Listened to ‘blind’ this is a rather odd programme.
Concert programmes often slip in a ‘modern’ work
between a more popular or familiar set of ticket-selling masterpieces,
but in this case the better known César Franck finds
himself sandwiched between recent compositions. Gidon Kremer
and ECM know what they are doing however, and while the character
of the newer works contrasts sharply with the Franck Piano
Quintet, the general sentiment and genre is one of tonal
Yugoslavian born composer Stevan Kovacs Tickmayer’s piece
is a commemoration of a film director: Eight Hymns in memoriam
Andrei Tarkovsky. The piece is haunting in atmosphere -
literally. My first thought on hearing the work was to turn
down the lights, light some candles, and read something spooky.
There is a good deal of very expressive writing here, but without
access points it’s sometimes not easy to tell where each
hymn starts and finishes - the music runs without stopping.
I particularly like the chorale section, but wonder why its
first manifestation starting at 6:05 is also its strongest.
For a start I would have done without the breaks in this marvellous
material at 7:19 and 8:25, allowing the chorale to build forever,
or at least until everyone had melted entirely into their seats.
In this world of cut and paste I would probably have placed
the less distinct later material earlier to extend its development,
but there is a logic to the progression of the whole which the
composer can no doubt argue convincingly. I just think he’s
missed a trick. My only real problem with the piece is that
it has an inchoate feel - a sense of restraint imposed: a feel
of effect rather than the true development which the material
in the piece could have seen, could still see grow in substance
and blossom into something world-shaking.
Leaping over the Franck for a moment, Giya Kancheli wrote the
piece on this disc for the occasion of the 80th birthday of
Mstislav Rostropovich and the 60th birthday of Gidon Kremer
in 2007. After Rostropovich died in that same year, the composer
entitled the recently completed work “Silent Prayer.”
ECM fans will no doubt already have come across Kancheli’s
name, and may know his knack for creating atmosphere and drama.
The first thing which hits you with this piece is the pre-recorded
singing of Sofia Altunashvili, which coincides with a ghostly
and surrealist effect with the performers - the sound of a fragile
voice projected on a vast screen behind the instruments like
a timeless black-and-white film. The music is not all gentle
and quiet restraint, and there are some dramatic climaxes. There
is a bass guitar which adds its own ‘groove’ here
and there, and there is a big-boned section at 15:05 which has
real Nymanesque drive, something Kancheli seems reluctant to
extend beyond a few seconds. He keeps things relatively simple,
building and dropping build-ups with Bruckner-like gestures,
chasing up and down with scales in contrary motion and adding
little elements of salon music familiarity or colours which
would fit easily into a Hollywood movie. Despite giving the
impression of being able to lose a fair bit of weight in terms
of its duration, Silent Prayer remains nothing less than
a fascinating aural spectre-cle.
The central work in this programme, César Franck’s
Piano Quintet in F minor, is one of the first chamber
pieces Gidon Kremer’s repertoire. He first performed it
in Latvia at the age of 16, and it also pops up in the first
volume of his ECM ‘Edition Lockenhaus’ with a powerful
1984 performance by Alexandre Rabinovitch and a quartet which
doesn’t include Kremer but does include two of the Hagen
family. It may have something to do with the works context between
its contemporary bedfellows on this CD, but hearing it here
seems to emphasise those elements which have had their electrifying
effect on composers since. It comes across as a contemporary
work, a sustained expressive statement ‘in stile romantico’.
Having this aspect of a work from the not so dim but distant
past pointed out in this way is a good thing, making it vibrant,
unexpected, alive and relevant. There are a fair few decent
recordings of this ‘king of piano quintets’, and
you could do worse than punt for Christina Oriz and the Fine
Arts Quartet on Naxos,
but this performance is pretty special - passionate and deeply
committed, without being overheated or overcooked in terms of
rubati. The music is presented with attractive transparency
and a moving sense of flow and grace.
This is a typically unusual ECM disc, and I would especially
urge those with an angst for contemporary music to try it. The
Franck is a rich but deeply rewarding filling to what might
seem a ‘modern’ sandwich, but the outer works are
special and memorable - at times jaw-droppingly beautiful, and
always performed with infectious conviction by the musicians
of Kremerata Baltica. The recording is detailed and resonant
at the same time, with ECM’s usual fine quality of presentation.