A critical selection

Compact Discography

The best music of Giya Kancheli will doubtless survive our times and become part of the standard repertoire for future generations - which is a great deal more than can be confidently predicted of anything composed by his contemporaries in East or West during the last twenty years. That said, it must be conceded that he ploughs a narrow and repetitious furrow, and that only a little of what he has written is likely to attract posterity's attention. One of these works will certainly be his magnificent Sixth Symphony (discussed in Part 1). Another will very likely be his less evenly conceived but no less powerful and imaginative Fifth. Beyond these two, it is harder to speculate. His recent, Berlin-period work - composed with a new freedom and in far greater quantity than anything he managed to write in Georgia - is also palpably lower in energy, concentration, and inspiration. Kancheli is now repeating himself, and doing so tediously. Whether this decline is permanent, only time will tell.

The First Three Symphonies

Kancheli's refusal to espouse local Georgian music with a folk-nationalistic style and literal quotations made his early career in Georgia something of an uphill struggle. He received a state stipend in recognition of his studies at the Tbilisi Conservatory and, in 1962, won a prize at the All-Union Young Composers Competition. Yet his supposedly "cosmopolitan" musical interests (in particular his fondness for jazz) made enemies, and, shortly after the Competition, his Concerto for Orchestra was savagely censured in a leading music magazine. Biographical details remain in short supply, but the fact that it wasn't until the age of 32 that he produced his first "official" opus, the First Symphony (1967), may not have been entirely due to his scrupulously slow compositional method.

As noted in Part 1, the First Symphony, like the Second, shows the formative influence of the final minutes of Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms. The only one of his symphonies to be divided into two movements, it is nevertheless played continuously like the others. The work's least characteristic section is its opening Allegro. Its second movement, however, displays the familiar Kancheli "Largo" style already formed in most of its elements: the chordal thinking, the slow minim melodies, the abrupt modulations and arpeggio-clusters, the voice-like flute chorales and unharmonised high register violins. As such, the First makes an effective prelude to the cycle without being very striking or inventive in itself. (Of the two versions currently recorded, Glushchenko's is preferable.)

The coda from the Symphony of Psalms also permeates the Second Symphony (1970), whose title - "Songs" - refers to the impact made on its composer by the publication, in 1968, of Church Songs, the composer-folklorist Kachi Rosebaschvili's scholarly edition of traditional Georgian polyphonic pieces. Not that Kancheli quotes any of these pieces directly. ("What fascinates me in the polyphonic songs of Georgia," he once admitted, "is that secret spirit inherent in them, which I am not in a position to grasp.") Instead, the symphony is built on song-like thematic fragments of Kancheli's own devising, deployed and contrasted with unusually colourful orchestration. Aside from this, the Second Symphony is a further logical step in his stylistic development. Although not as concentrated or convincing as his later symphonies, it is very lively and will certainly interest those familiar with the latter. (There is only one recording, by Mikhail Jurovsky.)

Though well on the way to formation in his first two symphonies, Kancheli's symphonic style lacked a final constituent: a voice in the foreground which could serve as a focus against which the background could be contrasted. In his Third Symphony (1973), Kancheli takes this "voice" concept literally, employing the sweet, ethereal tenor of the Georgian folk singer Gamlet Gonashvili. (In his later symphonies, the "voices" are purely instrumental, but the principle is the same.) Here, the composer makes explicit his theme of a confrontation between spirituality, symbolised by Gonashvili's sorrowful phrases, and brutal worldly might, embodied in the tramp of the marching orchestra. It is as if a Soviet parade passes through a sullen town beyond which ancient mountains rise in mute token of something truer and less crudely tangible. With its radically simplified musical means and clearer design, Kancheli's Third is a perceptible advance over its predecessor. At the same time, its material is uncompulsive next to that of its successor, the Fourth, while its dependence on Gonashvili's inimitably tremulous tone may prove to be a limiting factor on future performances. So far there has only been one recording (conducted by Kancheli's longtime Georgian collaborator Dzansug Kakhidze), and this has the curious drawback of having been transferred to disc a whole tone sharp.

The Fourth Symphony

Few Kancheli scores lack a piano, the instrument usually being employed for bell-like sonorities. The composer's Fourth Symphony (1975) replaces the piano with actual bells - those of an imagined many-churched Renaissance city. Dedicated to the memory of Michelangelo, Kancheli's Fourth, like Shostakovich's Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, was written in honour of the quincentary of the artist-poet's birth. It is worth comparing Kancheli's creative intentions in this work with those of Shostakovich in his Suite.

Shostakovich's work is one of his bitterest, taking every opportunity to use the fury and anguished longing in Michelangelo's verses to point up parallels with his own situation and that of all liberal intellectuals under totalitarianism. As the earliest example of the modern self-determining artist, Michelangelo experienced incessant clashes with the authorities and regularly provoked the betrayal of jealous rivals. Like Shostakovich, he spent much of his time evading the demands and petty vengeances of his employers. Like Shostakovich, he would pretend to be working on one project whilst secretly finishing another. Like Shostakovich (vis-à-vis opera), he felt that he had been diverted from his true destiny (as a sculptor) into areas of secondary interest to him (painting and architecture). Like Shostakovich, he was held under financial and moral blackmail, cheated, and informed on. Like Shostakovich, he was bitter and pessimistic in old age.

Though the parallels between Michelangelo's career and Shostakovich's are abundant, the composer did not see the artist's life solely in terms of his own. According to Volkov, Shostakovich used Michelangelo's lines about Dante's exile from Florence in 1301 to refer to Solzhenitsyn's expulsion from the USSR in 1974. Indeed, few liberal artists working under the Soviet dispensation could have failed to spot the struggles and trials of Michelangelo as an anticipation of their own. Since Kancheli was no different from his colleagues in this respect, we can fairly confidently assume that his symphony contains resonances akin to those of Shostakovich's similarly dedicated work. These, though, are by no means immediately apparent from the music itself. The symphony's scurrying central scherzo (in which one may easily picture an agitated pursuit through the glaring sunshine and sudden shadows of a medieval Italian city) may conceivably be associated with Michelangelo's flight from the wrath of Julius II in 1505. The rest is less concrete and, once again, can only be understood though an examination of its creative context.

While Kancheli's symphonies typically occupied him for two or three years each, this slowness was not entirely due to a patient ambition to solve his formal problems in every tiny detail. Like most Soviet composers, he also regularly wrote for the cinema (around thirty soundtracks in all). More significantly so far as the Fourth Symphony is concerned, he became, in 1971, the musical director of Tbilisi's Rustaveli Theatre, collaborating on many productions with the theatre's director, Robert Sturua (who later wrote the libretto for Music For The Living). During this residency, Kancheli seems also to have worked with musicians from the traditional Georgian folk culture, which may account for his choice of Gamlet Gonashvili for the Third Symphony. It would certainly explain the Fourth Symphony's anticipation of the Sixth's symbolic pair of folk-ancestral violas - in this case employing two gravely sawing violins and (later) a group of three violas. These instruments anachronistically frame the more Italianate episodes in the Fourth, as if placing a suggestive Georgian proscenium around events peculiar to "another time".

There is, moreover, something theatrical about the symphony's comparably anomalous nursery-rhyme theme (a "musical box" simulated by two harps and a celesta). This motif, implying a child's-eye-view, has been interpreted as representing Michelangelo himself; however, it is more sensible and fruitful to compare it with subsequent similar symbolisms, such as the harpsichord in the Fifth Symphony and the boys' voices in Bright Sorrow. We know from Kancheli's own remarks that, for him, the Child symbolises innocence, and the presence, within the world of force and matter, of a higher, spiritual dimension. How, though, can this be reconciled with a symphony dedicated to the adult Michelangelo? In Testimony, Shostakovich speaks as follows of his opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk:

'It's about how love could have been if the world weren't full of vile things. It's the vileness that ruins love. And the laws and proprieties and financial worries, and the police state. If conditions had been different, love would have been different too.'
If Shostakovich often harks back to childhood in his music, it is less for the sake of indulging a sentimental nostalgia than for its personal memories of a more decent and sensitive world - the world of liberal Russia before Lenin destroyed it. (In his sorrowful Sixth Symphony, Prokofiev similarly looks back on a better time, as, arguably, does Myaskovsky in most of his music.) If Michelangelo's struggles with papal and princely power foreshadow the struggles of liberal Soviet artists against the Communist state, it becomes less surprising that Kancheli should follow his musical forerunners in adding to his Michelangelo symphony an element of childhood symbolism. In Kancheli's music, as in Shostakovich's, love is confronted by power as childhood is confronted by adulthood. Perhaps the boy Michelangelo also dreamt of a life in which he would be free to express himself - only to have his dream dashed by the realities of adult existence. At any rate, these are the juxtapositions Kancheli appears to be making in his striking, memorable, yet problematical Fourth Symphony. (Kakhidze's is the better of the two extant recordings.)

The Last Three Symphonies

The symbolic theme of childhood confronted by an adult world of peremptory power carries over into Kancheli's Fifth Symphony (1977), dedicated to the memory of the composer's parents. Here, the background influence is no longer the Georgian folk tradition audible in the Third and Fourth, but instead the music - and dramatic structures - of the modern cinema. Both the most violent and most melodic of Kancheli's symphonies, the Fifth, with its sharply contrasted groupings and "movements", suggests a wordless screenplay, complete with flashbacks and dream-sequences. Indeed the modulations of the symphony's quiet second section evoke an imagined revisitation of the past in conventional cinematic terms, the music turning slowly through its changes as if through the leaves of a photograph album. (The desolate waltz here might have been penned by Nino Rota and would not seem out of place in the soundtrack to The Godfather.)

Our lack of detailed acquaintance with the composer's life prevent us from guessing how close to home are the experiences evoked in this transfixingly unhappy work. Whatever the true story behind the Fifth Symphony, it's clear that his contemporary work in film and theatre here confer on his music both a new dramatic vividness and a more certain sense of form. The once mysterious modulations now feel right; not a note seems wasted. Only the "last movement" (21:05 et seq. in Kakhidze's 1981 recording on Olympia) fails to convince as a natural musical development of the violent "scherzo" which precedes it, appearing instead as if transplanted from another score (possibly the Andantino from Schubert's Piano Sonata in A, D.959). Not that this is anything but a fleeting handicap, since this section is immensely powerful in its expression of tragic grief, forecasting the catastrophic catharsis of the Sixth Symphony. So far the dark horse among Kancheli's mature symphonies, the Fifth, despite its palpably cinematic inspiration, is a work of enormous impact. (Once again, Kakhidze's version is preferable to its rival by DePreist.)

Kancheli's symphonic cycle reaches its peak of formal and expressive perfection in the tragic Sixth Symphony (1980), discussed in Part 1. (Both of the available recordings are conducted by Djansug Kakhidze. His second, made for Sony, employs an uncomfortably exaggerated acoustic and drags the work out to 35 minutes, pulling its structure apart. The Olympia version is the one to go for.) If the Sixth is the work Kancheli's style was designed to conceive, and which his whole career might therefore be said to have been aiming at, what of the music he has composed since? Nothing is so far known in the West of the two-act opera, Music For The Living, which occupied him for four years after completing the Sixth Symphony, but the Seventh Symphony (1986), which followed his next work, Bright Sorrow (1985), offers depressing evidence that, having peaked with the Sixth, decline was all that was left to him. None of the miriad themes with which this work brims is of any distinction, the structure is chaotic, and the general tone is no more elevated than that of poor film music. The abiding sense is of a limited formula sadly played out. Once poignant devices (such as the i-V-V7-i sequence, not only overdone here, but trotted out in every Kancheli score during the last twenty years) have lost their force - as, indeed, has the composer's once-virile and engaged creative vision as a whole.

In the case of the Seventh Symphony, one might suggest that this has something to do with its lack of a focusing "voice" along the lines of its four immediate predecessors. But such an excuse would not account for the similarly lacklustre Vom Winde beweint - nor, come to that, everything so far recorded from his comparatively prolific Berlin period. The last Kancheli score to be animated with any real conviction is Bright Sorrow - and even this lacks the vital spark of positivity (or, in the last resort, of anger).

While Kancheli's life in Georgia during the Eighties seems to have been grim, this alone can't explain the extent to which he has gone off the boil since his Sixth Symphony. At heart, as he himself would be the first to insist, the issue is a spiritual one. Simple and stylised, his music has always depended on his strength of feeling. Under the foreign domination of Communism, this was understandably high, although melancholy seems to have preponderated over courage during the Eighties. Very probably the ease of life in Germany, together with a deepening of his pessimism in the face of the gloomy fate of post-Soviet Georgia, have fatally taken the edge off Kancheli's gift. An overschematic shuffling of exhausted devices is now all that is left of a once blazing, if minor, talent.

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