ECM New Series 1669 (462 713 2)
The latest Kancheli release from ECM New Series, like its predecessors, poses more questions than it answers. This Georgian-born composer makes few brush-strokes on the canvas, but if his music is spare, it is never arid; how does he do it? Although he has been described as a "spiritual Minimalist," Kancheli's music is quite unlike the busy, kinetic minimalism of Glass and Reich. Similarly, although he and Cage (or Feldman) probably would agree on the importance of a single note or an isolated sound that is perfectly placed and completely heard, Kancheli seems to be less interested in experimenting with forms and sounds than with exploring the depth of human emotions.
Similarly, although Kancheli's music often is despairing, it is never completely without hope; where does this hope come from? Simi is subtitled "Joyless thoughts for violoncello and orchestra," a description that would provoke knowing snickers if it had been written by many other composers. With Kancheli, we feel it, and we believe it. In the annotations to this CD, Rostropovich writes of the composer, "His natural element is the deepest sorrow." Of himself, Kancheli comments that sometimes he has "the impression that everything I write is part of a single work I began in my youth, one that will only be complete when I finally depart from this life [...]. The flow of thoughts in this one work the length of a lifetime corresponds to a mental state which continually changes while remaining essentially the same. Grief, regret, the repudiation of violence. Hope predominates over happiness and joy." Is this hope the hope of the life-long exile, the blind faith that a haven will be found when, to take the cliché literally, all has been said and done? Hope appears near the end of Simi, but it is a wavering light on a wintry light, and no sooner does it appear than it is contradicted. The elements one has come to expect from Kancheli are present in Simi : slow tempos, spare textures, obsessively repeated figures, tense quiet, violent outbursts, extreme thoughtfulness. This 28-minute work was commissioned by the orchestra that plays it here.
The organizers of a music festival once asked Kancheli to write a work containing Georgian folk tunes. Kancheli refused, unwilling to "interfere" with the work of another composer. (After all, as he points out, "folk music" is composed by a person, not by "folk.") Still, the organizers persisted, and Kancheli's response was Magnum Ignotum . Here, Kancheli overcomes (?) his objections by inserting folk music unchanged into his work via pre-recorded tape. The taped fragments are a gospel text, a polyphonic Gurian song, and a Georgian hymn sung by the Rustavi Choir. The instrumental ensemble is comprised of flute, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two French horns, and a double-bass. Magnum Ignotum sounds like an archaeological dig; first the outlines of different cultures appear under the dirt, and then they are revealed to make way for the next discovery. Again, the music is very quiet, slow, and sadly thoughtful. There is not a note that is unconsidered, or that fails to make an impact. It is weighted down with history.
The performances show exceptional concentration, and the engineering is ideal. There are booklet notes by the composer, and comments by Rostropovich. However, as is often the case with ECM New Series releases, basic information about the compositions and their history is omitted in favor of philosophical statements.
Classical Net, 2001
Kancheli's best music is sad, dramatic, and intermittently terrifying. The piece Simi, which has the gloomy subtitle "joyless thoughts for violoncello and orchestra," admirably accomplishes these moods. Its opening adagio begins by suggesting a disquieting threat on the cello. Soon Mstislav Rostropovich's cello rides on exquisite rails of tension, as the thematically clotted adagio continues to tweak the listener's sense of dread. A crescendo rises and threatens to explode, but vanishes, leaving all but a ripple of sound. But there is no peace as fff chords crash suddenly, jolting and thrilling the ears. Such eruptions are standard in Kancheli's musical arsenal; in this piece, they work splendidly. Unaccountably, like tragic accidents, they are over quickly. Conductor Jansung Kakhidze's Koninkijk Filharmonisch Orkest van Vlaadderen lurks in the background, providing a dark tone color accompanying the doleful cello. Like Webern's music, sometimes small tone rows carry the piece, subtly inferring emotional stress rather than plunging the listener into them (as Mahler often does). Later in the piece, other orchestral eruptions take place, each time more intense and severe. Simi grabs the listener by the lapels like a social reformer shouting "can't you see what's happening?" There are other ingenious effects in this piece, like Kancheli's skilful balancing of percussive effects with rests, which heightens the disquiet in this piece. The piece ends as it began, a poem of sorrow and regret that dissolves diminuendo, diluted like a homeopathic remedy down to ppp. This disturbing piece is difficult to ignore.
I wish I could summon the same enthusiasm for Magnum Ignotum ("the Great Forgiving"). It begins adagio, and soon an odd pallor settles over the piece. A taped voice half-chants Matthew 1:18-25 (This biblical citation recounts the angel's message to Joseph that Mary is pregnant and the man's subsequent reaction.) This four-minute segment sets a discomforting mood. Not dramatically spoken like the reading from Ezekiel 37:1-10 Penderecki uses in his Seventh Symphony, the segment is monotonous - it is also tonally and thematically irrelevant. Kancheli places the tape player so far back it's difficult to tell if the language is Latin or Georgian. Does he think by injecting religion into a piece it inures it from criticism? The middle segment is unremarkable, drifting on a placid chromatic sea until interrupted by a tantalizingly short and undocumented Gurian song. The piece concludes with a passage from the Georgian hymn Upalo Ghmerto - lovely but also undocumented - and clanging bells. While well played by the Koninkijk Filharmonisch Orkest van Vlaadderen orchestra, Magnum Ignotum ultimately fails. It is a noble attempt at what the composer calls "a formally enigmatic, mysteriously beautiful piece," but it lacks direction and sustained mood.
MusicWeb, June 2001
The sound favoured by ECM is unglamourised but conveys the impression of weight and fidelity. A pugnacious lack of glamour also characterises their black and white sleeve designs.
Kancheli, Tbilisi born, studied with Iona Tuskiya graduating from Tbilsi Conservatory in 1963. His Fourth Symphony won the State Prize in 1976. He left his homeland impelled by the winds of violent change that swept through Georgia in the early 1990s. After three years in Berlin he moved to his present base in Antwerp in 1994.
Kancheli glowers at and around the margin of tonality. He does not stray very far- witness the unequivocal tranced tonality of the closing three minutes. With a subtitle like that, Simi, soulfully played by Rostropovich is what you might expect. It takes as its apparent point of departure the darker reaches of Sibelius 4 and ploughs a slow furrow into even more tenebrous realms. Tragedy spills from Rostropovich's bow. This work could easily partner Frank Bridge's Oration. Simi, by the way, is Georgian for 'trembling string'. At 10.29 and 16.20 the gloom is lit by the twilight of a ghostly silky tendril of melody limned by cello and piano This rises to a series of brief, belligerent and thunderous statements for full orchestra. These are shot through with Petterssonian and Shostakovich-like elements: furious and caustic. Rostropovich writes that Kancheli's music should be played as slowly as possible. The great 'inscape' spaces evoked by this music are comparable with the even broader canvas of Valentin Silvestrov's Fifth Symphony (still available on BMG-Melodiya) and Arvo Pärt's Cantus.
Magnum Ignotus (The Great Anonymous) is for wind ensemble and tape. The tape track uses a priest reading in the cathedral of Anchiskhati, a 1930s recording of three elderly West Georgian men singing a polyphonic improvisation and the vocal ensemble Rustawi singing Uphalo Ghmerto (Holy God) over the dead iron chatter of stilled bells. The slowed passage of time and the suggestion of eternity is here no cipher for monotony. It is the musical equivalent of a dear and trusted friend's whisperings carried on a web of Bachian melisma and long held notes akin to the music of John Tavener. The ensemble comprises: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 french horns and double bass. There is nothing bluff or hearty about this music: vintage Kancheli. An acrid thoughtful nostalgia breathes mistily over these pages. Only towards the end of the long central passage for the band alone does the material slow to a pace where a reflection shudders towards collapse.
Both works are conducted by Janzug Kakhidze who has premiered all the Kancheli symphonies and whose recordings of four of them (3-6) are on the all too reticent Olympia label (OCD 401 and OCD 403) and a single disc collection of 6 and 7 on SONY SMK 66590. The conductor is a close associate of the composer and has been since the 1950s. Kancheli is fortunate in such a constant 'flame'.
Two minor caveats: playing time is short and the notes while probing and authoritative do not give essentials like the date of each composition. Otherwise the sombre and sincere eloquence of this disc is totally compelling.
MusicWeb, December 2000
An uneasy peace all too easily disrupted in a creative formula that Kancheli’s many admirers will find familiar. But while Simi’s magic is, in some respects, predictable, Magnum Ignotum is both unusual and musically stimulating
If you’re familiar with Kancheli’s recent work and presume you know what you’re in for here, then I would advise playing Magnum Ignotum (1994) first. It might surprise you. The scoring is for wind ensemble, double bass and tape. But rather than play on ferocious climaxes and the stunned silences that trail them (a characteristic of the more recent orchestral works), Kancheli opts for subtle colouring and harmonic twists. Bassoon and bass clarinet usher in the quiet incantation of a preacher whereas later episodes incorporate prerecorded polyphonic improvisation and a vocal ensemble singing ‘Holy God’ (‘Uphalo Ghmerto’). Magnum Ignotum (‘The Great Anonymous’) is a delicately veiled, deeply introverted piece that’s as much reliant on musical space as on precise harmonic crafting.
Simi, on the other hand, resembles various other works by Kancheli that have already appeared on the ECM label. The overall mood is one of interrupted sublimity, where inward musings are violently disrupted, then softened, very occasionally, by passages of almost saccharine sweetness. Rostropovitch was the work’s prompting inspiration and I am happy to say that he plays it marvellously well. The halting solo gestures that open the piece soon give way to a chiming low C (on piano) and the onset of a whole series of violent contrasts. One in particular – you can join it around 6'00'' – calls a halt to a huge crescendo only to reveal a half-lit chord with a delicate thread of cello tone glowing bright at its centre. Then, at 10'22", there’s an unexpected softening when the soloist muses above gentle piano cascades. Later episodes are marginally more animated and the piece ends quietly on an eerie harmonic B natural for solo cello.
Rostropovich himself speaks of Kancheli’s ‘natural element’ as being ‘the deepest mystical sorrow’. He apparently took the composer’s own speech as a starting point for gauging how to play his music, a strategy that has resulted in a total identification with Kancheli’s idiom. Hearing the piece straight through for the first time, listeners might be tempted into thinking that Simi is but another manifestation of a formula that Kancheli has already tried and tested in various similar-sounding works from roughly the same period. I must confess that the idea did occur to me. The general aura of desolate space, spiritual power and humility in the face of that power is one that Kancheli has conjured in at least half-a-dozen other works, always cast along similar lines. The most refreshing aspect of Magnum Ignotum is that it sounds different – is less reliant on dynamic peaks and troughs. It’s unfamiliar territory, which Simi isn’t, and I’d like to go there more often. Fine sound and exemplary playing.
Gramophone, December 2000
Kancheli has sometimes been lumped together with Tavener and Pärt under the ‘holy minimalist’ label, but there’s something much more disconcerting about his music. It’s to do with the frequent pauses between musical gestures; the sudden unexplained climaxes which vanish almost as soon as they arrive; a relentless tick-tock pulse which returns obsessively; passages which sound like a child’s music box heard in a dream. It could all add up to something incredibly banal, but to my ears it has a sinister beauty which is utterly involving.
Though the style is tonal, it reminds me of the music of Morton Feldman, where you are on the edge of your seat because there’s simply no way of knowing what’s going to happen next. And, as in Feldman, the performers have to take great care that the music somehow sounds during the pauses, and that things don’t get disjointed. There’s no danger of that from Kakhidze, who has championed Kancheli since the Fifties, and Rostropovich, for whom Simi was written, and who turns in a performance of understated eloquence. Magnum ignotum is a starker piece, for wind and double bass, with three short pre-recorded overlays of traditional Georgian music – disconcerting at first hearing, but making clear Kancheli’s roots in his country’s culture.
BBC Music Magazine