May 09, 2024


Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite; Karelia Suite; Rakastava. Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Susanna Mälkki. BIS. $21.99 (SACD).

Ija Mia: Soundscape of the Sephardic Diaspora. East of the River (Nina Stern, recorders and chalumeau; Daphna Mor, voice and recorders; Ara Dinkjian, oud and cümbüs; Tal Mashiach, bass; Shane Shanahan, percussion; Zafer Tawil, violin, qanun and percussion; John Hadfield, percussion). AVIE. $19.99.

Lainie Fefferman: Here I Am. TRANSIT New Music (Sara Budde, clarinets; David Friend, piano; Pete Wise, percussion; Joe Bergen, drum set; Taylor Levine, guitar; Andie Tanning, violin; Ashley Bathgate, cello). New Focus Recordings. $16.99.

     In the 1890s, a time when Finland was very much dependent on Russia and about to be pulled even more strongly under the Russian yoke, the creative establishment determinedly found ways to assert patriotism and a desire for self-determination without going so far as to challenge Russian hegemony directly. Musicians were very much a part of this effort, and some of the early works by Sibelius were created specifically for this purpose and in this context. But works such as the Lemminkäinen Suite and Karelia Suite soon came to transcend their reasons for being, and remain popular today because of their ability to speak, simply as music, to audiences far from their land and time of origin – that is, to people who have no idea of the foundations on which Sibelius built them. Sibelius had a wealth of Finnish heritage on which to draw, notably the Kalevala epic that forms the basis of the Lemminkäinen Suite and Karelia Suite, and the Kanteletar, a collection of folk poetry from which Sibelius drew the less-known Rakastava. The excellent performances on BIS by the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra under Susanna Mälkki aptly treat the music simply as music, shorn of sociopolitical considerations that are now obsolete and would have little meaning outside Scandinavia. The excellence of orchestration is a big part of the attraction of these works: the brighter and darker elements coexisting in the KareliaSuite; the intriguing combination of string orchestra, timpani and triangle in Rakastava; the justly famous use of cor anglais (here played by Paula Malmivaara) in the second, “Swan of Tuonela” movement of the Lemminkäinen Suite – plus the mixture of jauntiness and assertiveness and sweetness and sadness and a dash of humor communicated in the rest of the work. Mälkki directs the orchestra with aplomb, the balance of the ensemble’s sections beautifully communicates the balance as well as the deliberately off-balance elements of the music, and the emotional underpinnings of all the works come through clearly without requiring an audience to be steeped in Finnish history, ancient epic poetry, or any understanding of the fraught relationship between Finland and the Russian Empire at the time when these works were created.

     Sibelius’ subtlety in creating affirmatively nationalistic music right under the nose (as it were) of the Russians is very different from the approach of 21st-century composers, who tend to go out of their way to “preach to the choir” and make sure their works’ assertiveness is front-and-center for “in the know” audiences or people who are willing to invest the necessary time and effort to understand where the material is coming from and why its creators deem it so important. This gives heritage-focused modern compositions more immediacy for much smaller potential audiences, and makes it unlikely that the material will have substantial staying power. But that is not its point: these works are for the here-and-now and are intended to speak forcefully only to those who share the creators’ background or are strongly attuned to it. Two new, fairly brief (+++) CDs – a 42-minute one from AVIE and a 51-minute one from New Focus Recordings – are of this type. The AVIE disc is intended to use Sephardic folk and traditional music to celebrate the ancestry of Nina Stern (Venetian Jewish) and Daphna Mor (Ladino – that is, Judaism of Spanish origin). The CD’s title is the name of its first track, an upbeat traditional Sephardic work from Turkey. Other pieces here are by turns emotionally expressive, peppy, improvisational-sounding, strongly rhythmic, prayerful, bright, dour: they cover a wide variety of feelings and emotions – some fully intelligible only to the small group of listeners who know the languages in which certain pieces are sung, some communicating more directly through the force of the music itself. The use of uncommonly heard instruments – the single-reed chalumeau, lutelike oud, banjo-shaped Turkish cümbüs, Arabic qanun – emphasizes the historicity of the material and the determination of the performers to pay tribute to their roots. It is all very well-meaning, often very expressive, and surely of significance to the performers themselves and others who share their heritage. By design, it makes no attempt to reach listeners beyond those who will feel a personal kinship with the musicians and/or who partake of similar ancestry.

     Lainie Fefferman reaches back even further in time for the creation of Here I Am. The 10-part work is a series of pieces based on the Hebrew Bible, ranging from a purely spoken introductory text reading a census of the 12 tribes of Israel to a series of explorations of ways in which the ancient texts are, or are not, meaningful and relevant to contemporary life. Much of this is not exactly music – it is more a series of soundscapes inviting contemplation, such as the very high violin register used to paint a picture of the angels called “Nephilim” and the extended (and also high-register) sound, punctuated by percussion, in which “Deuteronomic Rules” are recited (“you shall not plough with an ox and an ass together,” “you shall not marry your father’s former wife,” and so forth). A steady pulsing underlies “Sword on Thigh,” about a civil war; a vocal trio (sounding a bit like the Muses in the animated Disney version of Hercules) delivers Abraham’s arguments with God about Sodom; and other pieces use different instrumental and vocal effects to put forward still more admonitions and prohibitions. Here I Am eventually concludes with a repeat of the initial census, making it clear that Fefferman is speaking only to those who share her Jewish background and, like her, are trying to understand and make sense of many-thousand-years-old writings whose relevance to modern life is sometimes difficult to fathom, sometimes impossible to comprehend, sometimes decidedly problematic (as with the prohibition, from Leviticus 18:22, against the “abomination” that occurs when any man should “lie with a male as with a woman”). Here I Am sounds like a performance piece – it is easy to imagine the theatricality of the musicians and the reciters of the Biblical passages – and has the effect of listening in on the composer’s own exploration of the basis of her faith and the sometimes difficult-to-fathom elements underlying it. For those who share Fefferman’s beliefs and her concerns about their foundations, this will be a meaningful exploration that offers questions but not definitive conclusions. For those steeped in different religions or committed to none at all, the whole exercise will have little significance or meaningful impact.

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