Of Priests and Poets: ‘Moderato Cantabile’

François Couturier and Anja Lechner.
François Couturier and Anja Lechner, composite by Ponick from PR photos posted to the artists' websites.

CHICAGO, October 5, 2014 – Self-proclaimed esoteric Christian spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff is best known for teaching “the Fourth Way.” That’s a method for achieving deeper consciousness he has endeavored to spread in different centers around the world.

Less known is his fascinating foray into music composition, specifically dictating his musical ideas to Ukrainian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Though the acceptance of the resulting music as Gurdjieff’s own is often debated, Hartmann always maintained that his transmission of the music was entirely faithful.

Cellist Anja Lechner was the featured soloist on a 2003 ECM New Series recording entitled “Chants, Hymns, and Dances,” a disk that first explored Gurdjieff’s music in a chamber setting. A surprise hit for the German label, this recording consigned questions of Gurdjieff’s compositional method to a secondary status by overwhelming the issue with a fascinating exploration of what proved to be thoroughly entrancing music.

"Moderato Cantabile" cover art.
“Moderato Cantabile” cover art.

Gurdjieff spent much of his time in Paris, where he also encountered the exiled and war-weary Vartapet Komitas, the legendary Armenian priest, music scholar, and composer. The modestly titled “Moderato cantabile”—a new 2014 ECM release—musically reflects this encounter. Anja Lechner returns to reprise her exploration of Gurdjieff’s work on this disk, pairing it appropriately with arrangements of Komitas’ sacred music.

Lechner is joined on the recording by improvisational pianist François Couturier, who helps Lechner round out the aesthetic of the album with the inclusion of additional works by composers Federico Mompou as well as Couturier’s own eclectic compositions.

“Sayyid chant and dance no.3, Hymn no. 7,” a medley of Gurdjieff compositions created by the performing artists, is the moody introductory work on the album. For many listeners, this opening track may very well prove to be the highlight of the effort. Lechner and Couturier channel the feeling of “Chants, Hymns and Dances,” while contributing an immediate improvement in the lightness of playing and floating quality of the performances.

Couturier’s own formidable jazz background certainly adds a welcome looseness to these performances, while Lechner continues to demonstrates the inherent benefits for those string players who choose to venture boldly outside of their standard canon. Her tastefully variegated tone and ensemble work here is deeply satisfying.

Couturier’s compositional output is introduced in the second track, “Voyage.” The aptly named composition begins with a simple, repeated C# minor triad, with bass notes entering and outlining the descent of a fifth. A simple funereal descent of a minor third is then introduced by the cello.

From this cinematically simple introduction grows an evocative cello melody, which propels the work forward into more surprising harmonic territory. “Voyage” is a beautiful work reminiscent of another ECM favorite, Eleni Karaindrou, and is a beautiful counterpoint to Gurdjieff’s similarly restrained musical language.

The arrangement of Komitas’ “Chinar Es” continues this recording’s exploration of minimalistic and melodically centered works, bringing the first rays of sunny optimism into this album’s spiritual landscape. It is a fascinating musical snapshot of this composer-priest’s life, looking forward to glimpse perpetual hope through the dark clouds of earthly life that can often obscure the far-distant vision of eternity.

The fifth track introduces a new voice into this compilation with Federico Mompou’s (1898-1987) “Cancion Y Danza 6.” The highly melodic work unfolds in yet another cinematic landscape, evolving into a multi-metered dance section that hugs the boundary between optimism and melancholy. This Spanish composer was once the toast of Paris, his piano centric output making him something of an heir to Chopin, albeit lesser known. Including his work is an inspiring programming decision.

Couturier’s “Soleil Rouge” and “Papillons,” the middle tracks on this album, develop into pieces whose modernistic flare seems somewhat jarring in this collection.

The extended cello techniques and open atonality of “Papillons” serve as an effective palette cleanser in the otherwise diatonic landscape of “Moderate cantabile.” Yet despite the surprising tonal twist that leads one into a territory more akin to the other works on the album, “Papillons” may ultimately be out of place in the musical environment of this recording.

The final three works on the album – Gurdjieff’s Hymns # 8 and 11 and Mompou’s “Impresiones Intimas #8, ‘Secreto’), provide a study in contrast. “Hymn #8” is as recognizably straightforward a Gurdjieffian gesture as the album contains, while the rapid shifts and harmonic experimentation of “Hymn #11” leave the listener wondering how much artistic and improvisational license Lechner and Couturier may have taken with this work.

Mompou’s “Impresiones” begins with gentle rolling piano intonations supported with pizzicato accompaniment, in a slowly evolving pattern that eventually reveals a simple but (tastefully) predictable and tuneful landscape. It is standard and welcome fare for this album, highlighted by lovely cello playing with just enough harmonic support to move the music forward.

As the final notes of this album fade into nothingness, we are led out of a fascinating musical and spiritual journey of international scope, all somehow passing through the influence of 20th century Paris. Clearly, this recording is a fitting addition to ECM’s catalogue, managing as it does to effortlessly blend the best elements of new music, folk music and jazz which ECM’s founder, Manfred Eicher, regularly captures with such stunning effect.

Great music speaks on its own. But a competent companion is always a welcome guest. To own a physical copy of an ECM New Series CD, with its stylish minimalistic packaging and its typically informative and poetic program notes, is to enjoy such a companion to help you begin your journey into a new music.

And in the case of this recording, it is a new music worth exploring most fully.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 Stars.)

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