Isidora ŽEBELJAN (b.1967)
The Horses of St Mark - Illumination for orchestra [9:13]
Rukoveti - Five Songs for soprano and orchestra [14:40]
*The Minstrel's Dance, for chamber orchestra [14:47]
Selište (Deserted Village) - Elegy for string orchestra [6:59]
Escenas Picaras - Sinfonia in 3 Movimenti [21:02]
Aile Asszonyi (soprano)
*Žebeljan Ensemble
Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra (Janáčkova Filharmonie Ostrava)/David Porcelijn
rec. Palace of Culture and Sport, Ostrava, Czech Republic, 17-25 September, 14 November 2007; *Belgrade Philharmonic Hall, 3-4 December 2007. DDD
CPO 777 670-2 [66:41] 

This is Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan's first major-label CD. Though hardly a household name even in Serbia, Žebeljan is best known in Europe for her operas, in particular Zora D, which was premiered across the continent in 2003.
This new release showcases her orchestral music, to which The Horses of St Mark gives an explosive introduction from the first chord. Supposedly based on Byzantine legend, this is an exciting, brilliantly orchestrated work - the trumpets and piano parts are inspired. This, and three of the four other works on the disc, are recorded in Ostrava, where the audio quality is not quite as good as the Belgrade recording - there is a slight flatness to the sound - but it is nothing that is likely to detract from the music.
Unfortunately the end of The Horses of St Mark has been cut short by a fraction of a second, and there is a poorer mis-edit after the first song of Rukoveti, repeated subsequently on occasion, albeit less pronounced. It is amazing that CPO might risk all their good work by letting sloppy editing pass quality control.
Back to the music. Three of the five Serbian-language songs of Rukoveti (literally 'Garland'), all of which are based on local folk texts, are followed by an instrumental Intermezzo, very much reminiscent of the music of The Horses of St Mark. Despite the variety of material, Žebeljan's dark orchestral colouring gives the songs a strong sense of cohesiveness. The final song, according to the notes, is "one of the most moving pages of contemporary music"; a typical exaggeration, for sure - the hagiographic nature of the booklet writing soon becomes wearisome - but there is no denying the power or sublime nature of this macabre love song - or indeed, of the whole set.
Estonian soprano Aile Asszonyi, who sang the title role in the world premiere of Žebeljan's opera Zora D, has an attractive voice and gives a fine, dramatic performance of these often virtuosic songs. In fact, all the musicians in this challenging programme give splendid performances throughout, particularly the brass and percussion sections of the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra, who barely get a minute's rest!
The Minstrel's Dance is, according to the notes, "the apex of the sublimation of Isidora Žebeljan's specific style." That may or may not mean what anyone thinks it does, but the work, written for chamber orchestra, will in all likelihood prove the least accessible of the five on the disc. The three movements are entitled 'In the Inn', 'Dance for the Dead' and 'In the Field', and generally speaking, the Minstrel would have his work cut out dancing with any abandon to these pieces, particularly the disjointed 'In the Field' or 'Dance for the Dead', which is more like a Dance of the Dead. The music has many recognisable East European folk characteristics, but these are heavily filtered through the modernist, often atonal writing. Nonetheless, for the small orchestra as much as for the large, Žebeljan's orchestration is endlessly inventive. Far more immediately appealing to a wider audience is Selište (Deserted Village) - Selište is the name of a long-deserted village from history, not the Serbian for 'deserted village' - an elegy for string orchestra, reflective rather than bleak, its semi-minimalistic approach sounding like a curious cross between a traditional mid-20th British work and a late-20th century American film score.
For the final work, Escenas Picaras - inspired by 16th-17th century Spanish adventure novels - brass and percussion play an important role, but once again Žebeljan's orchestral writing is flamboyant and vividly imaginative, right down to the occasional flourish on the harpsichord! The minimalism meets inebriated jazz second movement, entitled 'Blues etc.', is too witty to be post-modern, and the rumbustious finale - a 'Marcia Funebre' to waken the dead - is an apt way to summarise Žebeljan's music and bring the CD to an end.
The booklet contains a highly detailed essay on the works, biographical notes and song texts, although the writing style in the prose, as previously mentioned, is over-the-top, recondite and sometimes even self-contradictory, and the translations often convoluted. Nevertheless, CPO must be congratulated for once again having rendered the music-lover a grand service by finding and then recording, in unwelcoming times, another original voice.
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CPO must be congratulated for once again having rendered the music-lover a grand service by finding and then recording, in unwelcoming times, another original voice.