christmas: Morning Prayers 1990
Midday Prayers 1991
Afternoon Prayers 1991
Night Prayers 1994
Abii ne Viderem 1992
Magnum Ignotum
Mourned by the Wind
Caris Mere 1994
Nach dem Weinen ('Having Wept') - for solo cello 1994
Lament 1998
Styx - Viola Concerto 1999
Double Concerto for Violin and Oboe 2007

CD Reviews

Giya KANCHELI (born 1935) Styx (1999)a [35:46] John TAVENER (born 1944)
The Myrrh-Bearer (1993)b [41:56] Maxim Rysanov (viola); Rihards Zaļupe (percussion)b; Kamēr... Choirab; Men of the State Choir Latvijab; Liepāja Symphony Orchestraa; Māris Sirmais
Words and translations included ONYX 4023 [77:42] Musicweb Purchase button
Sound Sample Opening of Styx

Giya KANCHELI (b. 1935) Symphony No. 1 (1967) (1. Allegro con fuoco; 2. Largo) [20:33] Symphony No. 4 (1975) [18:39] Symphony No. 5 (1976) [19:49] Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra/James DePreist ONDINE ODE 8290 [59:21]

Giya KANCHELI (b. 1935) Magnum Ignotum Simi Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Koninkijk Filharmonisch Orkest van Vlaadderen/Jansug Kakhidze ECM New Series 289 462 713-2 [50.38]

Giya KANCHELI (b.1935) Simi [26.42] Mourned by the Wind (1984) [38.06] Alexander Ivashkin (cello) Russian State Symphony Orchestra/Valeri Polyansky CHANDOS CHAN 10297 [64.59]

Giya KANCHELI (b.1935) In L’istesso tempo Time…and again, for violin and piano (1996) [25’33] V & V, for violin, taped voice and strings (1994) [12’35] Piano Quartet in l’istesso tempo (1997) [26’05] Gidon Kremer (violin) Oleg Maisenberg (piano) The Bridge Ensemble Kremerata Baltica/Gidon Kremer ECM NEW MUSIC 4618182 [64’40]


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