“I believe that the music belongs to the true interpreter, the true artist,” said 20th century Spanish composer and pianist Federico Mompou. “Here is the music. What does it suggest to you?”
German cellist Anja Lechner and French pianist François Couturier took that challenge head-on in their new album, “Moderato cantabile.”
In addition to featuring compositions by Mompou, the album also includes works by two other influential 20th century scholars and composers: the Armenian priest, singer, musicologist, and composer Komitas and the Greco-Armenian philosopher and spiritual teacher George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. The spiritual implications of these treasured works are counterbalanced by three of Couturier’s own new compositions which also appear on the album.
Though “Moderato cantabile” is Lechner and Couturier’s first recording as a duo, they have worked together over the past 10 years in music projects such as the Tarkovsky Quartet, created to celebrate the works of Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, and “Il Pergolese,” in which they reimagined the music of Neapolitan composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi as improvisational works.
For their first album together, the two carefully selected a rich palette of pieces featuring elements of folk melodies, Eastern music, spiritualism, minimalism, improvisation, and even jazz. It’s unusual to come across an album with such a vast range of musical inspirations, yet “Moderato cantabile” spins them together seamlessly.
The album showcases both the individual musicianship of each performer as well as their complex musical understanding of each other. Together they bring out the warmth, sincerity, and vibrant colors of each piece.
Mompou’s compositions show an Impressionist influence, softly blending melodies into sparkling mystical images. His “Canción y danza” begins with delicately shimmering piano motifs which later give way to a lyrical cello melody. The piece then transitions into a folk dance, adopting a lively and spirited cello part over a percussive piano backdrop.
Lechner and Couturier also bring to life Mompou’s “Música Callada,” a gentle meditation on the interplay between sound and silence. A simple but thoughtful piano part gently supports the delicate, introspective cello melody. The piece is slow but deliberate; each note is patient and perfectly-crafted, enchanting the listener with each and every melodic gesture.
The duo’s performance of Komitas’s “Chinar es” again toys with elements of folk melodies. Komitas was one of the first music scholars to notate secular Armenian folk songs, and “Chinar es” was one of them. The piece switches back and forth from repetitive piano motifs glimmering above a rhythmic cello bass part to gorgeously resonant cello melodies singing over top of a textured piano backdrop. The result is a timeless and captivating glance into the Armenian folk music tradition.
Gurdjieff’s featured compositions give the album a slightly Eastern sound. Gurdjieff was not a formally trained musician; most of his music was composed of central Asian folk melodies he hummed from memory to composer Thomas de Hartmann, who then transcribed and harmonized them.
His “Sayyid chant” showcases an ethereal, Eastern lyricism woven together with glistening piano phrases and rich, graceful cello melodies, while his “Hymn No. 8 Night Procession” features elegant piano melodies circling around deep, growling cello phrases to create a dark and dramatic ambience.
The album’s more historic works are balanced by a few of Couturier’s own contemporary compositions. The pieces showcase his studies in both classical and jazz, as well as his ear for improvisation. Couturier’s “Voyage,” features warm, ringing cello melodies over softly pedaled piano harmonies.
By contrast, his rhythmic “Soleil Rouge” experiments with elements of dissonance and jazz, while “Papillons” abandons conventional cello techniques in favor of an airy, hollow sound and sparse piano texture. The soft melodies and unique timbres flirt with silence throughout the piece, giving it an unmistakably modern sound.
Lechner’s and Couturier’s interpretation of all the works on the album show a deliberate emphasis on melody and lyricism. The two truly took their time with each piece, their patience and attention to detail ensuring that each and every note echoes with perfect resonance.