13168 THE SEPHARDIC EXPERIENCE,
VOLUME 3: GAZELLE AND FLEA -
SEPHARDIC EXPERIENCE, VOLUME 4: EGGPLANTS -
The Renaissance Players continue their exploration of the music of the Sephardic Jews. This unusual musical repertoire, originating in medieval Spain, has survived for centuries by way of oral/aural transmission in the Sephardic communities in Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and North Africabut the traditions are rapidly disappearing now. This music is no longer an integral part of the everyday life of the Sephardim. We owe the Australiabased Winsome Evans and her Renaissance Players a hearty thanks for their loving and scholarly interest in this music.
The song texts in Volume 3 cover themes of love from literal and figurative references involving animals, humans, and insects (gazelle and flea). Volume 4 concentrates on Macedonian dances, instrumental and vocal songs, spiritual love, and marital hijinks.
The performances are not only historically and musically accurate (as far as can be determined), but musically exciting and compelling in themselves. The virtuoso ensemble plays an array of exotic instruments (zurna, supeljka, diwan saz, baglama, tapan) as well as the more familiar us, shawm, psaltery, tabor, harp, gitern, and bouzouki. Two soprano soloists (Melissa Irwin and Mina KanaridisSephardic songs are traditionally sung only by women) belt out their songs with considerable personality and enjoyment. They suffer with the sad; they rejoice with the happy. The music is heavily rhythmic, earcatchingly tuneful. It all adds up to quite an enjoyable show. Notes, texts, and translations are included.
13128 AURORA: THE COMPLETE HILDEGARD VON BINGEN, VOLUME TWO - SINFONYE
It has taken a while since Vol. 1 of The Complete Hildegard of Bingen (13127) appeared for Vol. 2 to come forth, but I am relieved that this promised series is indeed to go forward.
When I reviewed Vol. 1 (S/O 1996) I praised it for its care in avoiding the temptation to pile undue modernizing and overlay on Hildegard's monophonic hymns. If anything, Wishart has gone even further to keep things strict and plain: there are no instruments at all this time, and only a couple of pieces are done with an organumlike extra part added, a perfectly plausible possibility for the period and place. Otherwise, everything is done by solo or unison voicesWishart herself and two adult female Sinfonye colleagues, or members of the girls' choir. The extension to a relatively childish sound suggests the image of very young novices joining or juxtaposed with mature nuns in Hildegard's convent. But, above all, the liberation of Hildegard's free and ecstatic melodies from the accretions so foolishly added in so many presentday faddish treatments allows these melodies to soar on their own terms. These singers put their hearts into it with wonderful clarity and feeling.
This is the real Hildegard, without hype and without hokum, and this series offers, I think, the truest of any of the recorded ventures so far, allowing us to hear her spiritual effusions as she meant them. After the battering she has taken on discs, I think she would be moved and grateful to hear these performances. Folks in Tucson: don't keep us waiting so long for more.
13167 THE SEPHARDIC EXPERIENCE,
VOLUME 2: APPLES AND HONEY -
This is the second in a series of CD releases by these performers based in Sydney, Australia. I was greatly impressed with the first one (N/D 1998, p. 283).
The series is devoted to the traditions of the Spanish Jews in their dispersal all around the Mediterranean basin and the Balkans. As with the first program, called Thorns of Fire, this new one, called Apples and Honey, is organized around the theme of these two words and the imagery and symbolism connected with them. The 14 selections range from direct to allusive, from simple narratives to profoundly mystical probings.
Most of the material here is of folk derivation, from traditions out of presentday Greece, Turkey, Persia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and generally Balkan or "Middle Eastern". Two selections are read, and all the music is director Winsome Evans's arrangements of folkloric survivals, with a sensitivity to their continuing vitality. The performers are also tuned to ethnic styles and regional performance practices, but with a bracing musicality that leaves antiquarianism far behind. There are times when the singers and players seem caught up in their material with ecstatic fervor, making for some captivating, even hypnotizing listening. As last time, I am particularly struck by the beautiful singing of Mina Kanaridis, one of the two sopranos in the group.
As before, the booklet bulges with extensive notes. If this series continues at this level, it will outstrip the Voice of the Turtle recordings for Titanic as a commanding survey of the Sephardic literature.
SEPHARDIC EXPERIENCE, VOLUME 1: THORNS OF FIRE -
This recording deals with the broad folkloric survivals of the Sephardim as dispersed around the Mediterranean and the Balkans. It follows the model set by The Voice of the Turtle (Titanic) for it is announced as the first in an "extended series of compact discs". Rather than making each disc focus on a given regional Sephardic tradition, however, this new series seems to project more of a thematic format, cutting across the regional blocs. The first volume, for instance, takes its subtitle from the imagery of the rose that recurs in a good many of the songs gathered here.
There are 13 selections: eight are songs rendered vocally; three more song melodies are treated instrumentally, while one is " a newlycomposed dance melody in Macedonian style"; finally, there is a reading (in English) from the Song of Songs. Many of the songs are bits of romantic nostalgia, though there are some social pieces, including a fine wedding song. The burden of the singing is carried by two sopranos with light, bright voices, Melissa Irwin and Mina Kanaridis. The latter is a particularly fine singer,. Evans and his six instrumentalists have clearly steeped themselves in both the appropriate folkloric traditions and the styles of ArabAndalusian musicmaking, so that whether they are elaborating existing tunes or even making up some of their own material, they sound so zestful and idiomatic that they are totally convincing.
The album booklet is unusually thick, containing not only full texts with translations but extensive comments on each piece, preceded by an elaborate background essayand this is only the beginning of what will be continued in the following releases. It may seem odd that a commanding and highly authoritative survey of the Sephardic tradition should come from Sydney, Australia, the home of this 30-year old emsemble, but I have no hesitation in recommending this first release.
SCHÜTZ DER SCHWANENGESANG (THE SWAN-SONG) -
Schütz's Schwanengesang (swan songs) were his last works, 11 double choir motetsettings of verses from Psalm 119, part of Psalm 100, and a Magnificat in German. He wrote most of these at the remarkable age of 85 or so as a kind of musical reflection of the verse he had selected for his funeral sermon: Psalm 119:54. Some have read these pieces as a kind of artistic reproach to the newer and more extroverted Italian style that had become prevalent even in Dresden, where he had been court musician from 1615 up to the end of his life in 1672. Others take them simply as a kind of summary of his art.
These are wonderful pieces, rich and moving and written with amazing lucidity and economy. There isn't an extra note in any of them.
Peelman and his Australian group perform them with one voice to a
part and a simple organ accompaniment. His singers are a good lot,
though the tenor who gives the intonations sounds like a lightvoiced
Jon Vickersan odd association here. The performances are very
straightforward and plain. Schütz, who spent a large part of
his career in Dresden begging for resources from a court bled of men
and wealth by the 30 Years War, would have understood and might have
appreciated the simplicity.
MUSIC OF ARMENIA, VOLUME TWO: SHARAKAN -
This is the second volume of a series that was planned, recorded and produced by David Parsons. The first disc is devoted to choral liturgical music of the Armenian Church, and the later ones sample areas of Armenian traditional, folk, and topical music down to the present.
The extraordinary tenacity of that culture's survival in the face of conquest, dispersion, persecution, and massacre might be matched only by the Jewish tradition. And, as with the latter, it seems to be flourishing once again with the achievement of an independent statehood and cultural revival. That revival is demonstrated by this series, where musicians and ensembles of Yerevan, capital of today's Armenia, are documented.
This volume bears the title sharakan, which derives from the word for "sequence" and is translated poetically as "jewel necklace", though musically it refers to the order of sacred rituals in the Church. To its paraliturgical literature are added the other categories of songthe folkderived tagh and the semideclamatory gandzboth supplemental to, if outside of, the official liturgical offices. The composition of these melodies extends back to the origins of Armenian Christianity in the Fourth Century. They are the work of generations of poetmusicians who have been compared to the troubadours of medieval Western Europe, but they might best be compared to such products as the Cantigas of Alfonso El Sabio.
A key figure in modern Armenian musical tradition was Komitas Vardapet, or Vardabedian (18691935), who, among other things, was an inspiration to our Alan Hovhaness. His transcriptions and arrangements are the foundation for these performances. It must be stressed that these are "modernizations" without any antiquarian character. The adapted melodies, 22 of them, are sung by a solo vocalist accompanied by various combinations of flute, piano, and string quartet. The results are tasteful and often extraordinarily lovely, if not the least bit "medieval". The three female singers have lovely voices and perform with deep commitment.
Thorough annotations are supplied, but texts and translations are omitted in favor of short descriptive notes on each piece. If your only contact with Armenian music has been through the filter of Hovhaness, you might try this more direct approach.
MUSIC OF ARMENIA, VOLUME ONE: SACRED CHORAL MUSIC -
This one looked like the runt of the litter. I mean, Armenia for crying out loud! Serves me right for prejudging. It turns out this is a gorgeously sung program of music that wears its exotic spirituality with great sincerity and unpretentious beauty. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity (in 301) and also the first church to be excommunicated en masse. (It was over the issue of monophysitismthe heretical challenge to the doctrine that Jesus was both human and divine.)
Armenia has a long, fascinating religious history, recounted here in the juiciest set of liner notes I've ever read. Like the country itself, Armenia's music shows many influences. Chanted in Grabar, not Latin, it sounds like Gregorian sometimes, but not quite. Some works sound quite European, but when the fellows enter on their drone harmonies and the modal chants take on Islamic, Jewish, or oriental flavors, it doesn't take long to conclude that, Toto, we're not in Kansas any more. You might not want to hunker down for the full 75 minutes each and every time you play this, but music that speaks so eloquently of mankind's quest to know God through artistic creativity deserved to be heard. Everything about this from the singing to the notes to the producer's comments about Armenia and its people speaks of great care and love. Yes, Armenia! If you're up for something beautiful and exotic, you've found it here.