CD review

Anja Lechner, François Couturier – “Lontano”

Anja Lechner, François Couturier – Lontano (released 16 October)
(ECM Records, ECM 2682. Review by Graham Spry)

German cellist Anja Lechner is probably known above all for the album Chants, Hymns and Dances she recorded in 2004 with pianist Vassilis Tsabropoulos, which went to the top of the US classical charts. That earlier album explored the music of George Gurdjieff, the Armenian-born mystic and composer whose life inspired director Peter Brook to make the film Meetings with Remarkable Men. Gurdjieff’s music comes from the crossroads between Asia and Europe and between Western and Eastern traditions, and that is the frontier which continues to inspire Lechner and her frequent collaborator French pianist François Couturier. Both musicians have had illustrious careers – in Lechner’s case as a member of the Rosamunde Quartett and in a duo with Dino Saluzzi; in Couturier’s case in ensembles led by the celebrated Anouar Brahem – but it is together that Lechner and Couturier make their most personal and evocative recordings.

In addition to Gurdjieff, the range of composers and artists who enthuse the duo include Giya Kancheli, Valentin Silvestrov, Federico Mompou and the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. The latter’s impressionistic, often rather leisurely, films inspired the two so much that they formed the Tarkovsky Quartet, whose albums invoke in the listener a response similar to the films.

Lontano is the second album Lechner and Couturier have recorded as a duo of just violoncello and piano following their 2014 album Moderato Cantabile. This album is not just a sequel to this earlier release – which was principally a recording of music by composers such as Mompou and Gurdjieff – it also allows the two musicians the space to improvise. This is relatively unusual for a classically trained cellist, although this is far from the first time that Lechner has done so, but is surely second nature for Couturier whose background is as a jazz pianist, performing with the likes of Michel Portal and John McLaughlin.

The musical definition of lontano is ‘away’ or ‘afar’, and the album can be viewed as the expression of music clearly informed by influences beyond the normal confines of the Western classical tradition. The music also has a kind of spiritual yearning that is sometimes achingly beautiful, sometimes disconcertingly discordant, and very often both atmospheric and meditative.

The album opens quietly with the sparse sounds of Praeludium leading to Couturier’s solo piano on the self-descriptive Arpeggio and then the two musicians come together in a kind of musical prayer on Gratitude. Tracks like Flow and Tryptic are composed by Couturier whereas those such as Solar I and Solar II are wholly improvised, but it is not always easy to distinguish the composed from the improvised. Perhaps inevitably there are unplanned references to the musicians’ greatest inspirations, respectively Gurdjieff, Mompou and Silvestrov, in the spontaneous improvisations Hymne, the title track, Lontano, and the final track, Postludium.

The compositions include the sedate Alfonsina y el mar by Ariel Ramirez and the strangely exquisite Miniature 27 by Giya Kancheli. In Memory of a Melody, Lechner and Couturier orientate the music around an excerpt from a Bach cantata. Prélude en berceuse by Henri Dutilleux includes an arranged excerpt of another piece by the composer. Possibly the single most delightful composition on the album is Vague – E la nave va by Anouar Brahem, which enchants the listener from its very first notes and whose memory lingers long after the track ends.

Lechner and Couturier have created a captivating sound that lends itself well to ECM Records’ more adventurous global tendencies. The albums on which they have performed, either together or in an ensemble, demonstrate their shared desire not only to probe the geographical boundaries of the music that inspires them but to explore in depth the spiritual and aesthetic significance of that music. Their recordings showcase composers who deserve to become more familiar to listeners of Western classical music, but should also appeal to listeners of jazz interested in exploring the potential of improvisation in diverse musical traditions. Taken as a whole, Lontano is a worthy addition to the duo’s continuing exploration of the truly unique sound they have sculpted together.

Lontano is released on ECM Records on 16 October

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