Stevan Kovacs TICKMAYER (b.1963)
Eight Hymns in memoriam Andrei Tarkovsky (1986/2004) [11:47]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Piano Quintet in F minor (1878/79) [36:20]
Giya KANCHELI (b.1935)
Silent Prayer (2007) [26:40]
Gidon Kremer (violin)
Kremerata Baltica
rec. July 2008. Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, Lockenhaus
ECM NEW SERIES 2161 [74:00]
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 romanticism.
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, was one of the first chamber pieces in 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.
Dominy Clements 
... at times jaw-droppingly beautiful ...