Giya KANCHELI (b.1935)
Symphony No. 4 To the Memory of Michelangelo (1975) [24.57]
Symphony No. 5 To the Memory of My Parents (1976) [25.33]
Symphony No. 6 (1981) [29.43]
Mourned by the Wind - liturgy for viola and orchestra (1993) [43:44]
Yuri Bashmet (viola)
State Symphony Orchestra of Georgia/Jansug Kakhidze
rec. 1978 (4 and 5), 1981 (6), 1988 (Mourned)
MELODIYA MELCD1002286 [50.33 + 73.31]

Georgian-born, Antwerp resident Giya Kancheli was introduced to most music-lovers who know the name at all through his seven symphonies (1967-86). These were recorded in Georgia by Melodiya. They were issued on licence in the West by Olympia on OCD 401, 402, 403 and 424 in the early 1990s. The cycle was also reissued on Beaux in 2003 but with the orchestra named as the Tbilisi Symphony Orchestra. Unlike the equally intriguing Armenian Avet Terteryan Kancheli did not, until much later, attract non-Soviet labels (ASV). His music has in more recent times been taken up by Sony, Chandos, Onyx, ECM and Ondine. Four of the Melodiya recordings now appear in this set. This sampling approach shows some nervousness; fuller confidence would have given us a boxed set comprising all seven symphonies. In any event this double gives easy access for those whose valour may otherwise have failed them.

Here are three relatively compact single-movement symphonies where although the musical substance and experience are large-scale the time-span never exceeds half an hour. A potent strangeness hangs over these tonal scores sufficient to satisfy the enquiring explorer. The mysteries of the Fourth are not recondite. The music is lucid, diaphanous and without the dense fluorescence and complexity of Silvestrov's psychedelic Fifth Symphony (Megadisc, Bis, Melodiya). Bells play an important part in all these works and here they are starkly presented. There are echoes of Pärt's Cantus but there are more incidents here. Irruptions of protest stand out like volcanic plugs towering over a landscape. It's all quite statuesque and evolutionary rather than being in obvious motion. Furious and loud rhythmic writing appears about 13 minutes in but, its ire spent, the music then returns to what feels like its spiritual core - a blessed contentment before the anger erupts afresh. The exposed writing for quietly intoning strings and woodwind prompts thoughts of Malcolm Arnold's symphonies 4-6. A beatific calm arches over the final pages which are also distinguished by a scratchily metronomic ticking.

If the Fourth is statuesque and ritualistic then the Fifth can at times sound like 1970s soft-focus silver screen romance - a bit like the early cinema music of Schnittke, Kilar and Korzynski. Kancheli has some forty film scores to his name. In the Fifth the loud doom-laden protests match cataclysm with feral dance. Again we encounter the pattern of brief fortissimo episodes (try 18:30 and most imposingly at 22:00) in a vista of silent consolation, blessing or piercing elegiac eloquence (10:58). Setting Arnold to one side for a moment, the listener might also think of the symphonies of the Australian Brenton Broadstock (review review). They're in a similar constituency. As for the way the Fifth ends, it too closes in introspective quietude. It serves as a reminder of what one might expect from a symphony bearing this dedication.

Five years later came the Sixth Symphony. This is just as starkly scored as the other two symphonies but even more suggestive of arcana. A tightly chattering insistent little figure is confidentially intoned by woodwind although once again this is punctuated by anger-fuelled isolated expostulations. At 21:59 the calm is shattered as if by an ironclad ritual march which fades away almost as quickly as it intervened. Sudden blasts of sound are a Kancheli signature as we have already observed and there are some Beethovenian seismic furies (24:32) to come. These arrive complete with a gargantuan tam-tam smash preceding more shimmering whispered mysteries.

Track forward 12 years for the longest work here: the liturgy for viola and orchestra Mourned by the Wind. Kancheli in this case makes a break with single continuous spans and opts for four movements. The liturgy is dedicated to the memory of Georgian musicologist Givi Ordjonikidze and was composed for Yuri Bashmet who the composer met at the Moscow premiere of the Sixth Symphony. He is the soloist heard in this recording. Soulful and concentrated melancholy calls quietly out across a murmuring orchestral canvas in the first movement. There's a touch here of Bloch and late Frank Bridge. Stuttering brass provide initial punctuation for the second movement which rises to a briefly grasped majestic eminence. The Larghetto (III) processes smilingly and with soothing beneficence. The finale is strong on tragic protest and hard-won seraphic peace. Throughout this work the viola plays an eloquent but unshowy role.

You need not worry about the recordings or the playing. The conductor Jansug Kakhidze (1935-2002) - variously transliterated - was a staunch practical supporter of Kancheli's music and it shows. Even the oldest of the recordings, from almost forty years ago, bring the music cleanly to our ears with plenty of thrust and no lack of subtlety. The liner-note is by Boris Mukosey and is in Russian, English and French.

Unless you want Kancheli's music written since coming to the West this set will do very nicely. Even so, I still hanker after a complete set of the symphonies.

Rob Barnett

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