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Victor KISSINE (b. 1953)
Between Two Waves - Concerto for piano and string orchestra (2006/2008) [21:36]***
Duo (after Osip Mandelstam) for viola and violoncello (1998/2011) [24:23]**
Barcarola for violin solo, string orchestra and percussion (2007) [22:47]*
Gidon Kremer (violin)*
Daniil Grishin (viola)**
Giedre Dirvanauskaite (violoncello)**
Andrius Zlabys (piano)***
Andrei Pushkarev (percussion)*
Kremerata Baltica 
Roman Kofman (conductor)
rec. July 2011, Lockenhaus Festival
ECM NEW SERIES 2312 [68:48]

We’ve come across Victor Kissine before on these pages via his orchestration of Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major (ECM 1883 see review), and his work Zerkalo performed by Gidon Kremer and friends (ECM 2202 see review). This is the first ECM release with a complete programme of Kissine’s work, issued in time for his 60th birthday.
Between Two Waves is both a title for the opening work and a key to the link between all three pieces in this programme. The composer’s own notes describe the city in which he was born, St Petersburg, as having “a seaweed savour” and being a place which “inspires elegies”. The opening of the piano concerto is certainly atmospheric in an elegiac way, with a pervasive shimmering of water expressed through tremolando strings, trills and beams of light shining through from the notes of the piano. This is no conventional piano concerto, and the solo instrument is often a point of repose between the restless strings, an inversion of virtuoso preconceptions for the genre. This sparse musical language begins to take on a more disturbing character about halfway through; the notes beginning to lurk in ever deeper extremes or being disguised through subtle bowing effects. The opening notes of the piano return however, a kind of safe haven from which to embark on a new adventure, or is it the same adventure through different conditions? These are labyrinthine waters, constantly changing in slow motion, but constantly reminding us that our forward momentum is negligible, and the final notes lead us into a parallel universe where it could all happen all over again …
This feeling of organic flow and transformation has continuity in the opening of the Duo, the dry toneless rasping of bow on wood perhaps reminiscent of washing of waves or the rise and fall of tides. Kissine refers to it as “the respiration” of the Osip Mandelstam poem on which the piece is based, ‘translating’ the image of sea wind, so in fact it’s air not water, but you can’t have the wind without the ocean. Over 24 minutes of violin and cello might sound a bit daunting, but Kissine’s language easily carries our attention from start to finish. Trills and the rise and fall of dynamics give a sense of turbulence and movement, but as with Between Two Waves we are caught in a luminous miasma rather than being guided through the conventional musical timelines of developmental structure and resolution. Kissine intelligently restricts the use of unconventional performing techniques, but also explores a massively wide range of colour and nuance between the two instruments. There are conversations, but these are kept compact. There are also moments which are suggestive of natural phenomena, but these are clues to awaken the imagination rather than blatant imitations. The music is often sparse almost to the point of extinction, but these are the moments of greatest anticipation, the nodes from which maximum expressiveness can emerge.
The Barcarola relates to Kissine’s work on the Schubert string quartet orchestration, which suggested the composition of “a kind of ‘concerto in watercolour’ [evoking] the ‘Venice of the North.’” The sense of disturbing luminosity is at the heart of this piece, with the quote from J. Brodsky’s A Guide to a Renamed City a very telling reference to white nights, “where a man doesn’t cast a shadow, like water”.
This is music which seems to become more elusive the closer you look at it. If your ears are in sideways glance mode then they are constantly called back by moments of action or magical sonority, but if you sit and attempt to grasp at anything more concrete than a flow of musical poetry then the material slips like water through your fingers. This Barcarola has very little of the lyrical in its makeup, though there are fragments which suggest a see-saw undulation of one sort or another. It is however certainly more a disquieting nightmare than a lullaby.
These works were recorded at the Lockenhaus Festival 2011, and in the words of the composer they belong together to form “a kind of cycle”. Collectors of other Lockenhaus titles from the ECM label will hopefully be aware of a certain kind of atmosphere in these performances, and this is indeed the case here as well. This is a hard quality to define, but for me most recordings from this source have a constantly brewing creativity and a vibe of newness and the uniqueness of ‘the moment’. There is virtually no audience noise to be detected with these live performances: there is no applause to break the spell, and the sound quality is excellent.
This is music which lives just below the surface of easy recognition and simple themes, but it is not music which confuses with unnecessary intellectual posturing or over-complexity. The imagery and ambience is that of honest creativity by a mind and an ear keenly tuned to the moods of his subject, and as such this is a release which can haunt and inspire.
Dominy Clements