KANCHELI: Styx, for Viola, Choir and Orchestra; TAVENER: The Myrrh-Bearer, for Viola, Chorus and Percussion – Maxim Rysanov, viola/ Liepaja Symphony Orchestra and Choir (Kancheli) with the Men of the State Choir of Latvia (Tavener)/ Maris Sirmais, conductor – Onyx CD – ONYX 4023, 78 mins. ***** [Distr. by Harmonia Mundi]:

Anyone familiar with the works of either Giya Kancheli or John Tavener fully realize that their compositions border on the mystical, with influences from many diverse sources; Kancheli draws heavily on his Georgian and Armenian folk background, while Tavener’s music is often a bizarre mix that sometimes almost defies description. Both tend to compose music of tremendous dynamic contrasts – I learned this very quickly almost two decades ago, with a disc of Kancheli symphonies on a Sony CD I picked up on a whim. Early in the piece, the music was almost unnaturally quiet – so much that I cranked the volume to what I thought was close to a realistic level. Instantaneously, the music thundered to the single, loudest cacophony of sound I’ve ever experienced – bar none – and I was darn grateful that the relatively high-end performance level of my electronics was up to the task. My dog almost had a heart attack, and I sometimes think the slight ringing I occasionally experience in my left ear may be linked to that brief moment in time!

This disc continues in that tradition, with challenging listening from both composers, and offers some of the most tremendous sonic transients your equipment may ever face – very impressive for a standard Red Book CD. So take this as a warning – be cognizant of your volume level at all times with this disc! In terms of the music, I found both pieces to be extremely melodic – much more so than I’ve typically found with either composer, each of whom I’d typically recommend as an acquired taste. Maxim Rysanov on viola is superb; his lyrical playing forms the foundation for each composer. Tavener’s piece, The Myrrh-Bearer, jettisons the orchestra and focuses on the choir and Rysanov’s viola, accompanied by Rihards Zalupe on percussion. Zalupe’s playing is magical; his percussion tinkles, jingles and rings, and when you least expect it, a massive stroke on the bass drum powers through.

The recording is superb, and will challenge most SACDs in terms of sound quality. The disc perfectly captures the acoustic of Riga, Latvia’s Dome Cathedral, and throws a wide and deep soundstage with impressive ambience. While not for the faint of heart, this CD comes very highly recommended!

– Tom Gibbs