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Elusive Affinity
Antonio VIVALDI (1678-1741)/Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Largo (from Concerto No. 4 in G minor, BWV 975) [3:46]
Alfred SCHNITTKE (1934-1998)
Five Aphorisms (1990) [14:00]
Giya KANCHELI (b. 1935)
Piano Piece No. 15 [1:31]
Rodion SHCHEDRIN (b. 1932)
Diary - Seven Pieces (2002) [15:35]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977) [5:36]
Wolfgang RIHM (b. 1952)
Zweisprache (1999) [16:51]
Piano piece No. 23 [1:23]
Alessandro MARCELLO (1673-1747)
Johann Sebastian BACH
Adagio (from Concert No. 3 in D minor, BWV 974) [3:53]
Anna Gourari (piano)
rec. 2018, Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt, Germany
ECM NEW SERIES 2612 [62:44]

I greatly admired Anna Gourari’s Canto Oscuro album on the ECM label (review), so needed no persuasion at all to see this kind of magic extended into Elusive Affinity. This title is alluded to ad nauseam in the booklet notes, but with the conclusion that questions regarding the intangibility of affinities in music “may be endlessly unanswerable”, we can leave such existential ramblings to one side and take this substantial recital at face value.

We’re led gently into the quietly dramatic atmosphere of this recording with a lovely rendering of one of Bach’s Vivaldi transcriptions. Alfred Schnittke’s darkly expressive Five Aphorisms are in part a reflection on the stark fragility of life, each piece taking its cue from a poem by Schnittke’s friend Joseph Brodsky. There is an option to read each poem in advance of each piece, but these texts have been left out here: “words - black as this music is black, bleak as this music is bleak…” but each fragmentary statement is left to speak or scream for itself, the blackness being the silence from which the notes emerge and recede. Schnittke’s later works are edgy and tough, but the messages here are clear, and an open book to anyone with an ounce of human empathy.

Starkness of contrast could hardly be greater than between Schnittke’s grim imagery and the salon romance of Kancheli’s Piano Piece No. 15. This is a pallet cleanser that takes us into Shchedrin’s Diary – Seven pieces, a work dedicated to Gourari. The title suggests something autobiographical, but there is an enigmatic quality to the music that removes specificity, leaving associations to the listener. Poignant regret, the turbulence of a journey, nocturnal stillness or fearful trepidation – you can take your pick and allow your imagination free rein.

Arvo Pärt’s Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka or ‘Variations to speed the recovery of little Arina’ refers to the youngest of the composer’s children and is one of those perfect quasi-miniatures that is both elemental in its simplicity and thorough in the working-out of its counterpoint. The affinity with Bach is perhaps clearest here, though Pärt goes back further in time, playing on techniques that seem to spring from Medieval antiphons.

The programme balances Schnittke’s Five Aphorisms with the five introvert movements of Wolfgang Rihm’s Zweisprache or ‘Dialogue’. These are “comparably slow – that of an elegiac lullaby… in the first piece”, with references to Mahler, Webern and a trace of Bach elsewhere, though these moments are elusive as well as allusive. The mood here is as dark as with Schnittke, the dialogue her being with death; that of five friends Rihm lost in 1999. We are lifted once again out of profound gloom with the gently cinematic romance of Kancheli’s Piano piece no. 23, which acts as bridge to Bach’s Adagio from BWV 974, which takes on similar qualities as a result.

This isn’t the kind of recording that will have you dancing in the street, but it is a carefully constructed and thought-provoking programme that guides you from beauty through the darkness of mortality and back into light. Anna Gourari’s playing is of the highest standard, and creates a moving atmosphere with each of the composers presented. ECM’s recording is as usual a delicious balance between acoustic richness and refined detail.

Dominy Clements

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