Album reviews

Paul Giger – ars moriendi (ECM)

Paul Gigerars moriendi

(ECM New Series 4857765. Album review by Graham Spry)

Swiss violinist Paul Giger is one of those musicians and composers that are almost impossible to pigeonhole, and for whom ECM Records is the ideal home. His latest album, ars moriendi, is his seventh for the label and is a typically high concept project combining spirituality and aesthetics as likely to appeal to a jazz as a classical music audience. It also marks his seventieth birthday this year.

His discography includes collaborations with Jan Garbarek and free improvisation with harpsichord player Marie-Louise Dähler, who also appears on this album. In fact, Giger’s last album with Dähler, Towards Silence, was as much her album as his, but ars moriendi is more clearly structured and undeniably Giger’s own project.

The literal meaning of the album’s title is ‘the art of dying’ and the notion of elegant and spiritual transience is the overall theme that holds the album together. The majority of the album’s music was recorded in 2015 as the soundtrack for the documentary film, Giovanni Segantini – Magie des Lichts, that concerns the late nineteenth century Tyrolean painter of the film’s title. The album booklet shows two oil paintings by Segantini set in the Alpine countryside. He is evidently a painter intent in capturing not only the spiritual essence of nature but also something of its impermanence and seasonal change.

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Although most of the album consists of music recorded on that occasion, Giger starts the album with a recording he made in 2021 of the Swiss folk song Guggisberglied which fits perfectly with the rest of the album. And this happens to be a truly outstanding 19 minute arrangement of the tune well worth the price of the entire album. The folk song’s original lyrics tell a story of unrequited love and death as tragic as Romeo and Juliet, but although this rendition is a solo instrumental the grief and despair of the original are beautifully expressed. Somehow, it evokes the majesty of Brad Mehldau’s Paranoid Android and the intensity of David Torn’s masterpiece Only Sky. The song is a solo performance by Giger on the 11-string violino d’amore, a unique string instrument which was built to his own specifications. The sleeve notes describe an instrument that, like Pat Metheny’s 42-string Pikasso guitar, stretches the range of Giger’s performance way beyond what the listener might ordinarily expect from a violin or viola.

The album continues with the first of three tunes by Giger entitled Agony. This is music for the documentary film that principally features the ethereal playing of Pudi Lehmann who evokes a meditative atmosphere on gongs and similar percussion instruments. Interspersed between these tunes are compositions by J S Bach performed by Giger and Dähler, namely Ich ruf’ zu dir, Largo and Erbarma dich. These follow a custom established on Towards Silence of setting music by the great composer, thereby once again proving the timelessness of Bach’s compositions. On Erbarme dich, taken from the St. Matthew Passion, Giger and Dähler are accompanied by the Carmina Quartet with vocals from the classical alto singer Franz Vitzthum.

It is in the midst of these tracks that Giger again showcases the violino d’amore on his composition Zäuerli mit Migrationshintergrund that somehow manages to combine elements of the Swiss yodel tradition with South Indian microtonal language. On this song, Giger and Dähler are again accompanied by Lehmann and also Jürg Surber on a somewhat subdued contrabass. The album concludes with Altus solo II, a remarkable setting of text from the Egyptian Book of the Dead “Pert Em Hru” where Giger and Dähler are accompanied by an inspired combination of Lehmann’s solemn performance on an oriental hand drum and Vitzthum’s soaring baroque alto vocals. It is a remarkably effective mixture of pre-classical musical traditions that quite rightly takes its time before softly and steadily fading away to bring an end to an emotionally wrenching and magnificent recording.

High concept albums are often very difficult to pull off, especially one so packed with such disparate elements of baroque, folk and modern recording techniques, but on this occasion Giger has succeeded. It is probably an exaggeration to say that there is something for everybody on this recording, but it is music whose appeal goes beyond the usual audience for contemporary classical music for which ECM’s New Series is intended. It is a natural progression of Giger’s musical development, in particular his work with Dähler, and possibly also his finest and most perfectly formed album so far.

LINK: Buy ars moriendi

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