Knaifel: Amicta Sole

February 18, 2009


Knaifel: Amicta Sole
Mstislav Rostropovich, Tatiana Melentieva, and others
(ECM New Series 1731; 53:00)

Sometimes — not often — a piece of music crosses my path that stops me in my tracks.  Such pieces skirt around my critical faculties and casual inquisitiveness to echo in some deeper part of me.  I expect this happens to others too.  In my case, this music is almost always austere and very simple, and it evokes in me something for which I do not really have a word.  Perhaps “joy”, in the sense in which C.S. Lewis used it, would do.  It is a sweet longing, a desire for something intangible and unknown, yet somehow it contains within itself the promise of its fulfillment.  It is difficult to explain.

Alexander Knaifel’s Psalm 51, included on this disc, is one of these rare pieces for me.  It is written for solo cello, played here by the great Mstislav Rostropovich, and it speaks with a clean and clear simplicity.  Knaifel has said of this piece that “not a note was composed”, and I believe him.  As its title indicates, the piece is based on Psalm 51, the penitential psalm beginning “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great mercy”.  The cello wordlessly “sings” the Russian text, one note per syllable, evoking not the words themselves but the feeling behind them. The music is slow and measured, often quiet, sometimes climbing into the instrument’s highest registers where it takes on a plaintive quality, sometimes resting easily in the warm low registers, and always gently lamenting.  It is sad music, music of a broken and contrite heart, but without rage or self-condemnation — a clean sadness, and extremely beautiful.  The music is so sparse and exposed that it could, perhaps, in the hands of a lesser artist, come across as merely dull, but Rostropovich (for whom it was written) conveys all its austere beauty.  There is a reason he was considered one of the great musicians of the last century.  I cannot praise this music, nor this performance, highly enough.

The other composition on this disc is Amicta Sole (Clothed with the Sun), for orchestra, boy choir, and female “soloist of soloists”.  It bears certain resemblances to what preceded it: spare textures, and tempi that are slow to the point of being static.  Yet where Psalm 51 partakes of ashes and warm tears, Amicta Sole is radiant, shimmering in the air like hot white light.  The title alludes to the glory of the Virgin Mary, and the text is drawn from an Orthodox prayer in praise of the Holy Trinity.  The notes state that the instruments “sing out”, in a manner similar to the cello in Psalm 51, a biblical text — in this case the genealogies of Christ from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke — but I am not sure I have understood this correctly; I cannot hear any genealogical descent in the music.  In any case, the soloist declaims the prayer, the boy choir forms an aural halo around her, and the orchestra gently swells into the empty spaces when the voices fall silent.  The overall impression is one of dazzling, inchoate beauty.  Again, the danger of this tipping over into “New Age” schmaltz is real, but the seriousness of the text and the excellence of the performances prevent it in this case.  It is really gorgeous, engaging music.

Who is Alexander Knaifel anyway?  Before encountering this disc I had never heard of him.  He is a Russian, born in 1943.  He studied cello, but turned to composition when an injury prevented a career as a performer.  He belonged, for many years, to the Soviet avant-garde, but following the collapse of Communism his music has become increasingly religious in character. Some of his compositions, including, I believe, the two on this disc, he calls “quiet giants” for their gentle and tranquil qualities.  He has said, about his approach to music and composition, that musical sounds are “signs of the existence of beauty”.  That is only a phrase; it is not clear just what he means — but it sounds promising.


Brief sound samples from Amazon.

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