Darker But Still Singing
Anna Gourari’s Canto Oscuro

Pianist Anna Gourari belongs among the very best of a growing number of young classical musicians who view making records not as a display of technical and interpretative skill, but as a means of musical exploration. Her recordings are intimate offerings of haunting beauty.

Anna Gourari. Photo copyright: Beat Presser/ECM Records.

On her latest CD, Canto Oscuro (Edition of Contemporary Music New Series), Gourari meanders across centuries of music, her selections ranging from Bach to contemporary Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Gourari brings to light the inner connections in the pieces she has chosen. The dialogue between the composers is mesmerizing, as is Gourari’s idiosyncratic approach to color, phrasing, and sound. The record is to classical music now what concept albums were to rock music in the ’70s.

I met Gourari in a cafe in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, the day after her recent concert at the German Consulate General in New York, to speak about the new record. “The starting point for the CD,” she said, “was to compare and contrast two Chaconnes, Bach’s and Gubaidulina’s; the rest of the program grew organically around them.” The affinities between Gourari and Gubaidulina run deep. Both are originally from Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan; both now reside in Germany and find in Bach the bedrock of their musical universe. “I have been fortunate to work with her,” Gourari says. “In some passages of her Chaconne I hear echoes of Busoni’s Bach transcriptions.”

Gourari’s piano hooks you in the opening bars of her rendition of Bach’s choral prelude, “Ich ruf zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ.”Historically speaking, chorales generally consisted of a text set to a simple melody; the hymn was sung by the congregation, usually in four-part harmony. Gourari matches this formal simplicity which so attracted Bach with her singular depth of feeling and balance between rhythmic precision and lyrical abandon. For those of us who have long thought Dinu Lipatti’s 1940s rendition unsurpassed, here is a new interpretation worth pondering.

Gourari draws on far-reaching musical knowledge for inspiration. As she explains, “toward the end of the score of his transcription of the Bach Chorale, Busoni inscribed: Più oscuro ma sempre cantando [darker but still singing], from which I extracted Canto Oscuro as a title. I think it suggests something about the entire recording.”

Never sentimental, Gourari’s playing has the transcendent quality of prayer. As she proceeds from Bach to Gubaidulina, on to Hindemith, and then back to Bach, the music flows like a conversation in which Bach is both subject and participant. The pianist creates drama by juxtaposing the rarefied simplicity of the opening choral with the complexities of Gubaidulina’s piece, which introduces us to a contemporary aesthetic shrouded in a baroque form. Gubaidulina’s Chaconne relates to Bach not only in its reference to the short harmonic progressions of baroque compositional style, but also on the level of musical sensibility.

Paul Hindemith’s music has gone in and out of favor, and his 1922 sonata is not often performed these days. Gourari’s artistry rests solidly on her free yet impeccable timing, her rubato. “I think Hindemith was continuing Bach’s musical trajectory,” she explains, “though in his own musical language. I consider this sonata, written as a baroque suite in five movements, his best piano piece. I love its irony, its black humor. It relates to the work of visual artists of the 1930s: the vastness of chromatic range, all those violent colors.” Hindemith displayed an interest for the Baroque in his contrapuntally complex late style. After similar contemporary excursions, the CD comes back to Bach, ending with Siloti’s transcription of the Prelude in B minor—famously played as an encore by Emil Gilels—in Gourari’s rapturous style.

Appearing at the German Consulate, Gourari played a program derived from Canto Oscuro, with the addition of a movement from Jorg Widmann’s “Fleurs du Mal” (which the composer dedicated to Gourari) and two short Chopin selections. The recital fully confirmed Gourari’s artistry. It made clear that despite the hall’s less-than-ideal acoustics, the magnificent sound on the CD comes primarily from her touch rather than from the distinct sound engineering for which ECM is known.

A compelling presence, Anna Gourari was featured in Werner Herzog’s film Invincible. “I don’t intend to pursue acting—unless Herzog calls me again,” she jokes. “My passions are music and my two-year-old daughter.” Gourari’s repertoire includes a lot of contemporary music; Rodion Shchedrin and Jörg Widmann have dedicated works to her. “In addition to classical music, I am very interested in folk music, particularly Italian and Russian.” Conversing with Gourari reinforces the feeling one gets listening to her playing: that of being dragged along as she dives, fearlessly, into music’s dark pulse.

Contributor

Alessandro Cassin

Alessandro Cassin is a freelance journalist and Director of Publishing for Centro Primo Levi Editions. His most recent book of interviews, Whispers: Ulay on Ulay (Valiz Foundation Amsterdam, 2014), won the AICA NL Award 2015.

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