At the beginning of the 1960s, the St Petersburg-based composer Alexander Knaifel (born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan in 1943) was part of the geographically-scattered avant-garde of the Soviet Union, and a friend and contemporary of composers Alfred Schnittke, Sofia Gubaidulina and Edison Denisov, all then active in Moscow, as well as Arvo Pärt in Tallinn, Giya Kancheli in Tiflis, and Valentin Silvestrov in Kiev. A remarkable generation of musicians, highly supportive of each other, yet each with a uniquely defined sound-world. Knaifel’s music in this early period was intensely expressive and attested to the influence both of Shostakovich and the Second Vienna School of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.
In the 1970s, Knaifel’s compositional style changed, became more inward looking, with a greater economy of musical means, and by the 1990s the emphasis was most often on works on religious themes, “occupying a territory between philosophy, psychology and the esoteric”.
Knaifel now spoke of sounds as “signs of the existence of beauty” defining beauty as “energy, unrepeatable”.
The first appearance of his music on ECM was as the title track of the 1998-recorded recital disc “Lux Aeterna” by cellist brothers Patrick and Thomas Demenga, and immediately attracted the attention of the press: “A work of daring simplicity,“ wrote Julian Haycock in The Strad. “Slow moving music, often stratospherically written for the two cellos... To sustain such a work for 22 minutes and completely mesmerise the listener defies all expectations. Every tiny inflection, the way each note starts, finishes and is sustained becomes a matter of fascination, leading the ear effortlessly on.”
Two years ago, ECM released “Svete Tikhiy”, comprised of the title composition, on which Tatiana Melentieva’s voice was subject to the sampling interventions of Andrei Siegle, and “In Air Clear and Unseen” with the Keller Quartet and pianist Oleg Malov and music inspired by the poetry of Fyodor Tyutchev. Peter Quinn, in Tempo magazine, described this as “An indispensable disc… Savoring the beauty of the fleeting moment is a constant thematic thread in Tyutchev’s oeuvre, and this is surely apt: using the simplest possible means, Knaifel’s music with its pristine gesturelessness and its overwhelming sense of being rather than becoming, similarly conveys moments of the most ephemeral, fragile beauty.” And in International Record Review, Christopher Ballantine placed Knaifel as “part of a loose grouping of contemporary composers that includes Górecki, Pärt and Taverner, increasingly concerned with the search for a simple and direct form of musical utterance. Knaifel’s newest release introduces works whose main preoccupation is to convey and to evoke a quiet attitude of reverential devotion. Perhaps most striking about these pieces is their inwardness, so strongly suggested that at moments one feels one is eavesdropping on a private reverie… The sense of a private, interior dimension is felt keenly in the music’s insistently dreamlike quality.”
For his latest New Series album, Alexander Knaifel collaborates with incomparable cellist Mstislav Rostropovich on “Psalm 51 (50)”, and sets the uniquely pure voice of his wife, Tatiana Melentieva amid the soloists of the Glinka College Boys Choir on “Amicta Sole (Clothed With The Sun)”. Two more pieces that qualify, to use the composer’s term, as “quiet giants”, extended, slow-moving works.
Knaifel points out that Psalm 51(50) has been held by some commentators to be the most comprehensive expression of emotion “in the entire Book of Psalms, and I had this feeling that only Rostropovich could articulate this text.” Rostropovich is called upon to “sing” the Russian translation of the text, articulating it “syllable by syllable” through the medium of the cello. In a similar spirit the instrumentalists of the State Hermitage Orchestra are also instructed to “‘sing out’ the spiritual texts” in “Amicta Sole”, “as if they are literally being sounded aloud”.
In the booklet notes for “Amicta Sole”, the composer speaks of the plea “Utrenevati” (“Be on my morning watch”) as “an astounding and piercing prayer”. With the voices and instruments expressing an equally focused yearning, this is the case in this composition.
Alexander Knaifel was born on 28th November 1943 into a family of musicians. His father, Aron Iossifovich Knaifel, was a violinist and played as a soloist and in ensembles. His mother, Muza Veniaminovna Shapiro-Knaifel, taught theoretical musical subjects in the music school annexed to the Leningrad Academy of Music. Alexander Knaifel also studied there, mastering the cello under Emmanuel Fishman’s instruction. He continued his studies at the Moscow Academy of Music (1961 – 1963), where his teacher was Mstislav Rostropovich – another reason why this recording is particularly important for him – and at the Leningrad Academy of Music in Boris Arapov’s composition class.
In addition to his more than 70 works in many areas of composition, Knaifel has written music for more than 40 feature films and documentaries. He was the first Russian musician to be awarded the international DAAD prize. A free-lance musician, he holds the title of Honoured Artist of Russia (1996). He lives and works in St Petersburg.
Tatiana Melentieva grew up in Leningrad, where her father, Ivan Vassilievich Melentiev, was one of the leading soloists of the Maryinski Theatre. She graduated from Leningrad Conservatory and completed her post-graduate course there. It was also in Leningrad that she gave her first concerts and made her first recordings. Tatiana Melentieva has toured in the U.S.A., Japan, England, Germany, Holland, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and the Scandinavian countries. She has appeared with pianists – Grigori Sokolov, Alexei Lubimov, Oleg Malov, Sophia Vakman – and leading orchestras conducted by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Mstislav Rostropovich, Saulius Sonsdeckis, Igor Blajkov, Alexander Lazarev and others. Alongside her activities as a performer, Tatiana Melentieva maintains a teaching at the St Petersburg Conservatory.
Mstislav Rostropovich hardly requires further introduction. Many major composers have written music in the widest range of idioms for him, composers including Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Prokofiev and Leonard Bernstein. And Giya Kancheli – it was on the premiere recording of Giya Kancheli’s “Simi” in 1997 that Rostropovich first recorded for ECM.
He has received almost all major music awards from the Albert Schweitzer Award to the Ernst von Siemens Prize, holds more than 40 honorary degrees, and has received decorations and prizes from more than 30 nations, both for his outstanding musical contribution and for his ongoing humanitarian work and his outspoken defense of human rights.
Arhady Shteinlukht was born in Leningrad in 1949 and first collaborated with Alexander Knaifel in 1969. He honed his skills as a conductor of vocal music in the course of a 14-year association (1972-1986) with the Glinka Academic Cappella, before going on to conduct the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre. In 1989 he created his own collective, the Mozarteum of St Petersburg, combining choir and chamber orchestra, and was able to present many works not previously heard in Russia.
The Boy Choir of Glinka Choral College is one of the oldest musical institutions in Russia, with a history going back hundreds of years. It has been closely associated with the history of St Petersburg since 1703.
The State Hermitage Orchestra, originally known as the St Petersburg Camerata, was founded in 1989 by Saulius Sondeckis, well-known to ECM listeners for his history-making performance as conductor of Pärt’s “Tabula rasa”.
CD package includes 32 page booklet with brief notes by the composer, manuscript facsimiles, biblical texts and photos.