Anna Gourari: Elusive Affinity

Products featured on Pianodao are selected for review by ANDREW EALES.

Once in a while, I hear a new recording which not only introduces me to a rich seam of new repertoire, but which is quite simply mesmerising from start to finish. Elusive Affinity is Russian pianist Anna Gourari’s third recording for ECM recordings, and it is such a disc.

Juxtaposing a selection of tonal and non-tonal music, with a focus on pieces which explore musical connections and influences extending across the arts, Elusive Affinity is a genuinely astonishing album on every level, and a clear choice for Recording of the Month here on Pianodao.

So let’s take it for a spin…

Anna Gourari

Anna Gourari was born in Kazan, Russia, where her parents were both teachers at the Kazan Music Academy. Anna began piano lessons at the age of five, and from 1979 attended a special school for gifted children in her home town. Later she attended several master classes with Professor Vera Gornostaeva at the Moscow Conservatory.

Photographer: Marco Borggreve

In 1990, she moved to Germany and continued her piano studies at the Hochschule für Musik in Munich, a city she has subsequently made her home. Having won several major competitions, Gourari has gone on to perform worldwide, including with many leading orchestras.

Having already made several recordings, including for Decca, Anna Gourari made her ECM debut in 2012 with Canto Oscuro, an album featuring works by Bach/Busoni, Hindemith, Gubaidulina and Bach/Siloti. Her next release was Visions Fugitives, which coupled Prokofiev’s eponymous work with Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor and the Fairy Tale in F minor by Medtner. 

Elusive Affinity

Anna Gourari’s programme for her latest disc is as follows:

  • Antonio Vivaldi arr. J.S. Bach:
    Largo from Concerto No.4 in G minor
  • Alfred Schnittke: Five Aphorisms (1990)
  • Giya Kancheli: Piano Piece No.15
  • Rodion Shchedrin: Diary – Seven Pieces (2002)
  • Arvo Pärt: Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka (1977)
  • Wolfgang Rihm: Zwiesprache (1999)
  • Giya Kancheli: Piano Piece No.23
  • Alessandro Marcello arr. J.S. Bach:
    Adagio from Concerto No.3 in D minor
photo: André Kertész

At the heart of this recital we hear the three Suites of contemporary piano music, composed by Schnittke, Shchedrin and Rihm.

Regarding Schnittke’s Five Aphorisms (1990), we are told in the CD booklet note by Paul Griffiths,

“Schnittke was thinking of a friend and comrade he had found to walk with him through the darkness, Joseph Brodsky, one of whose poems he wanted recited before each movement, the choice left to the pianist. Words – black as this music is black, bleak as this music is bleak, cut with the lightning of humour or intense vitality – would preface, or perhaps even seem to instigate, a musical fragment, often a fragmented fragment.”

The five short pieces amount to around 14 minutes of music which is indeed bleak, stark in its directness and emotive power. At times shocking, the finished impact (upon me at least) is a cathartic one. This is music which I feel I shouldn’t “like”, which yet grabs me by the scruff of the neck and hollers for attention. In Gourari’s hands, the pieces reveal their striking intensity and dramatic impact with stunning results.

Rodion Shchedrin’s Diary – Seven Pieces (2002) meanwhile was dedicated to Gourari and inspired by her playing. Apparently a reflection on the life of a pianist and composer, the piece is a perfect vehicle for Gourari to reveal both the poise and power of her playing. From the dark insecurity of the opening Sostenuto assai through to the imploring outbursts of the final Sostenuto alla campana, this is music of shifting mood but uniform intelligence, Gourari’s commitment to each miniature here unequivocal. 

Wolfgang Rihm’s sequence of tombeaux, Zwiesprache, dating from 1999, pays tribute to musicologists Alfred Schlee and Hans Heinrich Eggebrecht, the conductor Paul Sacher, and art sociologist Hermann Wiesler. Though once again predominantly dissonant, there is a melodicity to Rihm’s writing which makes this perhaps the most inviting of the three suites. Although taking us on another dark journey, Rihm is perhaps on the brink of achieving resolution.

Threaded between these three cycles are two Giya Kancheli miniatures drawn from his theatre and movie music, as well as Arvo Pärt’s early tintinnabuli-style Variations for the Healing of Arinuschka (1977).

The Pärt piece is perhaps the most well-known; its title meaning “variations to speed the recovery of little Arina”, it was composed for the composer’s youngest daughter in the same year (1976) as his even more famous Für Alina, composed for another of his four children. The simple tune, naïve in tone, is developed with deceptive technique until finally given a canonic accompaniment. Nestling between Shchedrin and Rihm, Pärt’s music offers shooting rays of light and hope.

Kancheli’s pieces, meanwhile, bring a warmth and melodic accessibility which, snuggled between such dark and dissonant works, takes on a more extraordinary and affecting power than they would surely elicit elsewhere. It is in the programming of these unassuming miniatures that the genius of this recital is perhaps most fully revealed.

Gourari’s investigation of artistic affinities is framed with Bach’s transcriptions of Venetian composers Antonio Vivaldi and Alessandro Marcello. Once again, this is music of sublime appeal, magnified by the context, so also illuminating the qualities of the rest of the programme. As Paul Griffiths would have it:

“There is therefore no conflict but rather an elusive affinity between the sombre lessons we are being given by Schnittke, Shchedrin and Rihm, on the one side, and the luminosity we receive from Pärt and Kancheli. The light has gone out everywhere. What Bach could achieve is now drifting apart as we catch echoes of it through this succession of pieces from our own time, to reassemble itself, beatifically, in the concluding Marcello adagio.
“And yet that is not the whole story. Anna Gourari makes these Bach slow movements, too, ours. Though so beautifully held and presented, they are already on the point of disintegrating, the melody curving away into empty space. And the newer music, cherished and invigorated, is finding its own stability.”

The Recording

Anna Gourari’s performances of these works are never less than breathtaking. Aside from the virtuosity – which is truly stunning – there’s a colour to her playing, a variety to her tone production, which still further underlines the remarkable affinities in her enterprising choice of music.

Perhaps above all else, Gourari’s mellifluous sense of pacing is really so wonderfully exquisite.

As one would expect from ECM Records, the recording here sounds fabulous throughout. Produced as ever by label founder Manfred Eicher, the recording was made at the Historischer Reitstadel, Neumarkt in January 2018, engineered by Stephan Schellmann.

Presented in standard CD case with additional cardboard outer sleeve, there is also a 28-page booklet including Paul Griffiths’ full note in English and German, several black-and-white artist photos, and three verses from Brodsky.

ECM Records productions can now all be streamed on the most popular commercial services, but in my view this is very much a recording to own, and I had no hesitation in purchasing a copy as soon as I heard it.

Recent Recordings of the Month here on Pianodao:

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based on Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.