Herbert Henck
Festeburger Fantasien

Kim Kashkashian
Hayren — Music of Tigran Mansurian and Komitas

György Kurtág
Signs, Games and Messages

Valentin Silvestrov

ECM New Series

This end-of-summer batch of New Music sides is almost too beautiful for words. German pianist-composer Herbert Henck’s twofer includes one of the best renditions of Cage’s Sonatas on record, with the pristine ECM sound a perfect setting for the late American composer’s prepared-piano excursions. (Cage’s metamorphosis of the piano into a kind of Balinese gamelan orchestra made his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, think of him as an “inventor” not a composer.) Henck discovers sparkling nooks and crannies in the resonant, gently percussive Sonatas — discovery, of course, being the point in any new reading of a text. Then Henck’s own piano improvisations on disc two, while inspired by Cage, move through a more lushly layered universe.

On violist Kim Kashkashian’s previous ECM title, Voci, her soulful immersions in the reveries of Italian contemporary Luciano Berio are juxtaposed with field recordings of the Sicilian folk songs that motivated the composer. In the present collection, Hayren, Kashkashian interprets the seductive music of Armenian modernist Tigran Mansurian (who also makes use of folk sources) and the haunting songs of Komitas, one of Armenia’s cultural treasures. Mansurian’s “Havik” finds Kashkashian bending the melody and following it into brooding non-Western intervals. Her ongoing involvement with improvised and folk musics has allowed her to transcend academic sound limits in favor of profundity. And Mansurian’s “rough” vocal renditions of Komitas take such unorthodoxy a few steps further, into the realm of the disturbingly sublime.

Picking up where Béla Bartók (and Anton Webern) left off, Hungarian György Kurtág composes suites combining stark fragments, unexpected variations, homages to other musicians, etc. Signs, Games and Messages contains three such sequences: the title work-in-progress for strings (including a piece dedicated to Cage and another referencing 19th-century French poet Gérard de Nerval); a song cycle for solo baritone voice setting works of German poet Friedrich Hölderlin; and a sequence of poems by Samuel Beckett and Maximes de Sébastien Chamfort titled … pas a pas … nulle part … (transl. step by step … nowhere) for baritone, string trio and percussion. Listening to Kurtág is like an all-night tête-à-tête with a brilliant friend — not everyone can handle it, but you wouldn’t pass up the chance.

Within the generation of post-Soviet composers influenced by Dimitri Shostakovich (most prominently including Sophia Gubaïdulina and Giya Kancheli), Valentin Silvestrov is a gentle extremist. The two works for piano and orchestra on his latest ECM release encompass polar opposites of violence and tenderness. Mostly he shows an impressionist side that also contains, in its emotional depths, a hint of the shimmering clusters of Morton Feldman. There are also melodies to cry for and drama to make one pause, thoughtfully.

E-mail George Tysh at letters@metrotimes.com.

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