ECM can bring out the best and worst in performers. The seductive sound
quality marshalled by Manfred Eicher is a given but the licence extended to
artists can lead to self-indulgence, a quality I have experienced in a few
recent auditions of material from the label. Here there might superficially
be concerns. The duo of cellist Anja Lechner and pianist François Couturier
have arranged a ream of music by Komitas, Mompou and – quite extensively –
Gurdjieff, and sterner listeners might consider this too airy for comfort.
In practice, in hearing, it proves hypnotic.
The Greek-Armenian philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was not, in a
conventional sense, really a composer and debate still ranges over the
extent of his original contributions. Seen however as a mystical fount of
melodies, loyally taken down by an amanuensis figure, the pianist Thomas de
Hartmann – himself a composer – and the lines between originality and
re-creativity crumble. The Gurdjieff music here, shaped by Hartmann and now
recast by the Lecher-Couturier duo, spins a web of sheer vaporous beauty.
The chants and hymns with their percussive dance motifs rendered through the
piano are extraordinarily effective in this duo incarnation. Musically the
eastern hymnal qualities come close to Bloch, certainly in Hymn No.8. Rather
provocatively the duo segues from his Hymn No.11 straight into Mompou’s
Fêtes lointaines No.3
implying in the North African hints in the
music some associations between the two, not least in the stillness of
Mompou’s writing. Inevitably however they don’t cleave to the more ascetic
elements of the composer-pianist’s own playing, which was notably dry and
gimlet-eyed; they bring altogether a warmer palette to bear in their
interesting segue from Música Callada XXVIII
Komitas, the Armenian priest, singer, musicologist and composer is
represented only by a single piece, Chinar es
but it establishes a
joyful profile and reminds us too that, biographically, the three composers
were exiles in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Three of the pieces are
compositions by the pianist. Voyage
is a twisting, curling piece,
the cello coiling over the piano’s repetitive support, whilst jazz-flecked
harmonies infiltrate the music and the cello imitates bass pizzicato.
is rhythmically exciting, almost turning into a tango
or bossa, though here the pianist perhaps owes elements of his harmonic
thinking to Paul Bley.
The overriding aural impression left by these clever arrangements is one
of meditative refinement. The jazz elements are not wholly confined to the
piano but lie strongest there. One of the major influences on the Gurdjieff
pieces in particular is surely Keith Jarrett’s 1980 Sacred Hymns
album, which re-awoke interest in the mystic philosopher’s music.
This richly expressive ECM album manages to bend time to its will and to
draw the listener into its quiet intensities. It’s quite an experience for
those open to it.