While it is a lesser-known fact that many great classical compositions stemmed from improvisation, performance of most classical work is much more literal, with interpretation being relegated to more subtle inflection, nuance and manner of phrasing. Rarely does such work not only expect a more active degree of improvisation from the performer, but actually demand
Such is the case with the work of Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who created musical exercises spontaneously for students of his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in the '20s. Gurdjieff would tap a rhythm on a piano top, hum a melody or play it with one hand and then rely on his assistant, Thomas Alexandrovich de Hartmann, to develop it into a more fully realized miniature. The pieces were inherently spontaneous in nature so it is no surprise that, eighty years later, they should be brought to light with an eye to their facility for encouraging further exploration.
German cellist Anja Lechner and Greek pianist Vassilis Tsaboropoulos, both familiar to fans of ECM recordings in both classical and improvised worlds, approach Gurdjieff's material with an appropriate degree of reverence and irreverence, maintaining a prerequisite degree of respect for the melodies he developed, while at the same time using them as springboards for broader extemporization. The result, Chants, Hymns and Dances , continues ECM's efforts to expose the compositions of Gurdjieff to a broader audience that began with Keith Jarrett's '80 recording of Gurdjieff's Sacred Hymns. And by using Gurdjieff's compositions to bookend a series of works by Tsaboropoulos, based around Byzantine hymns, Lechner and Tsaboropoulos also demonstrate Gurdjieff's rather unique place in the world of Western classical composition, being one of the first to take on a wider world view.
Inherently introspective in nature, almost meditative at times, many of Gurdjieff's pieces are based around harmonic pedal points, or very simple changes. "Bayaty," for example, is based around a simple two-chord progression, but in its reflective way has a momentum all its own. There is a certain naiveté that is reminiscent of Erik Satie's more simple pieces, including "Gymnopedies" and "Gnossienes," but they can also be more majestic, as in the case of "Prayer," although never less than completely subtle and understated.
With a reflective inward view that brings to mind Arvo Pärt's gorgeous Alina in its near-ambience, Lechner and Tsaboropoulos perform with a devotion to space and attention to the sound of each note as it slowly decays. Chants, Hymns and Dances is an ostensibly classical recording that demands more of its performers than is normally heard, but Lechner, with artists including pianist Misha Alperin , and Tsaboropoulos, in his trio with bassist Arild Andersen and drummer John Marshall, has expanded her reach in ways that allow for honouring the essence of the material while, at the same time, exhibiting a far broader level of interpretation. The result is a recording of sublime beauty that demands its listeners to accept a more expansive concept, but is well worth the effort.
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