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BORIS YOFFE: SONG OF SONGS / ECM New Series 2174                            

“His work has great beauty…The separate pieces amount to one big work of a lifetime, such as we so much want to write: unbegun, unended, unending. Whatever is missing has to be imagined. It’s all there” – Wolfgang Rihm on Boris Yoffe’s ‘Book of Quartets’.

“Song of Songs”, with its unique collaboration between the Rosamunde Quartett and the Hilliard Ensemble, is the ECM New Series debut for composer Boris Yoffe.

Born in St Petersburg in 1968, Boris Yoffe graduated from its Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in 1989. The following year he emigrated to Israel, and began his studies at the Tel Aviv Music Academy in 1990. In 1997 he moved to Germany to study, initially, with Wolfgang Rihm in Karlsruhe.

“I could never really teach him anything,” Prof. Rihm allows. “Why did I take him? Because he had remained immune to teaching? Probably. Also I have an intuition in these things, I hope.” Indeed, “Song of Songs” is the work of a truly independent compositional voice. Yoffe describes himself as a Jewish (rather than Russian or Israeli) composer, creating work influenced by German music, Russian literature and Far Eastern philosophy and aesthetics and he likens the present album to a collection of poems.

Prodigiously prolific, Yoffe has been writing quartets almost daily since 1995, most of them around a page in length. The collection amounts to thousands of pieces by now, more are added continuously. There is nothing else like his “Book of Quartets” in the string quartet repertory. “One listens here into infinity”, Paul Griffiths suggests, as we tune in to “The Book of Quartets”, a work without end. This is composition as a diary, an unfolding poetic meditation.

Boris Yoffe: “When I wrote the first piece in the ‘Book of Quartets’ in 1995, I had no idea what path I had started down. In the following weeks I wrote a few more pieces of the same texture and about the same length, and found it so interesting that I resolved to create a cycle of around 20 pieces (the origin of the title). The pieces were done, my friends in Tel Aviv played them, but I had the feeling that something still remained to be said through this means of expression – that here, perhaps, something like a new aesthetic could arise …The work makes demands on my entire being – intuition as well as reason. There’s still no way I can assess them ‘from outside.’ I once defined them as ‘practical (experimental) metaphysics.’ I could also put forth the claim that, for me, writing and playing the quartets means roughly the same thing as being alive. The pieces are perceived quite differently by different listeners”.

The ‘Book of Quartets’ is written without any performance instructions or direction for interpretation. “I was prepared to resign myself,” says Yoffe, “to the fact that my excessive hopes could hardly be realised – of finding a highly virtuosic and sensitive quartet that would willingly take the trouble to examine all the subtleties and contradictions of my pieces with the utmost seriousness, and make its own selection from the enormous collection, determining tempo, dynamics, agogics and articulation, and on top of that would recreate the pieces in concerts almost every time with a free use of rubato. But that’s exactly what happened with the superb Rosamunde Quartett, to whom this work proved to be interesting and attractive!”

The present recording followed on from Rosamunde’s performances in their Munich concert series “From the Quartet Book”. In a CD booklet note, Yoffe writes that the contribution of the Hilliard Ensemble, “whose versions of Machaut, Palestrina or Lassus have for years been my yardstick for the art of singing, surpassed everything I could have hoped for…”

“Song of Songs” was produced by Manfred Eicher in St Gerold in November 2009, just a few months after the Hilliard’s recording of “Officium Novum”. The monastery has also been the site of Rosamunde recordings including the Mansurian quartets, as well as many other ECM albums of both composed and improvised music.

The Rosamunde Quartett was formed in Munich in 1992 – the broad range of its ECM releases includes music of Othmar Schoeck, Thomas Larcher, Tigran Mansurian, Valentin Silvestrov, Joseph Haydn, Dmitri Shostakovich, Dino Saluzzi and more. The ensemble disbanded in 2010, making “Song of Songs” its final recording.

The Hilliard Ensemble, formed 1974, is widely revered for its exemplary performances of old and new music. The group’s extensive ECM discography includes music of Perotin, Machaut, Tallis, Gesualdo, Lassus, Pärt, Schnittke, Kancheli, Bryars as well as the trilogy of “Officium” recordings with saxophonist Jan Garbarek.

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