CHICAGO, September 16, 2014 – In September and October, we will present a series of articles relating to recent releases and catalogue highlights from ECM Records of Germany. ECM’s “New” series, produced by the enigmatic Manfred Eicher, may well be the most exciting and accessible new music label in existence. It is certainly a wonderful door through which the uninitiated may enter this world.
We begin this series with a discussion of an intriguing recent recording by the Amsterdam Sinfonietta of the music of Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian entitled “Quasi Parlando.” The orchestra and the two featured soloists are conducted by Candida Thompson.
Mansurian’s music, both tightly wound and romantically expansive, seems to contain something essential with regard to the long, complex, and often troubled history and culture of the Armenian people. At the same time, it manages to avoid the more exclusive and problematic pitfalls of nationalism.
The recording of “Quasi Parlando” opens with the singular intonations of the composer’s Double Concerto (1978), which gently bloom forth to reveal Mansurian’s unique yet immediately recognizable musical vision. This first work is high modernism for the common man, possessing all the hallmarks of the highly controlled musical language in vogue at that time, yet immediately accessible in its raw immediacy.
The composer’s tight yet often-disjunctive melodic lines weave a melancholy spell, while more disjunctive motions and dissonant harmonies are employed to full theatrical effect. It is a relentless music, sometimes drifting in restrained clusters, while at other times singing out painfully for only a moment. It later assaults the listener with sustained textures that breathe forth pure strife.
Clearly, as exemplified here, Mansurian’s earlier works may not be to every listener’s taste. But both the compositional construction and the performance in this recording are beyond reproach.
The second piece on the album, “Romance,” is a shimmering work which – due to its somewhat neo-romantic flavor – is a much more accessible creation than the earlier “Double Concerto.” Young Moldovan violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja performs the work on this recording with a mature restraint appropriate to Mansurian’s tightly wound melodic language. At the same time, she breathes color and intensity into his more sustained and unforgiving structures.
Similarly moving is the following title track, “Quasi Parlando,” in which Manfred Eicher’s mainstay German cellist, Anja Lechner, plays with her typical focused, yet floating quality. The most recent work on this album, it marries something of Mansurian’s earlier modernist constructionism with the lyrical beauty of his later works.
If there is a single work on this recording capable of attracting the most admiration, it is Mansurian’s “Concerto No. 2: Four Serious Songs” for violin and string orchestra. The work opens with dark lines eerily reminiscent of Shostakovich’s later symphonies, and perhaps most clearly marries Mansurian’s eastern-European mourning strain with the composer’s dusty Armenian roots. Once again, Kopatchinskaja shines in her performance of the concerto.
The Mansurian recording itself embodies the dark yet immediately present quality one might expect from an ECM product. Unfortunately some unfortunate audio artifacts pop up throughout the recording, especially occasional audible footsteps and what seems to be the brief beeping of a wristwatch at the 5:20 mark of the first of the “Four Serious Songs.”
Given the ease with which such noises can be quickly edited out of a recording using modern and affordable digital tools, the fact that these artifacts remain on the final release is indeed a bizarre and glaring error that somehow slipped by ECM’s typically stringent quality controls.
Wolfgang Sandner’s astute and poetic program notes for this recording are well worth a moment of high praise. They not only describe accurately what’s likely to be unfamiliar music to many. They have the added bonus of providing any reviewer the comparably easier task of enthusiastically pointing the way into this impressively packaged artistic statement.
Sandner’s narration opens up Mansurian’s musical world with an immediate intensity that words can rarely bring to the experience of music, giving listeners a truly edifying guidebook into the work of a composer they may not be familiar with.
As the final pulsating and luminous cluster of the “Four Serious Songs” fades away, one will certainly have been glad to have made the journey.
Rating: *** (3out of 4 stars)