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Osvaldo GOLIJOV (b.1960)
'Oceana' (1996, rev. 2004) – (Call, First Wave 'Ocenana nupcial, cadera de las islas', Second Wave 'Quiero oir lo invisible', Second Call, Third Wave 'Oceana reclina tu noche en el castillo', Aria 'tengo hombre de no ser sino piedra marina', Chorale of the Reef 'Oceana, dame las conchas del arrecife') for voice, small boys' choir, double chorus and orchestra (1996 rev. 2004) [26:13]
Tenebrae for string quartet (2002 rev. 2003) [12:56]
Three Songs for soprano and orchestra (1. 'Night of the Flying Horses'; 2. 'Lua Descolarada'; 3. 'How Slow the Wind') (2001/2) [21:33]
Luciana Souza (vocals); Elizabeth Remy Johnson (harp); Scott Tennant, John Dearman (guitars); Jamie Haddad (percussion); Jay Anderson (bass) (Oceana).
Gwinnett Young Singers
Kronos Quartet (David Harrington (violin); John Shereba (violin); Hank Dutt (viola); Jeffrey Zeigler (cello)) (Tenebrae)
Dawn Upshaw (soprano) (Three Songs)
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/Robert Spano
rec. November 2004 (Oceana), November 2005 (Songs), Symphony Hall, Atlanta, and November 2006, Worcester, Mass., St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, College of the Holy Cross (Tenebrae)
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 477 6426 [60:58]


Sherlock Holmes allowed whiffs of his favourite rare exotic tobacco to twirl lazily towards the ceiling as a new soundtrack created appropriate ripples amongst the rich background of Victorian flocked patterns on the walls. “Hmmmm, interesting,” he said, making a long arm towards his laptop. “Time to re-decorate, but first: there is no problem made of man which cannot be solved by another, so to work – the game is afoot!”.

Plenty of information on Osvaldo Golijov can be found on his own website, but easily the most important information you will need is that of a Jewish background, and a creative personality in a state of “constant migration: that has been the story of my life.” Oceana is Golijov’s third CD on DG, and according to the blurb he has established himself in the league of the most wanted composers of today.” I’m not sure who else is a member of this league or for what they are wanted, but with Oceana Deutsche Grammophon have pinned their colours to the mast for a third time, having previously represented Golijov with albums called Ayre and Ainadamir. Golijov’s Yiddish childhood, the indigenous Spanish of his years in Argentina and the poetry of Spain and New England are all cited as influences, yet the composer resists the “eclectic” definition: “That sounds too much as if I’m manipulating from the outside”, he says. He talks instead about “inner voices” that inspire his musical thoughts: the rhythmic throb of a Yiddish musical background, the dark colours in the voice of Luciana Souza, and the radiance in the voice of his ‘muse’ Dawn Upshaw.

The works on this disc are certainly unproblematic in the approachability stakes. The title work Oceana is written for orchestra, three guitars, harp and voice, and is filled with a Latin and jazz feeling. Soloist Luciana Souza was “Female Jazz Singer of the Year” in the USA in 2005, and her acute sense of rhythm and style help the work along, but to my mind this is the least successful work on this disc. You can see it as a kind of ‘Concerto Grosso’, with the chamber ensemble alternating with the choir and orchestra, but the extremes between the two groups gives the material an un-integrated feel. It reminds me of the problems I once had conducting a piece written in similar fashion for a brass ensemble on the ground against a carillon in a high tower, but such logistical problems are surely unnecessary in such a piece as Oceana. Here they are an inevitable by-product of setting a chorus and orchestra against guitars, harp and a jazz singer, but then, why the huge chorus and orchestra? An association of Bach is cited in the genesis of this work, so why not use all that marvellous new performance practice and have a more chamber orientated ‘grosso’ set-up: single voices and an amplified string quartet maybe? I’m sure the Kronos Quartet would have sounded less tubby and uncomfortable than the Atlanta strings in full cry, and a group like ‘The Sixteen’ would have provided a much cleaner vocal effect. The jazzy moments with singer and sexed-up chamber ensemble work well enough, but their juxtaposition even with that gentle choral concluding movement for me make this an unfortunate, lumpy chimera of a work.

Tenebrae was written for the Kronos Quartet, and its meditative two movements “is about pain, but pain seen from inside and from a distance.” There are references to François Couperin’s settings for the Tenebrae service for Holy Week, and while there are plenty of neo-baroque passages the string writing includes some of those glorious glissandi which are so expressive of anguish in Jewish music.

The best and most interesting pieces here are the Three Songs. There are some moments of Hollywood quasi-sentimentality, but with that bitter-sweet lyricism which only a Jewish composer could create we can all have a good wallow in Golijov’s Weltschmerz and nice settings of some cracking poetry.

As far as performance goes these appear to be good enough renditions of these works. The Atlanta Symphony Chorus is a bit rough and shouty, but this may be what the composer intended – the recording doesn’t really help them in this regard either, with the balance making the orchestra as good as inaudible. The Kronos Quartet is of course a byword in contemporary music, and Tenebrae pours out of them like a cool drink on a sunny afternoon. We all love Dawn Upshaw and she makes the Three Songs very much her own, although I have a feeling that the Atlanta Symphony strings were still dealing with some of the ‘issues’ in the work, including some confused souls left behind at  the end of the ‘Gallop’ at 7:14 in the first song; oops. Colourless Moon is a gorgeous, simple setting with light brushes of string sound, beautifully illustrating Rosalia de Castro’s moving text. 

All in all this is a nice enough disc, but that is where I have my biggest beef. I have no problem with Golijov, and have every respect for his art. Part of what makes me uncomfortable is the bizarre amount of hype DG and others seem to want to create around this amiable music. ‘Profoundly shifting the geography of the classical music world’? How exactly? The gentle meanderings of Tenebrae are described as ‘intensely disturbing.’ Erm, no, I don’t get that in the least – even with the associations given in the booklet text you would have to be a very sensitive soul to be intensely disturbed by Tenebrae. The Three Songs do deserve a place as core orchestral song repertoire, working well together despite being drawn from a disparate variety of sources, and in the end it is up to the listener to make up their own mind – the DH website has sound samples for those intrigued but unsure.

If you like a bit of large-scale Steve Reich choral writing mixed like the rings of a tree with a touch of the gentler Geffen label jazz fusion style (Oceana), Gavin Bryars in miniature (Tenebrae), or ‘klezmer’ John Adams (just about everything – but that says more about John Adams) then this may indeed be one for your collection. For myself, I listened long and hard for ‘wow’ or ‘ooooh’ moments, the ones that give you goose-bumps, bring tears to your eyes, make you rend your garment or make you want to dance and sing for joy at being alive in the presence of such music, and am sad to say I can’t point you toward much in the way of samples to savour. 

“Holmes, you appear restless” exclaimed Watson, “What is your problem….?”

The great man had been writhing is his deep armchair for the past ten minutes in what appeared to be a state of mild mental agitation.

“That’s it!” he cried, “there is no problem…!

Dominy Clements 

Julie Williams has also listened to this disc:

This disc includes major pieces for two singers who have particularly inspired the composer: the American soprano Dawn Upshaw and the bronze-voiced Brazilian folk singer Luciana Souza. Sandwiched between these is a quieter, more reflective work for the Kronos Quartet, who have also recorded the composer’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. 

Golijov has a distinctive voice which defies classification. His work generally, and this disc especially, have a diverse range of cultural influences. Of Eastern European Jewish origin, he grew up in Argentina and now lives in Boston, USA, after a time in Israel. Yet his sound is an integrated cosmopolitan synthesis rather than a jumbled cultural ragbag. 

With its driven, forward-looking motion and clear international references, one of its closest comparisons is to the work of another Jewish modernist composer now living on the USA's East Coast - Steve Reich. One might think too, in passing (despite the differing forces and types of works they have written for), of another living American composer who spent her youth in South America - Joan Towers. 

The first work has a Latin sound, reminiscent at times of Portuguese fado. It is accessible and pleasant. Texts for the settings of poetry - both here and in the Three Songs - would be helpful for the listener and their absence is an unfortunate omission from the notes. The sense of the sea and its tides is clearly created in the tones and rhythms of the singing and playing. 

The Tenebrae are quieter and more inward in mood and tone, yet powerful and moving. There was a certain controversy about a Jewish composer taking inspiration from a Christian liturgy, but the result is respectful, reflective and inspiring. Golijov may be writing from a different perspective than a Christian composer setting liturgy of their own faith, but he creates a work of universal consolation and prayerfulness. By the way that has controversy also stirred around Golijov’s larger-scale St Mark Passion - a recording of which, also featuring Luciana Souza, will be released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2008. 

The aspect of looking from outside is echoed in the composer's words to the musicians in rehearsal for the first performance, 'The work is about pain, but pain seen from inside and from a distance.' He also described inspiration coming from taking his son to the planetarium in New York and seeing an image of the earth from space. The work manages at once to be very interior, intense and on a small scale, yet to have a feeling of space and distance and universality - as also found, despite their very different sound-worlds, in the works of Kancheli and of Pärt. 

The 'Three Songs' for Dawn Upshaw are strongly influenced by the composer's work alongside Taraif de Hadouks; there is a raw, almost Cossack energy to them. This is strongest in the first of the three, the exciting 'Night of the Flying Horses', which has haunting melodies which stick obstinately in the brain. There is perhaps a debt also to Haydn, whose string quartet is known for the galloping sounds it evokes in its outer movements. The other songs also have a haunting quality, but are mournful and yearning. Both are settings of poetry - again, regrettably lyrics not provided; a lament by the Galician poet Rosalia de Castro (and used also in the St Mark Passion) and two poems by Emily Dickinson, set in response to the death of a close friend of the composer and accompanied by a sighing bass clarinet. 

This music is distinctive, eclectic and exciting; at once both profound and accessible. Everyone performs well; Dawn Upshaw displays versatility in addition to singing with a luminous quality. Souza's voice is natural and unforced yet powerful. The disc is a good showcase for the range of Golijov's talent; it is also thoroughly enjoyable. 

Further details of discography and forthcoming performances are on Golijov’s website and more information about his work is at the DG website.

Julie Williams







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