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Alexander KNAIFEL (b.1943)
O Comforter (1995) [5:23]
A mad tea-party (2007) [8:12]
Bliss (1997) [4:37]
This Child (1997) [9:40]
Confession (2003/2014) [7:22]
O Lord of all my life (2006) [16:00]
O Heavenly King (1994) [6:53]
Lukomoriye (2002/2009) [4:35]
Lege Artis Choir/Boris Abalian
Oleg Malov (piano)
Tatiana Melentieva (soprano, Bliss)
Piotr Migunov (bass, O lord of all my life)
rec. 2012, The Smolny Cathedral, St. Petersburg
ECM NEW SERIES 2436 (4811259) [61:42]

This is the fourth ECM release of music by from Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, following the likes of In Air Clear and Unseen (review), and forms a wide-ranging collection of pieces that deal with both sacred and secular themes.

Texts are given in the booklet to this release, but with no further commentary we’re left with this music in all its enigmatic introversion, and to our own interpretations. The two choral pieces, O Comforter and O Heavenly King are beautifully gentle ‘Prayers to the Holy Spirit’, the first a sustained and atmospheric a capella chorale in which the notes move slowly against each other in a slow-motion descending cascade, evolving towards an ever-postponed resolution. The second is accompanied by the chimes of what sounds like a celesta, later joined by piano, the voices again forming sustained sonorities and slowly moving, often closely-knit harmonies. There is a more lyrical movement to this piece, with some juicy polytonal juxtapositions of harmonies sometimes formed from simple triads, but always with something extra in the mix. This is a kind of Rachmaninov ‘All Night Vigil’ for our times, building on ancient orthodox traditions but with a contemporary aura.

Oleg Malov’s piano sound in the opening of A mad tea-party is sent into the kind of acoustic processor favoured by the likes of Harold Budd, the notes ringing into infinity. The title suggests something more eccentric, and after the atmosphere of magic has been established the party begins, with an oddly playful and unexpectedly improvisatory sort of music – madness perhaps, but of a humorous and benign sort. Voices whisper, diffusing this episode into something more reflective that is ultimately delivered through chimes played on what sound like crotales. This is one criticism I have of the presentation of this album, the lack of documentation of these kinds of instrumental extras or indeed who is playing them.

Bliss, expertly sung by composer’s wife Tatiana Melentieva, gets through a lot of Pushkin’s text in a very short time, the soprano performing in a kind of lyrical rap, the word setting sounding to anyone with no understanding of the Russian language like a rapid tongue-twister set to music. This Child for piano returns us to the quiet magic of an instrument set loose from its moorings, chords and notes appearing from close by and further away, left and right, and with a Morton Feldman-like feel for silence. Confession brings us back to an almost Medieval simplicity, the notes of the piano like a set of hand-bells chiming through the darkness in its opening, the piano soon asserting more of its identity while also being undercut by subtle electronic intervention and those high bells that run through this programme like a silver thread.

O Lord of all my life for bass voice and piano, takes Pushkin once again, and couples it with the words of St Ephraim the Syrian. Piotr Migunov’s voice intones in a secretive sotto voce, the piano a distant echo conjuring the slightest of accompaniments from the darkness, its notes early in the piece shorn of their attack to create ethereal brushstrokes of sound. The voice becomes thrown into that infinite space with some touches of electronic treatment, and the piano draws near for a time before becoming lost in distance once again, teasing our perceptions of what should belong where, the illusion of disembodiment while immersed in prayer as complete as one can imagine in any portrayal in music.

The final title track, Lukomoriye, takes the ‘magic piano’ almost into a collage of conjoined musical happenings, playing with the position of the instrument to the extent of giving the impression of multiple pianos. Whispering voices take their cue from the Prologue of Pushkin’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila”, concluding with a ‘this is where the story really starts’ twist: “One story I remember well/Which I shall now relate to you.” As with the infinite space in which the music takes place, so our imaginations are released into expanded realms – either that or we are invited to start the whole programme again…

This is indeed a fascinating and at times unsettling recording. Alexander Knaifel’s surreal treatments of both voices and instruments take us from relatively conventional sacred comforts into spaces that confront and confound expectations. Don’t pour yourself a wine and a nice hot bath and put this on with ideas of a relaxing hour, as you may fine the steam and candle-light enhance the druggy effects of this composer’s rare skill in playing on our senses.

Dominy Clements



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