Sunday, November 23, 2008

In Review---The Strings are the Thing

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Kayhan Kalhor
Brooklyn Rider
Silent City
World Village

I have over the years heard several recordings by Iranian kamanche master Kayhan Kalhor. The first recording to capture my ears was the recording, Rain by Ghazal which casted an enchanting spell over me. I have also heard his work with The Dastan Ensemble and his recording The Wind with Erdal Erzincan. Kalhor has proven not only his mastership over his exotic instrument, but also his adaptability to a variety of musical genres. That is not to say that he performs his instrument in a variety of genres, but that he fuses his tradition with those from other cultures. And since I have grown to admire Kahlor's work, I feel excited when I see his name gracing yet another CD cover.

On Silent City, once again we see Kalhor fusing Persian classical music with another music tradition--European classical meets the Silk Road. The musicians in Brooklyn Rider fall into an experimental-avant-classical style, that recalls Kronos Quartet. According to the press notes, "The origins of Silent City trace back to the summer of 2000, when cellist Yo-Yo Ma convened his fame Silk Road project at the Tanglewood Center at Lenox, MA. There three of the four gifted young musicians who would later form Brooklyn Rider-Colin Jacobsen, Jonathan Gandelsman, Nicholas Cords and later Eric Jacobsen--first encountered Kalhor while performing one of his compositions."

The story of how the musicians met, fused and recorded their musical traditions can be found in the CD liner notes. The story is as long and elaborate as the music that flows off the CD. The opening track, Ascending Bird resembles rousing gypsy meets Mongolian music and it contrasts with the moody title track that follows. The title track comes off as dissonant and desolate, which I am sure were the emotions the musicians were capturing at the time. I am reminded of a jazz recording, (which also speaks about a city lost to devastation), Terence Blanchard's A Tale of God's Will. Silent City runs over 29 minutes, which is not unheard of in either Persian or European classical music.

Even though I do not see it credited in the liner notes, you can hear the jangly sound of an Iranian setar on the third track, Parvaz (the setar is a sample from a previous work by Kahlor). The strings take on an exotic Silk Road sound. It builds slowly and gathers intensity, in the fashion of Silk Road classical tradition. Parvaz is the most beautiful of the four pieces that appear on the recording. The final track, Beloved, do not let me be discouraged possesses a haunting lyrical quality and it beautifully weaves the string quartet's instruments with the kamanche (spiked fiddle).

Silent City feels like pioneering work, despite the European classical-world fusion recordings already released by Kronos Quartet, cellists David Darling and Yo-Yo Ma. And in fact, Silent City acts as a new chapter for this type of cultural exchange. And I doubt discerning music lovers will grow tired of these fusion projects any time soon.

(not credited on the CD cover is Siamak Aghale on santoor).

In Review---Kora Master

Mamadou Diabate
Douga Mansa
World Village

Regular readers of this blog will know about my fascination with West African griot music and instruments. I was quite pleased to receive a review copy of Malian griot kora player Mamadou Diabate's Douga Mansa. It falls into West African classical music with Diabate playing solo kora throughout. And yet, with this single instrument, Diabate coaxes a rich tapestry of moods from his harp, not to mention an array of striking rhythms.

The press notes cited, " Diabate's hands, the kora proves capable of infinite variation, encompassing delicately articulated structures, swirling eddies of glissandi, pounding vertical rhythms and roaring cataracts of arpeggio." Which sounds a lot like a review of European classical music and why I am treating this CD as African classical music.

West African is not short of virtuoso kora players, a category in which Mamadou finds himself. His cousin is Toumani Diabate, another fabulous kora talent. Mamadou currently makes his home in the U.S. and he has collaborated with such greats as Taj Mahal, Eric Bibb, Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfumo, Irish singer Susan McKeown and others.

If you love kora music, Douga Mansa offers well over an hour's worth of instrumental music. I think it is too dynamic to be called relaxing and the playing is too mesmerizing to be played as background music. No doubt, both emerging and renowned kora players will be listening closely to this disc. There is a lot here to glean from a master performer.


In Review--Egyptian Diva Delights

Natacha Atlas
Ana Hina
World Village

I have admired Middle Eastern vocalist Natacha Atlas' rich vocals for a long time, but not until now am I able to hear those vocals in an acoustic setting. Her newest album, Ana Hina, produced and arranged by Harvey Brough is a gem. Atlas' vocals find themselves backed by a lush east-west orchestra. And the choice of material covered also spans east and west with covers of Fairuz, Rahbani Brothers, Abdel Halim Hafez and Nina Simone.

I have enjoyed listening to Ana Hina from the first moment I placed it in my CD player. The beautiful melodies sung in Arabic, Spanish (on La Vida Callada), and English provoke a spellbinding quality--a magic carpet ride, if you will. Hearing the Appalachian folk classic, Black is the Color (once covered by Nina Simone as a piano solo), certainly adds another dimension. And the inclusion of a poem by Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo which becomes a musical dialogue between Atlas and multi-instrumentalist Clara Sanabras conjures a beautiful whirling circus.

Atlas paints images and emotions with her voice. Similar to a paintbrush, her voice strokes and brushes each note she sings. The album with its array of musical riches brings an immediate intimacy and acts as a musical embrace. I have heard a lot of gorgeous music this past year, and Ana Hina lands at the top of my list. It is certain to please even the most discriminating palettes. Atlas has proven herself to be a first class vocalist and world class citizen.


In Review---Dowland Revisited

Monika Mauch (soprano)
Nigel North (lute)
A Musical Banquet
ECM New Series

It took awhile before I became a fan of English renaissance lutenist John Dowland's work. I had already been enjoying renaissance lute and vocal music which reminded me of medieval troubadour songs as well as, more contemporary blues. Yet, Dowland was not the easiest pill to swallow, since often, but not always, his lyrics seemed melancholic. Never mind that that was the rage at that time of Elizabethan, England.

Many of the Dowland recordings, with the exception of Sting's Songs from the Labyrinth (which is quite edgy), feature bel canto vocals set over the shimmering strings of lutes. Soprano Monika Mauch and lutenist Nigel North bring us a collection of lute songs on their recording, Musical Banquet. The pieces were originally published as a collection called Musical Banquet by Robert Dowland (John's son), in 1610. I do not know how the original pieces were set or how they sounded. But on this contemporary recording, Mauch's clear and bright soprano vocals along with North's gorgeous lute create a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Similar to his father, Robert Dowland also played the lute and composed music for the instrument. He acted only as a compiler on the collection, which included lute songs from Italy, Spain, France and England by anonymous and well-known composers. Dowland Sr.'s pieces also pepper this new recording of the collection, with the famous In Darkness Let Me Dwell appearing towards the end of the CD. Mauch sings the song in an even temper without relying on any dramatics to emphasize the harsh lyrics that accompany the music. If you listen to Sting's version of the song, you will be able to hear a wilder interpretation of the song.

Lute & vocal music bodes well for a number of activities ranging from listening pleasure to background music for work that takes concentration. However, with this recording, I recommend listening to it for pleasure. The spectacular performances by the musicians needs to be center stage and not relegated to the background. And you will find Mauch's vocals drawing you back into each delicious moment.


In Review---Schumann's Violin Sonatas

Carolin Widmann (violin)
Robert Schumann The Violin Sonatas
ECM New Series

The legendary Romantic era composer Robert Schumann was born during at time when amorous affairs could and often did lead to venereal disease. Since antibiotics had not been discovered yet, many artists, composers, etc succumbed to various disabilities, including deafness, and madness as consequences of the disease. Schumann suffered from madness towards the end of his life, I read due to a venereal disease he had contracted earlier.

Married to another legendary figure, Clara Schumann, you might often encounter this musician-composer couple when reading about classical music. Or you might encounter the couple when attending a symphony or chamber music house party. That sadly, is about all I know about the Schumanns at this point. However, the new ECM recording, Robert Schumann The Violin Sonatas, performed by German violinist Carolin Widmann and Hungarian pianist Dènes Vàrjon, acts as my baptism into the Schumann's world.

Schumann composed three violin sonatas in which his wife, Clara performed the piano role. However, according to Widmann interviewed in the press notes, Clara held Sonata #3 from the public because she felt it revealed her husband's deteriorating sanity. "Even from today's perspective I somehow understand why Clara Schumann held back the third sonata and some of Robert's late compositions for a such a long time. She must have feared that they would expose just too much of this mentally ill man whose--then quite unstable reputation she had to protect."

The second sonata is my favorite on the recording, (which appears as the final tracks on the CD). The sonata expresses delight, melancholy and a gamut of emotions, along with offering the musicians some real musical challenges. There is a lilting melodic line that appears throughout the first section that I enjoy. The second section can be called punchy and it marches along until it reaches the slow, third section which comes off as brooding. I am reminded of a later work, Maurice Ravel's Piano Concert in G major (middle section). The fourth section of Schumann's second sonata possesses a Hungarian gypsy feel in its wildness.

The musicians perform these sonatas with fiery wild abandonment and great sensitivity, creating what otherwise could have been a melancholic listening session, into an intense and exciting one. I also feel that the musicians give great consideration to Schumann as a fellow musician and human being with frailties and vulnerabilities, as well as virtuoso talent.

I am not certain how this recording would fit into a healing regime except that it might act as a balm to moodiness or assist with releasing repressed anger/frustration in a healthy manner. I find that a lot of the Romantic era music works in this way, and I have often listened to Beethoven's music to release anger and reclaim my power. So give it a try and listen to the recording.

Dènes Vàrjon (klavier)