Power and desolation

Feb 17, 1999 at 12:00 am

"Trauerfarbenes Land" translates as "Country the color of mourning." As evidenced by this record, the mournfully dramatic influence of Gustav Mahler goes east, straight through Shostakovich to Georgian composer-in-exile Kancheli. During Shostakovich’s excruciating tenure as one of Stalin’s star whipping boys, his symphonies, string quartets, etc., expressed a vast, poetic melancholy that was shared both musically and philosophically by many of the former Soviet Union’s younger composers: Kancheli, Sofia Gubaidulina and Galina Ustvolskaya, among others. But within the current spectrum of post-Soviet music, Kancheli’s work embodies most intensely the struggle between hope – as founded in national tradition and the people – and despair over history as we know it.

At first, this new composition will seem familiar to aficionados of Kancheli’s large orchestral settings, with their stunning contrasts between the lyrical and the overwhelming: fragile string-section vistas opening out to the far horizon, brooding woodwinds, storming brasses and percussion – the full, Mahlerian dynamo of emotion. But Kancheli has achieved a kind of minimalist introspection in Trauerfarbenes Land; each of the successive motifs is called up for inspection, turned over carefully by his mind’s ear and released into the thin, tragic air of necessity. Prefaced and then punctuated by wailing, almost Middle Eastern trills – like those of a village ceremonial band – this nearly hour-long tone poem eventually becomes a raging funeral dirge, with chordal suspensions and silences worthy of Morton Feldman.

And Dennis Russell Davies conducts Kancheli’s masterwork as if it were the song of the earth, which it is.