Through his recent recordings with harmonia mundi, French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras has established himself as a rising talent worthy of close attention. This past April, working with violinist Isabelle Faust and pianist Alexander Melnikov, as well as conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and the Freiburger Barockorchester, he completed a “trilogy project” that combined the three piano trios and three concertos composed by Robert Schumann. With the same partners he had previously released a recording of two piano trios by Ludwig van Beethoven, the second (in E-flat major) of the Opus 70 set and Opus 97 (“Archduke”) in B-flat major; and he also partnered with Melnikov to record Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano.
However, Queyras’ interests extend far beyond the repertoire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Growing up in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, he was friends with the Chemirani brothers, Bijan and Keyvan; and, at the time that Queyras was beginning his cello studies at the conservatory in Manosque, the Chemiranis were learning tonbak (the Persian goblet drum, also known as the zarb) technique from their father Jamshid, who had been a pupil of the pioneering tonbak player Hossein Tehrani. Fifteen years later Queyras was playing in the Ensemble InterContemporain. This exposed him to not only composers such as Witold Lutosławski and Jörg Widmann but also the possibilities of departing from regular rhythms and equal temperament.
This led to Queyras returning to the Chemirani brothers to undertake some serious jamming sessions based on those approaches to making music that they had acquired through their father. They were then joined by Sokratis Sinopoulos, a master of the lyra, the bowed string instrument used for Cretan folk music. Sinopoulos was no stranger to “cross-cultural jamming,” having performed with jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd at a concert at the Herod Atticus Odeon in Athens in June of 2010. Like the cello, the lyra is held vertically, although, because it is much smaller, it rests on the knee, rather than the floor. This means that the resulting quartet provided bowed sounds in two different registers and distinct sonorities mixed with the elaborately diverse rhythmic patterns of two experts in Persian drumming technique.
The result was a new harmonia album entitled Thrace – Sunday Morning Sessions, released this past September. These are sessions in which everyone gets a crack at the foreground. Indeed, one of the most fascinating tracks is “Dast é Kyan” (the imperial hand), a duo improvisation by the Chemirani brothers in which the interleaving of their rhythmic patterns is so intricate that the album notes by Jean During (translated into English by Rebecca Pilbeam) describe the results as a “4-handed solo.” A similarly intimate chemistry emerges in Queyras’ duo work with Sinopoulos. In the absence of “visual input,” the ear must respond to subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences in timbre to sort out the individual contributions; but the music resides in the resulting fabric, rather than the individual threads.
Queyras also set aside two solo tracks on which he reflected on his Ensemble InterContemporain experiences. The first of these was “Sacher Variation,” composed at the request of Mstislav Rostropovich by Lutosławski as an homage to the conductor Paul Sacher, a champion of many adventurous composers active during the first half of the twentieth century. The second piece was Widmann’s “Étude Digitale,” a similar homage composition, written for the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez. One might think that the adjective “digitale” had something to do with the adventurous work with computers taking place at Boulez’ IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique) as part of that institution’s innovative research projects. However, the adjective actually refers to the fingers, since the étude is a study in a wide diversity of pizzicato techniques.
The overall “programming” of the album thus interleaves the diversity of ventures into “world music” with two of the more adventurous instances of “new music” that emerged following the Second World War. As an “integrated package,” the result comes out very well indeed. The “first contact” will definitely be one of a succession of surprising new encounters; but this is music that one is likely to want to revisit frequently.