Jul/Aug 2000

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Beautiful Sorrows

Kancheli, Giya. Lament: Music of Mourning In Memory of Luigi Nono for Violin, Soprano and Orchestra.
Gidon Kremer, violin; Maacha Deubner, Soprano; Tibilisi Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jansug Kakhidze.
ECM New Series 1956 289 465 138-2.


Giya Kancheli first hit western music listeners' consciousness immediately after the break-up of the Soviet Union, when his cycle of five symphonies (1967, 1970, 1973, 1975, 1977) was released on easily available CDs. As the most important composer from the newly independent Republic of Georgia, these works spoke a message of intellectual integrity and defiance in the face of oppression and of fierce individualism in the face of conformity. Work in this genre seemed to reach an end in 1986 with Symphony No.7, subtitled "Epilogue."

The Tibilisi Symphony Orchestra gave shattering performances that suggested nationalist and communal commitment both in the conception of the works and in their performance, even though unlike most regionally trained Soviet-era composers, Kancheli eschewed almost all references to folk music.

Instead, he created an almost minimalist orchestral grammar through which the starkly differentiated units could be assembled in a variety of syntactic structures, none of which imitated or recalled traditional symphonic forms or genres. These grammar units are:

Lush string harmonies
Huge sudden full-orchestral outbursts
Long melismatic solo lines
Wordless soprano vocalaises
Nursery-rhyme tinkling piano passages
Long static durations of a single idea or texture
Pianissimos so quiet as to approach silence

From these pieces, Kancheli devised what is certainly the most instantly recognizable symphonic style of any living composer.

Because the grammatical units are assembled into large syntactic utterances that do not recall traditional symphonic forms, the listener (even after repetitions) finds herself/himself in a sound world capable of alarming surprises. Because the Kancheli mood is laden, even leaden, with sadness, these surprises do not shift the emotional vector such as to produce a psychological or meditative narrative. Instead, the Kancheli symphony is a huge emotionally static aural panorama in which sadness, longing and loss are displayed with interchangeable and various facets.

The works that followed the symphonies received excellent recordings, mostly on the ECM New Series label, and include:

Mourned for the Wind, 1989
Morning Prayers, 1990
Afternoon Prayers, 1991
Evening Prayers, 1991
Night Prayers, 1991
Exil, 1993
Trauerfarbenes Land, 1994

Several of these incorporate very short texts sung by soprano. Although still championed by the Tibilisi Symphony and Jansug Kakhidze, Kancheli himself has lived in Germany proclaiming himself an artist in exile.

Thus since the fall of the Soviet Union, he has undergone two profound changes as an artist. He has brought to a close his writing of symphonies (with their implicit generic connotations as public utterances), and he has defined his music as an intensely interiorized exploration of the existential condition of exile-hood and homelessness.

To my ear, these works, despite their moments of power and ravishing beauty, as a group seem self-parodic and almost solipsistic—as if the composer had trapped himself in his own syntax-fast reaching a dead-end-or worse a no exit.

The recent recording of the 1995 Lament: Music of Mourning In Memory of Luigi Nono for Violin, Soprano and Orchestra has changed my mind about an imminent dead end. This is a powerfully convincing, profoundly moving work, as fully achieved as anything Kancheli has written.

Several factors come together to move the work away from solipsistic self-parody. First, as an elegy for Luigi Nono, Kancheli clearly seeks both to acknowledge his kinship with the Italian composer's grief-laden oeuvre and to engage in a dialogue with it. As a living subjectivity of isolation dialogues with a memorialized fellow, now dead, subjectivity of isolation, isolation itself becomes a commonality-and as a commonality, it even suggests the beginning of community. As with the symphonies, in this work I feel Kancheli to be speaking to and for more than himself.

The dialogic bridge between Nono the object of mourning and Kancheli the mourner is Gidon Kremer, for in some ways this work is a deliberate vehicle for his exquisite violinistic purity of long-line-a trademark style of playing that Nono himself had exploited in one of his last works La lontanza nostalgic utopica futura (1988-89) which was subtitled "madrigal for several "travelers" with Gidon Kremer." Thus, quite materially Nono enters Kancheli's elegy via the violin technique of Kremer. Furthermore, the wisps of poetry sung by the soprano create a dialogue with the poet, Hans Sahl, that wordless vocalaise does not. Signature Kancheli grammatical units are all here, but there is a forward movement to this work's 42 minutes that gives it genuine urgency. The syntax of surprise, as in the symphonies, works to reveal wildly different facets of grief, but the static panorama of the work sustains a coherence that seems somehow to offer something like consolation-something like closure. Nono was the paradigmatic example of the Marxist artist who had no truck with the clichés of doctrinaire socialist realism, and whose remarkable compassion for victims of capitalist exploitation, warfare and inhumanity was the compelling drive behind many of his greatest works. Does Kancheli's Lament for Nono lament as well that composer's hugely humane vision which the late-capitalist "new world order" seems not only to have silenced but also to have made taboo?

The performance by Kremer, Deubner, Kakhidze and The Tibilisi Symphony are astonishingly beautiful.


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