Cuttings Of Kancheli: When ‘Simple’ Music Slips Into Shallowness

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Pianist Jenny Line performs music by Giya Kancheli on her new CD. (Photo by Chen Hsiao-Chen)

Kancheli: Simple Music. Jenny Lin, piano; Guy Klucevsek, accordion. Steinway #30173

DIGITAL REVIEW – Audiences in the West came to know the music of the late Georgian composer Giya Kancheli (1935-2019) mainly through the recordings and commissions championed by cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, violinist Gidon Kremer, violist Yuri Bashmet, and the Kronos Quartet. The Munich label ECM worked hard to bring Kancheli to new audiences through its series of albums in the late 1990s. But Kancheli’s milestone works, with their shatteringly dramatic outbursts of impassioned color alternating with sudden stillness, are not ideal for armchair listening. Either exceptionally good speakers or a special listening commitment are required. Undoubtedly, Kancheli’s music is best appreciated in concert halls or Gothic cathedrals, preferably with long reverberation decays — where the composer’s poignant silences and grandiose gestures can be fully realized.

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The aptly titled Simple Music departs from Kancheli’s epic repertoire to feature incidental music for piano and accordion.

So, when a recording of Kancheli’s incidental music comes along with the title Simple Music, listeners can experience the composer’s more lyrical, less complex self, far away from the epic proportions of his symphonic repertoire. Simple Music, a Steinway album featuring pianist Jenny Lin and accordionist Guy Klucevsek, is a curated set list from Kancheli’s vast output for the stage and cinema.

Like his Russian counterpart Dmitri Shostakovich, Kancheli was a prolific composer for film and theater. In 1971, he began a 20-year tenure as musical director of the Rustaveli Theatre in his hometown of Tbilisi, and throughout his lifetime he composed more than 40 film scores. This album is a recording of Kancheli’s own series of fragments gathered in his collection 33 Miniatures.

Compilations of incidental music can often offer a rewarding and relaxing experience. The original intentions of the music – to serve and underscore a dramatic purpose­ — generate the kind of compositions you can happily and idly listen to for hours. The mixture of beguilement and compositional interest can draw listeners without overburdening them; Michael Nyman’s score for Jane Campion’s film The Piano comes to mind. Unfortunately, Simple Music does not fulfill in the same way — it falls flat. Listening to the first 10 tracks — most of them last around two minutes — can quickly produce a feeling of déjà vu, as though you are listening to a duplicate of a previous recording.

Although the simplicity of the music is charming at the beginning of the album, it becomes sickeningly sweet by the end. You begin to yearn for development sections, modulations, or variations of the thematic material. In the end, the fault doesn’t lie with the composer. Kancheli readily admits, “Time will tell if they can survive outside of their original context.” And, in this case, he forecasts his own fate.

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Accordionist Guy Klucevsek

The challenges for the performers are how to balance over-indulging the music with letting the music speak for itself. Both Lin and Klucevsek assure us with their sensitive lyricism, and the album is not without its charming simplicity. Considering that the CD was recorded remotely — the two sat down hundreds of miles from each other — and that there are some improvisational elements, the duo’s stylistic camaraderie creates a seamless and at times evocative experience. The musical material dates from the 1960s to 2004 and brings fragments of scenic music and underscores from Shakespearean plays from As You Like It to King Lear. The excerpt from the 1986 film Kin-Dza-Dza! by Georgi Danelia and Revaz Gabriadze has a Piazzolla-esque quality, while in tracks that accompany the Bertolt Brecht stage play Mother Courage and Her Children, the influence of Kurt Weill hovers.

Yet listeners may secretly wish that these melodic fragments would linger in the memory; think again of Michael Nyman. At the end of the listening, the musical material is neither beguiling nor robust. Ideally, Simple Music is the kind of album you should want to return to when you are pining for quiet, uncomplicated music. In this instance, your hopefulness is not rewarded.

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