Fragments of an Unknown Music

“Fragments of an Unknown Music”
Selected Works by Gurdjieff/de Hartmann

Laurence Rosenthal (piano), Herbert Lashner (oboe) & Dietrich Bethge (cello)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 11 January, 2007
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Although this concert had been promoted as a ‘world music’ event, there remains the difficulty of categorising the music produced in collaboration by Armenia-born George Gurdjieff (c.1866-1949) and Ukraine-born Thomas de Hartmann (1885-1956). To be sure, this is music that does not conform to any norms as regards its conceptual or musical basis. Nor is it ‘art music’ in the accepted sense – having evolved mainly during an intense period (1924-6) at the Gurdjieff Institute in Fontainebleau, almost as a by-product of that written to complement the ‘Movements’ integral to the teacher’s spiritual instruction.

While not a composer in any formal sense, Gurdjieff clearly possessed a remarkable ability to absorb and recall the music heard during the two decades that he spent travelling throughout the Near East and Central Asia – where he encountered centres of learning whose diverse and age-old practices he was later to synthesise in his own teaching. Nor can the result of his endeavour be attributed, even largely, to the proficiency of de Hartmann – a distinctive and still-underrated composer whose own music is very different from that which he ‘took down’ at the prompting of his sometime mentor.

Although the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann output has not lacked for plaudits over the decades since their deaths, it is only recently that the music had been systematically collated and edited: the outcome being a comprehensive four-volume edition (published by Schott Musik International of Mainz), much of whose content its co-editor, the pianist and composer Laurence Rosenthal, has now committed to disc (on the Wergo label, but with a representative selection also available on Atma Classique). It is Rosenthal’s continued advocacy that has made possible events such as this concert, for which he has transcribed a number of the pieces for a trio – or combinations thereof – of oboe, cello and piano: an approach vindicated by music whose instrumentation is fundamental less to its actual substance than to the ‘quality’ of its sound, and also the affect that that quality has on the individual listener.

The programme itself unfolded as a continuous sequence of pieces either side of the interval, with each half of roughly 50 minutes in length. These were arranged so that groups of ensemble pieces alternated with those for piano solo – enabling a regular contrast in sonority, and also pointing up the essential continuity in idiom between ‘transcribed’ and ‘original’ music. The pieces chosen, moreover, gave an inclusive overview of the compositional types to be encountered. These range from virtual monody (Untitled No. 11), via those where melody and accompaniment are combined (Chant from a Holy Book) or inter-cut (The Bokharian Dervish, Hadjii-Asvatz-Troov), to those that evince a more pronounced degree of part-writing (Kurd Melody from Isfahan) or variation (Ancient Greek Melody).

Having said this, there is never any sense of this music being ‘naïve’ except in terms of its conveying an expressive focus that remains unencumbered by any compositional method. Something that came across in ample measure thanks to the dedication of the performers, of whom Herbert Lashner and Dietrich Bethge were as one with Rosenthal in conveying the quiet intensity of music which is worlds away from the ‘lifestyle ambience’ of much that superficially resembles it from the past quarter-century.

As such, it might seem invidious to single out actual highlights – but, from the first half, the perky Shepherd’s Dance which opened proceedings, the noble Hymn to Our Endless Creator, the pensive Essene Hymn and the inspiriting Tibetan Melody all resonate in the mind; as, from the second half, do Rejoice, Beelzebub! (disconcertingly akin to a paraphrase of the opening from Schubert’s G major Piano Sonata!), the poignant Sacred Hymn, the rather Chopinesque Prayer of Gratitude, the ballad-like emotional depth of The Initiation of the Priestess and the plaintive Greek Melody which, being the first piece of the first volume, aptly brought the whole evening round to its conclusion.

So, an absorbing and pleasurable evening of music which, however it may have been intended to be heard, certainly deserves public performance when rendered with such artless commitment. And, as an oasis of calm in an urban jungle, it amply fulfils Rosenthal’s description in his insightful programmeessay – to the effect that “It makes statements and asks questions not to be found elsewhere.”

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