December 12, 2019


Cilia Petridou: Asmata; Byzantine Doxology. Alison Smart, Lesley-Jane Rogers and Jenni Harper, sopranos; Susan Legg, mezzo-soprano; Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, tenor; Jeremy Birchall and Patrick Ardagh-Walter, basses; Cilia Petridou, electric piano; Katharine Durran, piano. Divine Art. $24.99 (2 CDs).

Lydia Kakabadse: Odyssey; Songs. The Choir of Royal Holloway conducted by Rupert Gough; Cecily Beer, harp; Clare McCaldin, mezzo-soprano; Paul Turner, piano. Divine Art. $17.

Anthony Brandt: Ulysses, Home; Maternity; David Eagleman: The Founding Mothers. Karol Bennett, soprano; Liam Bonner, baritone; Del Sol String Quartet (Kate Stenberg and Peter Masek, violins; Charlton Lee, viola; Kathryn Bates, cello); Jerry Hou, conductor (Ulysses, Home); River Oaks Chamber Orchestra conducted by Alastair Willis (Maternity); David Eagleman, reader (The Founding Mothers). Navona. $14.99.

Basil Athanasiadis: Book of Dreams II; Five Pieces; Circles; Dream of a Butterfly II; Eyes Are Now Dim. Shonorities (Shie Shoji, vocals; Naomi Sato, shō; Keiko Hisamoto, koto; Lin Lin, alto flute; Nao Tohara, violin; Basil Athanasiadis, piano); Elena Abad Martinez and Chloë Meade, violins; Daichi Yoshimura, viola; Henry Hargreaves, cello; Noah Max, conductor. Métier. $17.

     Ancient Greece is often referred to as the cradle of Western civilization, its influence extending not only into governance but also into architecture, statuary, frescoes and other art forms. Its relationship to music is less often explored. But both ancient and more-modern Greece have considerable musical significance for some composers, whether because of their own heritage or because they find significant inspiration in Greece’s past. Cilia Petridou (born 1944) relates to Greece both personally and as a source of musical material, as a new two-CD Divine Art release clearly shows. Greek Orthodox liturgical texts form the basis of Byzantine Doxology, a very extended setting (lasting almost an hour) of sacred material whose general elements (such as Hosanna in the Highest, Peace to All and Rest the Souls) will be familiar to many listeners even if the specifics of the Greek words will not. The setting uses a small vocal ensemble – two sopranos, mezzo-soprano, tenor and two basses – that Petridou employs to produce considerable purity of sound in music that is essentially tonal but harmonically more modern than many traditional settings of religious texts. The vocal writing is skillful, although the limited number of voices means that the material – which is straightforward in meaning – tends after a while to drag a bit. There is greater variety in the 15 songs, split between two soprano voices and based on more-modern poetry, that Petridou collectively calls Asmata. The songs’ length varies quite a bit, with the first lasting less than a minute and the last more than nine minutes. The words’ sources are quite varied and not 100% by Greek poets: although six are by Dimitris Libertis (1866-1937), two by Kostis Palamas (1859-1943), two by Alexander Pallis (1851-1935), and one by Nikos Kambas (1857-1932), there are also three traditional folk poems (Lullaby, The Nun, and Red Lips); and one song, The soul selects her own society, uses words by Emily Dickinson. The use of an electric piano for the last and longest song, Sunset, produces a somewhat otherworldly effect, but most of the settings are rather straightforward, with the piano generally remaining firmly in the background even as it supports the voice. When the piano is used for mood setting, however, as in Away from You, the result is quite effective. Petridou is clearly comfortable setting the Greek words both in Asmata and in Byzantine Doxology, and the release provides English translations of all the material, so listeners unversed in the Greek language can follow along with Petridou’s evocations.

     The nine songs and one choral work on a Divine Art recording of works by Lydia Kakabadse (born 1955) are in English and are more musically varied than those by Petridou. And the sources of the texts clearly show Kakabadse’s many interests: there are words by Charlotte Brontë, Arthur Hugh Clough, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Amelia Earhart, Kakabadse herself, Thomas Hood, Thomas Hardy, John Clare, Rudyard Kipling, plus the Latin Sancte Ioseph. These are individual songs, not a cycle, but they display certain themes that interest Kakabadse, including ghostly tales (Longfellow’s Haunted Houses and Kipling’s The Way Through the Woods); memories of long ago as another kind of ghostliness (Brontë’s The House Where I Was Born and Hood’s I Remember); and the somewhat sullied pleasures of material things (Clough’s As I Sat at the Café and Hardy’s The Ruined Maid). Indeed, Kakabadse’s wide-ranging interests are made even clearer in Odyssey, which is a cycle, and a fascinating one, drawing not only on Homer’s tale of Odysseus’ wanderings after the Trojan War but also on material from many times in Greek history. The seven movements of this work trace Greece from Homer’s era to today, and Kakabadse’s music reflects, to at least some extent, the forms of music in each of the seven eras: monophonic and unharmonized in “Archaic,” dramatic and intense in “Classical,” and so through “Hellenistic,” “Roman” (which uses elements of Greek Orthodox liturgy), “Byzantine,” “Post-Byzantine,” and finally “Modern” (which opens with Greece’s national anthem). The material of Odyssey is more specialized than that of Kakabadse’s songs and perhaps not as widely appealing: the work is a 2018 commission for the 25th anniversary of the Hellenic Institute at Royal Holloway University of London. But even listeners who are not steeped in Greek history and may not be familiar with all the texts in Kakabadse’s Odyssey will find much of the musical material intriguing, and the work as a whole does a very fine job of taking an audience through thousands of years of experience in not much more than half an hour.

     It is certainly not only those of Greek heritage who continue to extract meaning from Homer’s Odyssey, a work that truly belongs to the whole world and continues to offer fertile ground for interpretation and reinterpretation. American composer Anthony Brandt (born 1961) takes the Homeric story into modern times in Ulysses, Home, whose title recalls Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria but whose subject matter is far less celebratory. Brandt, using a libretto by Neena Beber, sees Ulysses as a modern soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder, returning to his contemporary Penelope but never quite able to shake off the sounds and suffering of battle. Written in a prologue and five scenes, Ulysses, Home is declaimed rather than sung in traditional operatic style, and the music is generally dissonant and often deliberately unpleasant, to fit the work’s theme. Even when Brandt dips into lyricism, he does so only briefly and imperfectly, as if to acknowledge that a soldier never fully separates from his battlefield experiences. The ending is ambiguous and implies that, in some ways, anticipating Ulysses’ return was better for Penelope than actually having him come back. The work is a thoughtful one and effective as a play, although the musical elements are not really central to it and serve mainly to underline what is presented in the words. Also on this Navona CD is Maternity, for soprano and chamber orchestra, an interpretation of David Eagleman’s short story, The Founding Mothers – which Eagleman himself reads in full after Brandt’s piece concludes. Maternity is much less acerbic than Ulysses, Home, and has a very different purpose: instead of updating an old tale, it moves backward in time from the present – sort of the opposite of what Kakabadse does in her Odyssey – to offer very short comments on women in earlier ages. Those who came before led, inevitably, to those who are here now, and Eagleman and Brandt move back and back and back, through “my great-great-grandmother had a tightly twisted temper” to “she lived in a quarrelsome village by the Nile” to “she fashioned the first flutes,” and back further and further in time, to “she can bark with such ferocity that she saves her pack again and again” to “she is amphibious” and even beyond that. It is a fascinating journey in reverse, speeding through known and unknown history, through humanity and past its origins, in words representing 21 mothers. This material is both spoken and sung, and here the music comments upon some of what is spoken in addition to providing background. Brandt’s handling of the verbiage is quite different from Eagleman’s own, and the pairing of the musical and purely spoken versions makes for a fascinating contrast, if a somewhat overdone one.

     There is contrast aplenty in the five works by Basil Athanasiadis (born 1970) on a new Métier CD – a disc showing one way in which a strong Greek heritage may be altered by and even subsumed within other cultures. Athanasiadis spent years living and studying in Tokyo, and the pieces on this CD are permeated by Japanese and Chinese aesthetics and sonorities. They also draw on the sorts of sources favored by many of the more avant-garde contemporary composers: minimalism, ambient music, aleatory, electroacoustics, prepared piano, and of course jazz. Like many contemporary composers who want to explain their techniques and approaches to listeners, Athanasiadis has a good deal to say about how and why each piece on this disc came into being. But audiences will be more interested in how the works sound, and what effects they produce for listeners, than in their provenance. Book of Dreams II, for alto flute and string quartet, is a compilation of melodic fragments taken from Chinese folk music, and it has a pleasant overall character without any sense of progress – it simply is, from start to finish (and at 18 minutes, goes on rather too long, although listeners who enjoy Western minimalism or background music will not find that to be an issue). Five Pieces for Female Voice and Prepared Piano sets Japanese haiku – sometimes with virtually no piano involvement, sometimes with the instrument overcoming the voice. Circles is improvisational, using solo piano plus electronics created from a recording of Athanasiadis’ voice singing a single tone. Like Book of Dreams II, it is a form of minimalism, here intended to reflect Buddhist chant and quiet places in Tokyo – neither of which, however, is especially apparent from the music itself. Again, this is a work that overstays its welcome, lasting more than 10 minutes without any sense of progress – but here as in Book of Dreams II, it is a piece that fanciers of minimalism will find congenial. The seven-movement Dream of a Butterfly II was created to showcase the capabilities of the electroacoustic Fender Rhodes piano, whose sound is somewhere between that of chimes and that of a marimba. The work focuses on different sounds that this specific now-discontinued instrument is capable of creating. As a demo piece, it is interesting, and the individual elements are short enough to offer a sound sampler that does not profess to any particular meaning. Whether the totality is anything beyond a sound sampler is, however, another matter. Finally on this CD, Eyes Are Now Dim, at 20 minutes the longest piece here, is another work with a haiku connection, being intended to reflect the wide-ranging concerns embedded within those famously brief poetic structures. Written for female voice, shō, koto, violin, and Chinese gongs, the work has a distinct Oriental tinge but does not seem, strictly from a musical perspective, to offer much more than repetitiveness and some aural experimentation in instrumental combination. That may be enough for listeners who simply find the none-too-familiar instrumental sound attractive – although whether it remains so throughout this extended work is a matter of opinion. Interestingly, given the paucity of Greek elements in the music of Athanasiadis on this disc, Eyes Are Now Dim is the one work connected directly to Greece: it is dedicated to Greek musicologist, composer and music critic George Leotsakos. In concept and sound, however, it is as far from modern Greece as is Homer’s Odyssey.

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