Giya Kancheli's fifth album for ECM New Series is the first to be devoted exclusively to the Georgian composer's orchestral music, and features two extended pieces of often volcanic power that bear out the judgement of Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin: "Kancheli is an ascetic with the temperament of a maximalist, a smouldering Vesuvius."
The writing of Trauerfarbenes Land was the direct outcome of the highly successful initial collaboration between Kancheli, Dennis Russell Davies, and the orchestra Davies then conducted, the Orchester der Beethovenhalle Bonn, a recording documented on "Liturgy: vom Winde beweint" (ECM New Series 1471). At the end of that session the Bonn orchestra commissioned a new work from Kancheli, and Trauerfarbenes Land was subsequently given its first performance in Bonn in December 1994. Davies, one of the most ardent champions of Kancheli's music, now presents the premiere recording of the work with the Vienna Radio Symphony, the orchestra for which he has been chief conductor since 1996.
"A combination of sensuality and artistic precision, vitalism and rigour pervades every fibre of Kancheli's work," writes Wolfgang Sandner in the CD booklet notes. And if the composer's choice of titles invites extra-musical associations – critics have found it hard to resist the temptation to interpret his work geopolitically – the music itself "like Beethoven's is 'more an expression of feeling than painting'...These are self-contained works of art, not agitprop." They are, moreover, often named after the event. Kancheli found the title Trauerfarbenes Land ("Country the colour of mourning"), for instance, in a newspaper article about Georgia while he was putting the finishing touches to his score.
Epic in scope – maximal music indeed, to use Shchedrin's term – Trauerfarbenes Land emphasises Kancheli's penchant for extreme dynamic contrasts as it "unfolds like an austere musical procession", building in intensity until "single colours and contours can no longer be recognised." The words of the Los Angeles Weekly in praise of Kancheli's Caris Mere album are applicable here, too: "This is thrilling music, mysterious and distant at one moment, erupting with an astonishing blaze of sound the next. If you treasure the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, the late quartets of Shostakovich, or the great works of Ligeti, this is your music as well."
...à la Duduki is named for the reed instrument of the Caucasus whose piercing, wailing tone is basic to the Georgian folk tradition, but the inspiration for the piece is traceable to a trumpet player, Karlen Avetisian, who contributed his "duduki-esque" trumpet sound to a piece Kancheli wrote for radio in the mid-1960s. Avetisian wasn't a professional musician, he played mostly at weddings, but Kancheli liked his sound, and enticed him to the studio. The old man made several passes at the written notes but the essence of his sound seemed to disappear when confronted with a score. Finally he asked if he could try to improvise, and the music came alive. The trumpeter's playing had an emotional persuasiveness that Kancheli never forgot. When asked to write a piece for the orchestra of Mannheim's National Theatre, he went back and listened again to his tapes from 30 years earlier and rescored that trumpet solo for five brass players, reintegrating it in his new composition. The intermingling of brass and strings in this composition also brings out quite clearly Kancheli's affection for jazz; there are, intentionally, some parallels here with Gil Evans's orchestral arrangements for Miles Davis, always a touchstone for the Georgian composer. But there is much more to be heard. Wolfgang Sandner: "The dialoguing of brass quintet and full orchestra in ...à la Duduki is playfully reminiscent of the Baroque tradition. [Elsewhere] melisma follows melisma, recalling beautiful oriental script. No note is attacked directly, as it would have been in Trauerfarbenes Land: appogiaturas, sighing motifs and ornaments continually obscure the direction of the melodic flow."