Thursday 23 October 2014

Cellist Anja Lechner and pianist François Couturier come together with a striking and unusual album of arrangements of works by George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, Komitas Vardapet, Federico Mompou and Couturier himself on a recent release from ECM

After a decade of shared work in the Tarkovsky Quartet and an ongoing alliance in the Pergolesi Project, with singer Maria Pia De Vito, German cellist Anja Lechner has teamed up with French pianist François Couturier to form a new duo.

The different backgrounds of these players bring mutually beneficial interests and experiences. Lechner is a classical soloist with an interest in improvisation whereas Couturier is a jazz musician travelling ever further from jazz.

Together they have recorded a new disc for ECM New Series entitled Moderato cantabile where they present their own arrangements of works by three fascinating composers that are, to a greater or lesser extent, on the margins of music history,  the Russian spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff , Armenian priest, composer, music ethnologist and musicologist, Soghomon Soghomonian, more usually known as Komitas Vardapet (Vardapet meaning ‘priest’) and the Spanish composer and pianist Federico Mompou (1893-1987). 
ECM New Series 2367

Each was influenced, to a greater or lesser extent, by folk traditions, religious music and philosophy; their music lending itself very well to arrangements such as those by these two artists.

George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was an influential spiritual teacher who taught that for most humans it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. As a composer he collaborated with the Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann and was influenced by Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music and Russian Orthodox liturgical music.

Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935) was an Armenian priest, composer, choir leader, singer, music ethnologist, teacher and musicologist regarded by many as the founder of modern Armenian classical music. Educated at the Echmiadzin Seminary, he became a monk, later travelling to Berlin where he studied music at the Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm University.  

The disc opens with Gurdjieff’s Sayyid chant and dance No. 3/Hymn No. 7 where François Couturier brings a low rippling theme to which the cellist adds a deeply felt melody that has a rather Eastern or ethnic flavour. The melody is then shared between the two players with Anja Lechner showing a real feeling for this music with Couturier adding a fine sensibility.  Centrally there is some fine playing from Couturier, full of freedom and spontaneity, something that can be said equally of Lechner.

Francois Couturier’s own piece Voyage opens with a repeated, descending motif for piano before the cello gently enters with a complimentary theme that slowly develops, full of passion, soon with added little decorations over the repeated piano motif. Later the piano takes the theme shifting around freely, almost jazz like, with a little pizzicato cello accompaniment before both players lead to a quiet coda. This is an attractive, affecting little piece.

The piano opens Komitas Vardapet’s Chinar es with a repeated rhythmic motif to which the cello joins, elaborating the theme as does the piano. The piano soon leads into a more flowing variation joined by the cello. This is simply constructed music, often oddly minimalist in tendency, though with a greater variety of decoration. These artists certainly draw much variety and improvisatory freedom from the music. There are Eastern European ethnic influences. Later the music slows and becomes more meditative.  

Federico Mompou’s Canción y danza VI has a languorous opening for piano with Couturier bringing his lovely freedom of approach. His jazz influences are all here but never distracting from Mompou’s basic idea. Lechner joins in the slow languid melody, adding an emotional pull before the music suddenly speeds with a rhythmic passage that dances along with these two artists showing their close musical affinity.

Slow piano chords open Mompou’s  Música Callada XXVIII/Impresiones intimas 1 from which a melody slowly develops taken up by Lechner who adds little decorations. There is some fine playing from this cellist as she freely works around the theme over a beautifully simple piano accompaniment. Eventually the piano slowly takes the theme forward, again with a lovely freedom, a sad, melancholy feel to which the cello adds when it re-joins before leading to a sudden end. This is a lovely piece.

Francois Couturier is again represented by his Soleil rouge that has a rhythmic opening for cello and piano with the music dancing along in a syncopated rhythm with some very fine playing from these artists. Soon the music slows to a languid passage that sounds as though it is freely improvised, with unusual phrases and odd dissonances, almost serial in feel as the piano moves ahead over a repeated cello motif that slowly fades.

Francois Couturier’s Papillons opens with strange little string phrases and taps on the cello, slowly joined by the piano. Here is a strange sound world, a long way from jazz. There are harmonics and strange bowed sounds before the piano slowly gives forth a slow melancholy theme again with a freely improvisatory feel as the piano theme is developed. The music does eventually pick up a jazz influence bringing a quite striking blend of classical modernism and jazz. Later the cello picks up the theme and, accompanied by the piano, leads confidently on leading to a confident coda, all strange harmonies left behind.

I was most attracted to this work and its unusual blend of styles.

The piano opens Gurdjieff’s Hymn No.8/Night procession with a slow flowing melody to which the cello joins giving the theme a little lift. The piano leads through a passage of florid writing before the cello slowly announces a darker ruminative section, full of anguish and atmosphere. There are some beautifully played, rich, long drawn cello phrases over an insistent piano rhythm before the cello weaves some lovely phrases over the insistent piano theme. Eventually the piano takes the theme but it is the cello that slowly leads the music to its subdued coda.

With Gurdjieff/Mompou’s Hymn No. 11/Fetes lointaines a resonating, rich cello theme opens before the piano joins with some lovely, often dissonant chords, sounding very much like an improvisation on an Eastern theme. These two fine artists provide some very fine sounds. Eventually the pace suddenly picks up but soon slackens with some lovely string effects before speeding with an insistent theme to the coda.

Mompou’s Impresiones intimas VIII: Secreto opens with a swaying pizzicato cello theme soon joined by the piano in a sultry Latin style melody. Soon the cello moves forward with the melody, later taken by the piano with pizzicato accompaniment. Then the cello returns with the theme over the insistent piano accompaniment varying the melody with a rather Eastern feel before becoming more subdued. The insistent piano theme leads to the close.

ECM must be congratulated for bringing these fine arrangements of music by such marginalised composers as George I. Gurdjieff and Komitas Vardapet to our attention. Moderato cantabile is a striking and unusual album, recorded in the rich acoustics of the Lugano studio. In my download the sound quality was excellent.

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