Classical Detours

Giya Kancheli's 'Songbook' Of Calm Spaces

(Classical Detours meanders through stylistic byways, exploring new recordings from the fringes of classical music.)

Tengiz Mirzashvili's winter landscape is the cover art for Giya Kancheli's Themes From The Songbook.

Tengiz Mirzashvili's winter landscape is the cover art for Giya Kancheli's Themes From The Songbook. Courtesy ECM records hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy ECM records

The best birthday presents are surprises. Composer Giya Kancheli turned 75 last fall, and the new album Themes from the Songbook was an unexpected birthday gift created by a trio of free-thinking musicians and one dedicated producer.

Kancheli, born in Tblisi, Georgia in 1935, is his country's greatest living composer. Those who know his symphonies — often fraught with brooding melodies and violent dynamic swings — may be in for a surprise of their own.

Themes from the Songbook, by contrast, is light and laid-back in a late night, candlelit kind of way. The compositions are by Kancheli, but they are interpreted by bandoneon master Dino Saluzzi, violinist Gidon Kremer and vibraphone player Andrei Pushkarev. The themes come from incidental music Kancheli has written over a 40-year period for theater and cinema. These melodic morsels have a symbiotic relationship with the rest of Kancheli's music.

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Composer Giya Kancheli collected the many themes he wrote for stage and screen.

Composer Giya Kancheli collected the many themes he wrote for stage and screen. Rosetti-Phocus/ECM Records hide caption

itoggle caption Rosetti-Phocus/ECM Records

"No wonder then," the composer admits, "that certain themes originally written for plays and films made their way into my larger works or that the large forms themselves sometimes contained episodes reminiscent of incidental music."

Over the years, Kancheli collected the themes and eventually published them as miniatures for solo piano. When ECM Records founder and producer Manfred Eicher saw the collection, ideas started popping. First he called Saluzzi, then Kremer signed on and added Pushkarev, a member of his orchestral outfit Kremerata Baltica.

I would advise against operating any heavy machinery while listening to this ultramellow music. Pushkarev's vibes ripple gently against Saluzzi's squeezebox, wafting in and out almost like a lullaby. Most of the disc's 20 tracks are quiet little duets, but on the main theme Kancheli composed for a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, all three musicians engage in an atmospheric eight-note motive.

Themes from the Songbook, with its calm spaces and soothing sounds, could just be the perfect incidental music for your own late-night dramas — if they're relaxed and good-natured.

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