Boris Yoffe: Song of Songs

Rosamunde Quartett, The Hilliard Ensemble

Russian-born Israeli composer Boris Yoffe began writing short pieces for string quartet – each a page long, playing for around half a minute – in 1995, when he was in his mid-twenties. By now his Book of Quartets is a compendium of several thousand pages, and one constantly growing. The pieces on this recording were selected, by the players and by the composer, from the approximately eight hundred he has written during the last three or four years. Among them are other single-page compositions from a related, interpenetrating project in which the quartet’s four parts become eight with the addition of four singers, their voices matching the instruments in range as they sing phrases from the Song of Songs. The Rosamunde quartet and the Hilliard Ensemble collaborate for the first time in this New Series debut for Yoffe, recorded in St. Gerold in November 2009.

Featured Artists Recorded

November 2009, Propstei St. Gerold

Original Release Date


  • 1I sought him but I found him not
    (Traditional, Boris Yoffe)
  • 2My own vineyard I did not keep
    (Traditional, Boris Yoffe)
  • 3I sleep, but my heart waketh
    (Traditional, Boris Yoffe)
  • 4My head is filled with dew, my locks with drops of the night
    (Traditional, Boris Yoffe)
  • 5My soul went forth when he spoke
    (Traditional, Boris Yoffe)
Boris Yoffe’s “Song of Songs” is equally extraordinary, a selection of daily compositions for string quartet. […] A calming and enriching experience, this CD was make for unusually satisfying listening and represents ECM at its best. Highly recommended to explorer listeners who don’t seek just facile excitement.
Peter Grahame Woolf, Musical Pointers
The shuffling of miniatures has a significant compositional precedent in Schumann. But Yoffe’s seemingly accidental and strangely affecting project, full of burdened contemplation, is truly sui generis.
Michael Dervan, Irish Times
Questa bella raccolta include 5 quartetti, arricchiti dalle voci dell'Hilliard Ensemble le quali aggiungono una certa dinamica (e punti di riferimento e orientamento) a queste silenziose, meditative distese sonore, capaci di evocare poetici paesaggi nebbiosi e passeggiate solitarie tra i colori dell'autunno.
Eccellente come sempre l'espressivita' del Rosamunde Quartett, e impeccabile la spaziosita' del suono: il disco e' stato registrato nel monastero di St. Gerold, dove in precedenza l'Hilliard Ensemble ha inciso insieme a Jan Garbarek.
Se i primi ascolti risultano un po' enigmatici, come e' normale, immaginate di stare visitando una galleria d'arte contemporanea: esperienza che richiede un po' di concentrazione e empatia, ma che nei casi migliori puo' portare a un rinnovamento prospettico di una certa profondita'. Che e' uno dei doni piu' grandi che l'arte puo' portare all'interno nostre esistenze.
Engadina Calling
“His work has great beauty…The separate pieces amount to one big work of a lifetime, such as we so much want to write: unbegun, unended, unending. Whatever is missing has to be imagined. It’s all there” – Wolfgang Rihm on Boris Yoffe’s ‘Book of Quartets’.

“Song of Songs”, with its unique collaboration between the Rosamunde Quartett and the Hilliard Ensemble, is the ECM New Series debut for composer Boris Yoffe.

Born in St Petersburg in 1968, Boris Yoffe graduated from its Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in 1989. The following year he emigrated to Israel, and began his studies at the Tel Aviv Music Academy in 1990. In 1997 he moved to Germany to study, initially, with Wolfgang Rihm in Karlsruhe.

“I could never really teach him anything,” Prof. Rihm allows. “Why did I take him? Because he had remained immune to teaching? Probably. Also I have an intuition in these things, I hope.” Indeed, “Song of Songs” is the work of a truly independent compositional voice. Yoffe describes himself as a Jewish (rather than Russian or Israeli) composer, creating work influenced by German music, Russian literature and Far Eastern philosophy and aesthetics and he likens the present album to a collection of poems.

Prodigiously prolific, Yoffe has been writing quartets almost daily since 1995, most of them around a page in length. The collection amounts to thousands of pieces by now, more are added continuously. There is nothing else like his “Book of Quartets” in the string quartet repertory. “One listens here into infinity”, Paul Griffiths suggests, as we tune in to “The Book of Quartets”, a work without end. This is composition as a diary, an unfolding poetic meditation.

Boris Yoffe: “When I wrote the first piece in the ‘Book of Quartets’ in 1995, I had no idea what path I had started down. In the following weeks I wrote a few more pieces of the same texture and about the same length, and found it so interesting that I resolved to create a cycle of around 20 pieces (the origin of the title). The pieces were done, my friends in Tel Aviv played them, but I had the feeling that something still remained to be said through this means of expression – that here, perhaps, something like a new aesthetic could arise …The work makes demands on my entire being – intuition as well as reason. There’s still no way I can assess them ‘from outside.’ I once defined them as ‘practical (experimental) metaphysics.’ I could also put forth the claim that, for me, writing and playing the quartets means roughly the same thing as being alive. The pieces are perceived quite differently by different listeners”.

The ‘Book of Quartets’ is written without any performance instructions or direction for interpretation. “I was prepared to resign myself,” says Yoffe, “to the fact that my excessive hopes could hardly be realised – of finding a highly virtuosic and sensitive quartet that would willingly take the trouble to examine all the subtleties and contradictions of my pieces with the utmost seriousness, and make its own selection from the enormous collection, determining tempo, dynamics, agogics and articulation, and on top of that would recreate the pieces in concerts almost every time with a free use of rubato. But that’s exactly what happened with the superb Rosamunde Quartett, to whom this work proved to be interesting and attractive!”

The present recording followed on from Rosamunde’s performances in their Munich concert series “From the Quartet Book”. In a CD booklet note, Yoffe writes that the contribution of the Hilliard Ensemble, “whose versions of Machaut, Palestrina or Lassus have for years been my yardstick for the art of singing, surpassed everything I could have hoped for…”

“Song of Songs” was produced by Manfred Eicher in St Gerold in November 2009, just a few months after the Hilliard’s recording of “Officium Novum”. The monastery has also been the site of Rosamunde recordings including the Mansurian quartets, as well as many other ECM albums of both composed and improvised music.