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Songs and Dances of Life
Duos for Two Violas, Sz. 98 (selections) (1932)
Romanian Folk Dances, Sz. 56 (selections) (c. 1928)
Romanian Christmas Carols, Sz. 57 (c. 1928)
Liviu COMES (1918-2004)
Colo pe din sus de sat (In the Village) for piano (c. 1980)
Sus din vǎrful muntelui (On the Mountain) for piano (c. 1980)
Dumitru MARINESCU (b. 1940?)
Sǎrbǎtoarea recoltei (Harvest Song) for piano (c. 1985)
Anatol VIERU (1926-1998)
Noapte (Night) for piano (c. 1965)
Franz LISZT (1822-1886)
Four Short Pieces for piano (c. 1880)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Hungarische Melodie, D. 871, for piano (c. 1820)
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Balada si joc (Ballad and Dance) for two violas (1950)
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)
“ Fairy Tale” from Loutky for piano (c. 1940)
Leos JANÁČEK (1854-1928)
“ Madonna of Frydek” from On an Overgrown Path for piano (1908)
Diana Ketler (piano); Razvan Popovici (viola); Christian Naş (viola).
rec. Apr. 2007, Alte Kirche Boswil, Switzerland. DDD.
SOLO MUSICA LC15316 [69:04]
Experience Classicsonline

Here’s an enterprising project from a couple of the members of Ensemble Raro (Diana Ketler and Razvan Popovici) and a friend (Christian Naş). The program, developed at Popovici’s Sonoro Chamber Music Festival in Bucharest, was inspired by the Transylvanian town Sibiu’s designation as European Capital of Culture for 2007. Pianist Ketler, and violists Popovici and Naş have assembled a program which musically reflects Sibiu’s social role as a crossroads of Eastern Europe. Thus we get everything here from Schubert up to the late Liviu Comes, who passed away in 2004. The single biggest chunk of repertory here are selections from Bartók’s 44 Duos for Two Violas, but they are spread throughout the program, serving as the common thread.
It turns out that this is a fantastic idea, and it makes for a very listenable disc, evoking the history and flavor of the place. I would love to hear discs done like this for many locations throughout the world. Indeed, one could imagine an entire series of such portraits, though this title, released by the Romanian label Solo Musica is very focused on a national interest.
The disc starts with the “Transylvanian Dance” from the Bartók Duos. It captures that uniquely Transylvanian quality of being both lively and darkly haunting, setting the tone for this whole collection. The strongly rhythmical “Ruthenian Kolomeika” follows next, with a mysterious slow section preceding the mischievous close. Last comes the playful “Teasing Song” to end the first set of excerpts from the Bartók. Popovici and Naş alternate throughout as first and second viola.
Ketler follows them with a set of four modern piano works, two by Liviu Comes, one by Dumitru Marinescu, and one by Anatol Liviu. The first Comes piece is “In the Village,” evoking dance rhythms in short, fragmented phrases. The tiny Marinescu piece is even more driven by folk-dance rhythms. We return to Comes for the lullaby “On the Mountain,” which handles ethnic melodic material in a more impressionistic manner. “Night,” by Anatol Vieru brings brooding chordal harmonies to hymn-like melody, which finally closes peacefully.
The next four selections — “Romanian Whirling Dance,” “Prelude and Canon,” “Fairy Tale,” and “Hungarian Song” are more colorful character studies from the Bartók Duos. Those are answered by Four Short Pieces for piano by Franz Liszt. Liszt notoriously mistook the music of Romany Gypsies as the folk music of Hungary, but as Romania’s name suggested, in some places folk and Romany culture became very much entwined. In these pieces, Liszt unusually omits any kind of poetic subtext and seems to be exploring harmonies outside the romantic mainstream. The first, marked “Sehr langsam,” starts with fairly ordinary romantic harmonies, but quietly tests those boundaries with modal inflections, bringing Liszt’s music a step closer to Eastern European folk music. The second piece, “Moderato,” is a modest song that even more subtly subverts expected harmonies and melodic patterns. Amazing to think that while Wagner got most of the headlines in the mid 1800s for experimental harmony, Liszt was doing some of the most adventurous work in that arena. Another “Sehr langsam” movement comes third, done in delicate watercolor tints, sounding almost like early Debussy in its static harmonies. An “Andantino” closes the Liszt set with a more sentimental theme that runs into interesting harmonic complications in its brief duration.
After another Bartók Duo, the thoughtful “Ruthenian Song,” we get a tasty dose of Schubert, with his “Hungarian Melody” for piano. It combines a minor-key similar to the third Moment Musical, with one of the typically melting major-key turns of phrase. Though viewing folk music of Eastern Europe through a largely German lens, Schubert learned from Haydn just how much local color could be squeezed into the Germanic mainstream, one of the reasons that classical music covers such a range, and continues to appeal to people outside of the original handful of countries where it was created. Following remarkably seamlessly is an early viola duo by György Ligeti entitled “Ballad and Dance.” The ballad is heartfelt and folkish, while the whirling dance brings more of the riotous color that was soon to erupt in Ligeti’s music in the explosively experimental music he wrote in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.
Next up is another set of excerpts from the Bartók Duos. A calm “Hungarian Song” starts this set, followed by two “Hungarian Marches” with tangy harmonies. Ketler follows with the piano versions of the first two dances from Bartók’s familiar “Romanian Folk Dances.” Too bad all of them weren’t included here, as they’d all be most welcome in this program.
As the keystone of the arch in this program comes the largest group selection of the Bartók Duos, a selection of nine, starting with the guitar-like “Pizzicato.” A high-spirited “Burlesque” follows, including some mock-serious moments which bring a smile. The “Limping Dance” is a short piece bringing syncopations and a tiny accelerated coda. The “Alternating Song” sees the violists taking turns bringing melodic material to the fore or playing soft counter-melodies. Bumptious and bold, the “Walachian Dance” changes speeds thrice in less than one minute. “Bagpipes” gives a lively folk dance over a drone bass, while the “Soldier’s Song” which follows is slow and mournful, perhaps evoking homesickness. The “Maypole Dance” sounds like music for a children’s’ game, and the “Slovakian Song” closes the set tenderly.
Ketler returns with a “Fairy Tale” by Bohuslav Martinů. At 3:32, it is the longest piece on the disc, and almost seems like a miniature sonata or a tone poem for piano by contrast with everything surrounding it. Like most fairy tales, it takes the audience through magical adventures and resolves with a happy ending.
More Duos follow, starting with the alternately subdued and burly “Harvest Song.” A passionate “Wedding Song” follows, along with a “Dance from Maramures,” full of strong accents and arresting turns of phrase, though only a half-minute long. Not much longer is the milder “Pillow Dance,” followed by the bright but enigmatic “Summer Solstice Song.” The “Matchmaking Song” is gentle and cajoling, though less poignant than the “Hay-Gathering Song” which succeeds it. This set closes with the longest of the Duos included here, “Loss.” Its deep but controlled sense of melancholy makes its two-and-a-half-minutes seem much longer.
Leos Janáček’s “Madonna of Frydek” from On an Overgrown Path seems all the more radiant, coming after “Loss.” Janáček’s bell-like piano tones are caught particularly attractively in this recording. The ominous tread of pilgrims threatens to overwhelm the delicate grace of the radiant passages, but peace wins out in the end.
The final selections from the Bartók Duos are four “New Years Greetings,” the first of which has some winningly introspective muted playing. The other three are joyous, inquisitive, and friendly, respectively. The disc closes with the ten “Romanian Christmas Carols, Series 1,” for piano, presented complete and in order, alternating moods of celebration and adoration.
Ketler’s playing is strong and clear, but rivaling Andras Schiff’s rendition of “Madonna of Frydek” for wistfulness on the latter’s Decca disc of Janáček chamber music. Popovici and Naş are colorful and buoyant in the viola works, finding a wide range of expression in the Bartók miniatures. All the players are captured in very handsome studio sound, which runs with open air from track to track. In other words, one doesn’t hear the room sound of the studio fade out between every track, which would disrupt the continuous flow of a program of miniatures like this. The only bad thing is the tri-lingual booklet and the back of the packaging for the disc. Everything is in such small print, and at times printed in colors not contrastingly greatly from the background, I had to pull out a magnifying glass to read it, and I’m only middle-aged. I hesitate to think what someone with truly bad eyesight would be able to do with this printing. Mind you, the packaging looks quite beautiful, but practicality should come into the equation somewhere. But for those who aren’t too worried about sorting out exactly which track is which, and if sterling sound doesn’t matter to you, this full-price disc is also available for MP3 downloads at super-budget price.
Mark Sebastian Jordan


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