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Music Review: Francois Couturier – Tarkovsky Quartet

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Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) used everything available to him to make films of dazzling complexity, yet deeply personal. His work was afforded lavish praise from nearly every quarter, except at home. In totalitarian regimes, genuine art is often considered to be subversive, even dangerous. One need look no further than a comment made by Hermann Goering to understand the mentality, “Whenever I hear the word culture, the first thing I do is reach for my gun.”

Despite the hostile climate Tarkovsky faced behind the Iron Curtain, he was able to produce films that resonate with audiences to this very day. His often dreamlike sequences had a particular effect on a young French pianist by the name of Francois Couturier. Tarkovsy Quartet is the final chapter in Couturier’s trilogy of recordings reflecting his profound respect for the director. The first two entries in the series, Nostalghia – Song For Tarkovsky (2005) and the solo piano work Un jour si blanc (2009), received widespread acclaim. I expect Tarkovsky Quartet will be greeted just as enthusiastically.

Tarkovsky Quartet also refers to the group of musicians Couturier assembled for this recording. In addition to Couturier’s piano, there are Anja Lechner (violoncello), Jean-Marc Larche (soprano saxophone), and Jean-Louis Matinier (accordion). The instrumentation is eclectic to be sure, but blend together wonderfully. The music of Tarkovsky Quartet could be referred to as “classical improvisation,” if such a term existed. Indeed, on paper this sounds like a true musical oxymoron. Yet somehow these artists manage to pull it off.

The disc opens with “A celui qui a cu l’ange,” which is the epitaph taken from Tarkovsky’s headstone, and translates as “To the man who saw the Angel.” It is a beautiful piece, beginning with an elegiac piano solo from Couturier, which gives way in turn to each of the members own ruminations. As the eight-minute track progresses, it is clear that there is a strong compositional structure to it, yet there are also places for each to improvise. Obviously there is a great deal of discipline involved in making such a structured yet open arrangement work. It is something that the quartet excel at over and over on these twelve tracks.

I was immediately drawn to the variety of moods the music evokes as well. There are pensive pieces, such as “Maroussia” and “San Galgano,” that are almost mournful in tone yet never maudlin. Dissonance is also a flavor Couturier does not shy away from. Both “Mouchette” and “Mychkine” explore some of the more uncomfortable territories of expression, but never in a truly off-putting way.

For this listener, the two most effective tracks are “L’Apocalypse” and “Doktor Faustus.” As would be expected of pieces titled for two of literature’s most compelling works, The Book of Revelation, and Thomas Mann’s Doktor. Faustus, these excursions highlight the very best of what the Tarkovsky Quartet have to offer. From the meticulously structured outlines, to the ever-so free, yet simultaneously restrained moments of improvisation, this is a quartet with a nearly telepathic ability to play together.

“De l’autre cote du miroir” closes the set, and does so with a nearly hymnal effect. It is the perfect conclusion to this marvelous tribute. Andrei Tarkovsky described his filmmaking technique as “sculpting in time.” The phrase applies to the quartet named in his honor as well.

 

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