Moderato cantabile

Anja Lechner / François Couturier

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Moderato cantabile Review

by James Manheim

The neutral graphics and title (derived from the novelist Marguerite Duras) of this ECM release give little clue as to what's inside, and even for those who pursue it further, seeing the name of Russian spiritualist George Gurdjieff in the track list might give the impression that the contents are more new agey than they really are. It's true that mystical belief is one of the strands knitting together this exceptionally well-chosen program, but there are many others. They include an Eastern orientation in musical matter as well as attitude, proto-minimalism, and the use of improvisatory procedures. These show up in greater or lesser degrees in the music of all four of the composers represented: Gurdjieff, Federico Mompou, François Couturier (the pianist here, whose background is partly in jazz), and Armenian priest-composer-musicologist Komitas Vardapet, often known simply as Komitas, represented by a single work, Chinar es. The connections are new and delightful; for example, Mompou is not thought of as a mystic, but the writings of St. John of the Cross had a major impact on what he did. The story of the music by Gurdjieff is told in the notes: he was not really a composer, but he knew a good deal of music from Central Asia, filtered it through his own sensibility, and then hummed or whistled it (or played it in a rudimentary way) for composer Thomas de Hartmann, who notated and harmonized it. Hartmann's realizations were piano works, but here they are arranged by the performers for cello and piano. This, they point out, sends Gurdjieff's melodies back in the direction of their ensemble origins. Elsewhere the liberties are even greater; Couturier's own compositions have an improvisational bent, and three times the players join separate pieces together. This is especially effective in the case of Gurdjieff's No. 11 and Mompou's Fêtes lointaines No. 3, with its evocation of distant bells (as annotator Steve Lake points out, a major preoccupation of Arvo Pärt, who may well have been influenced by Mompou and perhaps by the other composers here except for Couturier). All this is backed up by masterful engineering from ECM stalwart Manfred Eicher; good sound from ECM is expected, but here it is crystalline. A superb release, even for those who think they don't like mystical composition.

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