New ethnic music releases from ECM: A luminous triple play

The ECM label's three most recent releases all come from composers, performers, and ensembles spanning from Armenia to the Baltic states.

CD cover photo for Luys I Luso, ECM records.

CHICAGO, Dec/ 4, 2015 – ECM may be the world’s most listenable and interesting new music label, providing a veritable passport to a global variety of pioneering musical efforts.

The label’s three most recent releases all come from composers, performers and ensembles spanning from Armenia to the Baltic states. Through it all, legendary producer Manfred Eicher’s recording prowess is only surpassed by his musical adventurism, while the performers on each recording truly shine in their efforts.

LuysILusoCoverIn “Luys I Luso,” Armenian pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyan combines with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir to deliver a memorably ethereal performance. Hamasyan’s compositions bring 15 centuries of Armenian sacred music to the choir, which is accompanied by the composer’s improvisations on (and inside of) the piano. There are moments of real, human connection on this disc, whose spans of intonational and rhythmic ambiguity only add to the already haunting, multi-era feel of these performances.

Part of Hamasyan’s goal was the recovery and redevelopment of this vital Armenian traditional music – music he perceives as a valuable cultural and religious expression disrupted by almost a century of Communist rule in this country. Coincidentally, this ultimate recording was done in the vicinity of the former monastery that once housed that all-important religious and cultural figure to Armenians: St. Gregory Narekatsi, recognized by both the Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church as a saint. His “Lamentations” remains a spiritual classic.

ChiaroscuroOur next recording highlights recent musical works from Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, a fourth wing of the famous “sacred minimalist” group of composers whose still-living members include Estonia’s Arvo Pärt. (Incidentally, Kancheli is sharing his 80th birthday with Pärt this year.)

EMC’s oddly named “Chiaroscuro” disc offers its title work (for violin and orchestra) as well as a piece entitled “Twilight” (for two violinists and orchestra), with both aptly interpreted by violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja along with violinist-conductor Gidon Kremer and his always vibrant Kremerata Baltica.

While the title work “Chiaroscuro” claims to take its inspiration from a dramatic painting technique dating from the renaissance and baroque eras, its ominous opening bass drum intonations usher in a surprisingly Fellini-esque sensation. It’s a temporary optimism that’s rare to Kancheli’s generally bleak musical landscapes.

Yet it is this very bleakness that makes it such a glorious match for Manfred Eicher’s signature dark yet vibrantly present recording style. For his part, Gidon Kremer’s long-standing creative partnership with Kancheli brings a unique spin and strong new influence to the performance of this work on the current disc, moving as it does from the lightness of its opening bars to the truly morose and more familiar Kancheli fair that eventually arrives.

Written at Kremer’s request for the annual Mozart Week in Salzburg, “Twilight”— the second major offering on this disc—may not appeal to befanged Halloween teeny-boppers. Rather, this disc features an intense and deeply melodic meditation growing from the smallness of the two scored violins that focus on a far larger and more searing statement by the ensemble. Like “Chiaroscuro,” “Twilight” bears a strong cinematic quality, which allows the transparent structures of the music to take on deeper meaning.

KomitasPerhaps the strongest effort featured in our triple-play of classical CD’s is the album “Komitas,” performed by Levon Eskenian’s “Gurdjieff Ensemble.” Readers of this column may recall our review “Priests and Poets,” which highlighted Gurdjieff’s music.

The ensemble featured on this recording was created in 2008 to explore the music and inspirations of its namesake. On this album, however, the ensemble chose to tackle the music of priest, poet, thinker and composer Komitas Vardapet. A legend in Armenia, Komitas is also remembered as an early ethnomusicologist who collected and preserved many of the folk songs from his region. So important is Komitas to the religious and musical tradition of Armenia that the state’s conservatory also bears his name.

Zurna, in Greek, zourna. Traditional Armenian instrument. (Via Wikipedia)
Zurna, in Greek, zourna. Traditional Armenian instrument (Via Wikipedia)
Duduk, another traditional Armenian instrument. (Via Wikipedia)
Duduk, another traditional Armenian instrument (via Wikipedia)

Like a Bartók of Armenia, the fascinating Komitas would often transfer the most interesting musical elements he discovered in folk music into his modern classical explorations. The Gurdjieff ensemble turns the prism of exploration back upon the music, taking these Komitas works back to the traditional Armenian instruments that inspired Komitas’ musical explorations. The resultant music is as frequently mesmerizing as it is novel and new.

This recent album carries an interesting balance, with its brief opening tracks giving way to the third and by far longest track, “Msho Soror.” This composition passes from boisterous and aggressive zurna duets played on this old instruments, which resembles an oboe, to contrasting soft and ethereal duduk duets performed on those instruments, which are double-reed woodwind/flute instruments traditionally played in pairs. These instruments, in turn, are supported by various instrumental combinations derived from the larger ensemble.

“Msho Soror” is followed by what may be one of the loveliest moments in the entire, vast ECM catalogue: the stunning duduk duet “Havun.” This music seems to inhabit a place somewhere between the traditionally wistful music written for the Armenian duduk and a contrapuntal style and precision approaching the quality of western counterpoint.

In passing the folk borrowings in Komitas’s classical compositions back to the original folk instruments that inspired them, we are once again given a music that is at once fresh and surprising.

For those wishing to hear a modern music as accessible as it is challenging – let alone those who wish to close their eyes and travel to faraway places through the medium of sound – these three recordings make a fine grouping, with the Komitas album most highly recommended.

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