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Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Schelomo (1916) [22:39]
Byambasuren SHARAV (b.1952)
Legend of Herlen (2000) [10:58]
Lou Harrison (1917-2003)
Pipa Concerto (1997) [22:17]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Scythian Suite, Op.20 (1915) [21:11] *
Yo-Yo Ma (cello, morin khuur)
Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Silk Road Ensemble
Wu Man (pipa), Miguel Harth-Bedova (conductor), *Alan Gilbert (conductor)
rec. 12-13, 17 April 2007 (Bloch, Sharav, Harrison), 17-19, 22 May 2007, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Centre, Chicago
Sung text provided in translation.
CSO-RESOUND CSOR901801 [79:24]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a very miscellaneous collection, but then followers of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road project will have come to expect nothing less. This particular CD was recorded as the climax of the Project’s year-long association with the city of Chicago. During that year Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road ensemble interacted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This involved a series of events which celebrated and explored many kinds of intercultural musical exchange, going beyond the specific cultural meetings and transferences which the Silk Road itself facilitated.
 
Here we have a sampling of such interactions, some rather more familiar and ‘mainstream’ than others. Of Jewish background, born in Switzerland, and a student in Belgium, Germany and France and resident in the USA from 1916 until his death - bar a return to Europe in the 1930s - Ernest Bloch was something of a one-man intercultural ‘event’ in himself and his music was always open to a variety of influences. Subtitled a ‘Hebraic Rhapsody for cello and orchestra’, Schelomo (Solomon) was written between December 1915 and February 1916. Bloch’s own programme notes for the piece spoke of the cello as “the reincarnated voice of King Solomon” and suggested that the orchestra was “the voice of his age … his world … his experience”. The languorous dances and slow, meditative music of much of the work’s first section are well and expressively played by Ma and the CSO under Harth-Bedova, the note of despair, of the all-embracing sentiments of Ecclesiastes (of which Solomon was, traditionally, the author) – “Vanity of vanities, all is Vanity” – never far from the surface. But perhaps this performance doesn’t quite do justice to what Bloch called the “complete negation” which characterises the work’s conclusion, where the playing seems a bit too ready to settle for rhetorical effect rather than substance. But, overall, this is a performance which puts a good case for the work and is well worth hearing.
 
The other familiar work is Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite - in which the CSO is conducted by Alan Gilbert - which grew from the young composer’s fascination with the nomads of the steppes, without too much in the way of direct borrowings from the music of such tribes. The modern listener is most likely to find in it a slightly politer, more westernised version of The Rite of Spring and indeed this work, like Stravinsky’s, was grounded in the composer’s collaboration with Diaghilev. Prokofiev’s rhythms are less complex and fierce than Stravinsky’s, the sense of ritualistic violence less intense, though the orchestration is brilliant and striking. The reeds of the CSO are particularly impressive in ‘The Adoration of Veles and Ala’, the first movement, while there is disciplined orchestral power galore in the opening of the second movement, ‘The Enemy God and the Dance of the Black Spirits’. Somehow, though, the performance doesn’t quite do full justice to the ominous, distinctly ‘Russian’ music of this movement, lacking the ultimate in intensity and drive. The dark evocativeness of the first part of ‘Night’ is more convincing and the final movement, ‘’Lolly’s Glorious Departure and the Ceremonial Procession of the Sun’ catches fire in the closing imagery of the rising sun. For all the efforts of orchestra and conductor, it is hard to see Prokofiev’s ballet music - striking as much of it is - as more than superficially involving any real cultural interaction.
 
From that point of view, Lou Harrison’s Pipa Concerto is more richly suggestive. The pipa is, to put it crudely but briefly, a kind of Chinese lute, with a pear-shaped wooden body. Harrison’s ‘concerto’ is very obviously the work of a man who, by the date of its composition, was steeped in oriental musical traditions and had given real thought to how they might exist creatively alongside western instruments and conventions. For Harrison the interface between oriental and occidental musics is familiar territory, a territory in which he can be unaffectedly and unpretentiously creative. As a result there is an ease and certainty of purpose to this concerto, which is beautifully played by Wu Man – some will have heard some of her other collaborations with, inter alia, Kronos Quartet and Yuri Bashmet. The concerto – which is perhaps better described as a suite than as a concerto if one insists on using western terminology – is various in mood and a thing of considerable beauty. In four movements - though one of them consists of four more or less distinct sections - the opening allegro balances eastern and western formality in a dialogue that has dignity and substance, while the fertility of Harrison’s eclectic imagination is evident in much of what follows. In ‘Troika’ the pipa sounds almost like a balalaika and in the brief ‘Neapolitan’ there are, perhaps unsurprisingly, but quite delightfully, echoes of the Italian mandolin tradition. In ‘Three Sharing’ the orchestra drops out and we are treated to a percussive conversation between the pipa of Wu Man, the cello of John Sharp and the double bass of Joseph Guastafeste. The most conventionally oriental episode comes in ‘Wind and Plum’, where the pipa’s cadences, against a lush orchestral background, are incisive and evocative. The penultimate movement is a lament, a ‘Threnody for Richard Locke’, a five minute elegy, powerfully melodic and exquisitely grave. By contrast the ‘concerto ends with an ‘Estampie’, in which medieval and renaissance dance rhythms meet (very fruitfully) the sounds of one of the lute’s ancestors. This whole concerto – the last of Harrison’s large-scale works – is the high spot of this disc.
 
In ‘Legend of Herlen’ the Mongolian composer Byambasuren Sharav draws on both native Mongolian traditions and instruments and on Western music. Western brass, in the shape of three trombones, and percussion - along with a piano - sit alongside the morin khuur, a two stringed fiddle and the sound of Khongorzul Ganbaatar, an exponent of the Mongolian tradition of ‘long song’, full of sustained and richly ornamented phrases. The results are intriguing and at times very beautiful, but perhaps most satisfying when Ganbaatar’s voice is accompanied solely by the morin khuur; the writing for western instruments is relatively pedestrian and predictable and actually seems to add very little to the Mongolian essence of the piece.
 
How far the Silk Road project has really succeeded – with anything like consistency – in uniting disparate musical traditions is a matter for debate. What is surely undeniable is that all their recordings have, at the very least, been stimulating, engaging and challenging. This new recording is no exception.
 
Glyn Pursglove
 

 


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