Russia

Alexander Knaifel – Lukomoriye

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What is it that holds music together? How loosely can it be structured and/or organised, and at what point does its integrity irrevocably break down? When does intense earnestness become perceived as affectation? When does patience cease being a virtue and become a problem, even a handicap?

i found myself pondering all of these questions, and many more besides, as i’ve been spending time in the company of Lukomoriye, the most recent disc of music by Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, released by ECM. The nature of those questions indicates a problematic and perhaps ultimately negative listening experience, so i should stress at the outset that it wasn’t actually like that at all. Knaifel’s music was new to me, and for better or worse i’d forgotten the information from the press release that had whetted my appetite, so i hadn’t really known what to expect. In a nutshell, Lukomoriye is probably the strangest thing i’ve listened to this year, and possibly the most fascinating too.

In hindsight, it’s unexpectedly helpful that the accompanying booklet doesn’t go into the usual kind of detail about the compositional thinking behind the eight works on this disc. There are, in fact, no details at all apart from the texts associated with each piece, and one tiny but crucial nugget of information literally relegated to a footnote, which i’ll come back to shortly. To say that what one finds on Lukomoriye is music of extreme quietness would not exactly miss the point but could potentially be misleading. This is, without a doubt, very quiet music, but of a markedly different order than that inhabiting the work of, say, Jakob Ullmann or some of the Wandelweiser composers or the world of lowercase.

In some respects the opening work on the album, O Comforter, Knaifel’s 1995 choral setting of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, is different from the majority of what follows. There are no challenging issues of integrity or coherence here, the choir maintaining a consistent, unwavering solidity throughout (which in retrospect, for all its softness seems almost deafening compared to the other pieces). But behaviourally speaking the nature of the choir’s slow homophony is revealing: it’s almost as if each voice is waiting for someone else to move first rather than choosing to initiate movement themselves. This makes the work’s gradual chord progressions feel not simply painstaking, but almost painful. It communicates something that typifies this album as a whole: a sense of necessity – a burning need and/or desire to express these things – yet from a place so completely overwhelmed that the actual act of expression becomes agonisingly arduous. It’s as if the music were emerging from exposed nerve endings: excruciated music we might call it. Read more

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Erkki-Sven Tüür – Illuminatio/Whistle and Whispers from Uluru/Symphony No. 8; Arvo Pärt & Alfred Schnittke – Choral Works; Arvo Pärt – The Symphonies

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Returning to one of my occasional themes, there have been some interesting releases of Estonian music in the last few months. In February, i wrote about the Ninth Symphony by one of the country’s most dynamic composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, so it’s nice timing that the Ondine label has brought out a disc featuring his Symphony No. 8, performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Olari Elts. The disc also features two slightly older, large-scale pieces, Tüür’s 2008 viola concerto Illuminatio and Whistle and Whispers from Uluru, a work for recorder and string orchestra composed in 2007. One of the primary traits of Tüür’s music is energy, and large amounts of it, though the works on this disc demonstrate (as does the Ninth Symphony) that the way this energy is wielded is not only with devil-may-care abandon – though Tüür is hardly afraid of doing this – but just as often with considerable caution and care. Illuminatio, featuring soloist Lawrence Power, is a case in point, placing the viola within a context that encompasses both the monumental and the fantastical, guided by the soloist’s veering between momentum and lyricism. Particularly striking are its second and third movements; the former charting a complex journey between two poles but where the poles themselves are never fully revealed, the latter starting with the viola rhapsodising but somehow ending up in a barrage of orchestrated machine gun fire. The work’s final thrust towards a place of ethereal transcendence makes sense in pretty much the same way that dreams make sense. Read more

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Ivan Wyschnegradsky – Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony

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If composers have generally lost a lot of the romanticised mystique and puffery that used to surround them (no bad thing), there remains one area where compositional intent is still likely to raise eyebrows and/or hackles, and confine the composer to a box labelled ‘weirdo’: non-standard tunings. Due to the mental and physical reconfigurations it demands, the act of turning away from the haven of semitones and octaves in favour of alternate divisions of pitch still has a tendency to piss off performers and audiences alike, and despite the ripostes that equally-tempered semitones are only one way of subdividing the infinite gradations of the pitch domain, and are in any case largely irrelevant in electronic music, composers who indulge in microtonal machinations within the realm of instrumental music often continue to be emblazoned with a badge of the bizarre. Even such well-known and -regarded figures as Charles Ives and Harry Partch continue to sport this badge (in Partch’s case, being practically defined by it); time, it seems, can only do so much.

All of which makes the publication of Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky‘s Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony a welcome contribution to this area. In the same way as Partch, Wyschnegradsky’s name is synonymous with microtonality, and the few albums of his work that have been released all feature examples of his quartertone piano music. While i’m no Wyschnegradsky expert, this association is perhaps not an unfair one, as it’s abundantly clear from his Manual just how seriously he regarded quartertones and how earnest he was in his efforts to integrate them into conventional (i.e. semitonal) music theory. Simply but elegantly published by Underwolf Editions, this is the first English translation of the book, a painstaking process undertaken by Rosalie and Noah Kaplan (translator and editor respectively), incorporating later edits made by Wyschnegradsky in his own annotated copy of the book, which was originally published in 1932. At just 28 pages its length belies how significant the book is; it deserves to sit alongside any of the great 20th century compositional tracts, manuals and manifestos. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Hommage à Edvard Grieg, Symphony No. 8 (UK Première), Concerto Grosso No. 2 & (K)ein Sommernachtstraum

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The fifth and final concert featured in this Schnittke Week was broadcast on 15 January 2001, and featured the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eri Klaas. The first part of the concert opened with something of an oddity: Hommage à Edvard Grieg, composed for the 150th anniversary of Grieg’s birth in 1993. It takes a healthy chunk of Grieg’s music as its starting point, but despite the energy of Schnittke’s variations on this theme, there’s never a cogent sense of quite what he’s trying to do—or, indeed, why. The two composers’ voices stay stubbornly separate, merely juxtaposed, never unified; all of which may be the point, but Schnittke makes that point so much better in other pieces.

It was followed by the UK Première of Schnittke’s Symphony No. 8, composed in 1994, and the last symphony he was able to complete before his death four years later. The first movement (Moderato, as ever) is an exercise in obsession. An extremely uncomfortable melody, angular in the extreme, starts in the horns, is passed to the strings, to the trombones, back to the horns, and so on and so on. Delivered above unwavering pedals, Schnittke grips tenaciously to this melody, transposing it but never daring to alter it; the effect becomes hypnotic, enhanced in the background by the pedals evolving into increasingly dense clusters. First harpsichord and then celesta present an alternate idea, a simple rising and falling line, its intervals expanding and contracting, which becomes the new focus of attention; but ‘focus’ is perhaps the wrong word, as the more this new idea is heard, the more turgid and unclear it becomes. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Cello Concerto No. 2 & Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4)

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Today’s featured Alfred Schnittke concert was broadcast on 14 January 2001, and comprised two monumental pieces, the Cello Concerto No. 2, with Torleif Thedéen taking the solo role, and the dual-named Symphony No. 5 (Concerto Grosso No. 4); Vassily Sinaisky directs the BBC Philharmonic. More than the others, this recording has suffered the effects of time (and, possibly, previous attempts at cleanup); there’s some crackle audible in the performances as well as the speech, and to add insult to injury, on the original recording (made on cassette) i neglected to use Dolby. So—despite my best efforts—my apologies for the sound quality, although the performances are so good that (for the most part) they transcend these problems.

Completed in 1990, Schnittke’s Cello Concerto No. 2 is a work that dives into high lyricism at the outset, the cello’s opening gambit pitched towards the top of its compass, followed by an extensive meditation at the opposite end of the pitch spectrum, ushering in a loud declamatory statement from the orchestra; throughout this short opening movement (Moderato), the orchestra’s role is restricted to punctuating the ends of the cello’s lengthy meanderings. While it seems as though the soloist is going to stay ponderous for some time, the second movement (Allegro) abruptly establishes a tempo, and a fairly brisk one at that. The orchestra gets excited once again, but falls back almost as quickly as before; only the brass engage with the cello, although from a distance. Things continue in this vein for a while, until a more pointillistic idea initiates more assertion in the orchestra, seemingly placing their notes in the momentary gaps left by the soloist. They construct a curious waltz that fizzles immediately into a strangely sparse string chorale, in which a flexatone can just be heard. Aggression breaks out; it’s clear this is an orchestra profoundly irritated at being sidelined, and they seem to form packs that assault the soloist from all directions; for the cello’s part, its material, ever in flux, is thus instantly forgettable and yet projects itself as though each and every leaping note was agonisingly important. At the movement’s crashing final beat, one is left breathless and wondering where things stand; in this performance, there’s a significant pause at this point, which adds to the drama. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 6, Monologue, String Trio & Concerto for Three

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Day three of my celebration of the music of Alfred Schnittke features music from a concert focusing on works involving solo strings, broadcast on 14 January 2001. Taking centre stage are soloists Ula Ulijona (viola), Marta Sudraba (cello), and the great violinist Gidon Kremer; they’re joined by the London Sinfonietta, directed by Eri Klass. In addition, there’s a fascinating survey by Gerard McBurney of Schnittke’s relationship with the Concerto Grosso form; apologies for the sound quality in these sections, which have become rather crackly for some reason.

Schnittke’s sixth Concerto Grosso is also his last, composed in 1993, and it’s a short work, the three movements lasting under a quarter of an hour. After a momentary—rather angry—pondering from the piano, the short first movement lets loose into a non-stop Allegro; far from taking a neo-continuo role, the piano’s relationship to the strings is more like that of a concerto, with distinct echoes of Shostakovich at times. Structurally, it’s highly formal, almost the entire movement repeated in its entirety before a wildly exuberant coda. The central Adagio is a duet for piano and solo violin, very simple at first, although this only goes to highlight an apparent discomfort between the two instruments. Read more

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Schnittke Week – Concerto Grosso No. 1, Fragments (World Première) & Symphony No. 4

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The second concert being featured in this week of music by Alfred Schnittke comprised two of his major compositions plus the world première of a work unfinished at his death. It took place on 13 January 2001, and was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins.

The concert began with perhaps Schnittke’s most-performed work, the Concerto Grosso No. 1. Opening movement ‘Preludio’ begins on prepared piano, gently clattering its way through a nursery rhyme-type melody. It’s answered with a hocketed idea in the solo violins, rocking back and forth on adjacent semitones (one can see already where this may be going: clusters a-go-go), while the lower strings form a backdrop of sustained harmonics. There’s a brief soloistic flourish in the violins, the violas slither down their strings to a bottom pedal note, the harpsichord teases its keyboard, and a gorgeous second idea begins. Above a glacial viola chord, a violin solo explores a melody at the bottom of its register; it’s not specified in the score, but in this performance Clio Gould opts to play near the bridge, making the line effectively fragile, and causing some delicious overtones to appear at the edges. A duet is formed, and the harpsichord re-announces the nursery tune; a curt, loud response in all the strings (tutti for the first time), brings the movement to an end, the violins’ hocketing idea now widened from a semitone to sevenths and ninths. You’d be forgiven for thinking a composer like Vivaldi had a hand in the second movement. Titled ‘Toccata’, it’s a diabolical parody of Vivaldi, overstuffed with ridiculously strict and stretto canons, Schnittke at his most caustically comical. Read more

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