Alexander Knaifel: Amicta Sole

Mstislav Rostropovich, Tatiana Melentieva, Boy Choir Glinka Choral College, State Hermitage Orchestra, Arkady Shteinlukht

For his ECM second New Series album, Russian composer 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)”.

As with his previous disc “Svete Tikhiy”, which also featured two extended works, “Amicta Sole” brings together pieces that the composer describes as “quiet giants”, works that seem to slow down time with their very gradual and subtle development.
“Psalm 51(50)” throws particular responsibilities on the soloist who must play “as if singing”, or in this case as if intoning the words of the psalm. “I had the feeling”, says Knaifel, “that only Rostropovich could articulate this text.”

Featured Artists Recorded

July 2000 & September 2001

Original Release Date


  • 1Psalm 51 (50) for cello solo
    (Alexander Knaifel)
  • 2Amicta sole (Clothed with the sun) for soloist (female) of soloists
    (Alexander Knaifel, Traditional)
Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik, Bestenliste 2/2005
Im 51. Psalm sinniert Mstislav Rostropovich, bei dem Knaifel in den 1960er Jahren in Moskau Cello studierte, den in zeitlupenhaftem Linienspiel buchstabierten Silben nach, die mit jeder Vibrato-Schwankung den Eindruck erwecken, geradewegs in den Himmel aufzufahren. Im Titelstück „Amicta Sole“ ziehen die gläsernen Melismen der Sopranistin Tatiana Melentieva Knabenstimmen und ein dezent auf der Stelle streichendes Kammerorchester als Kometenschweif hinter sich her. Bei Knaifel, der auch viel für das Kino komponiert hat, wird Klang, was Thomas Mann im „Zauberberg“ das stehende Jetzt nannte. Die Vorstellung von der Zeit als unendlichem Tönen, ganz nahe der Stille nach allem Leben.
Andreas Obst, Fono Forum
Alexander Knaifel rezitiert hier in größtmöglicher Schlichtheit Silbe für Silbe diesen heute drei Jahrtausende alten Psalm 51, aber es ist keine Stimme, die Wort um Wort intoniert, es ist das von Rostropovich geführte Cello, das allerdings im Tonfall psalmodischer Repetition gleichsam einen musikalischen Gebetsraum öffnet. ... Der syllabische Gestus, zwanzig Minuten streng durchgehalten, als würde tatsächlich ein Text rezitiert, hat in seiner sich allmählich potenzierenden Kargheit eine zweifellos läuternde Funktion... Die Entblößung des puren Gestus von Text und Stimme, wie sie durch den Celloton zustande kommt, steigert diese Konstellation und wirkt in ihrer abstrahierenden Bedeutung radikalisierend in einem kathartischen Sinne. Dabei ist Rostropovichs still singende, aber niemals wirklich emotionalisierende Tongebung trotz ihrer intentionslosen Kargheit stets so intensiv, dass ein laues Hinhören in keinem Augenblick möglich ist.
Hans-Christian von Dadelsen, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik
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.