RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Alla BORZOVA (b. 1961)
Songs for Lada (1986-91)* [35.37]
To the New World (2001-02) [14.13]
Valentina Fleer (soprano)*; Valentina Kozak (folk contralto)*; Valery Yavor (dudkas)*; Christopher Deane (cimbalom)*; Kasya Radzivilava (bagpipe)*; Michigan State University Children’s Choir*; Detroit Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Orchestra Hall, Max M Fisher Music Centre, Detroit, 15-18 January 2009* and 24-27 September 2010
NAXOS AMERICAN CLASSICS 8.559706 [49.50]
Alla Borzova, born in Belarus but settled in America since 1993, wrote Songs for Lada to celebrate the birth of her daughter to whom the cantata is dedicated. She tells us in a long and informative booklet note that she envisioned performances in the mould of Carl Orff’s scenic cantatas such as Carmina Burana as well as in traditional concerts. This is its second recording - an earlier one was made in 1992 by the Belarusian broadcasting authorities.That said, the composer’s website implies that that performance was not complete. In any event that earlier recording is no longer available.
Works performed by children or written for children tend to fall broadly into two categories. Firstly there are works written for children but intended to be performed by adults - or at least trained singers and players. One of the earliest works in this category would be Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel but there have been many others since. J.R.R. Tolkien in one of his letters observed that the best literary works for children were those which stretched their imaginations and were written in a manner which enlarged their vocabulary. The same could be said of musical works in that category. Then there are works written for children to perform either to an audience of adults or to listeners of all ages. The archetypical composer here is Benjamin Britten, whose The turn of the screw is probably the most substantial and most spine-chilling piece in this category designed for an adult audience. He also employed groups of children in very many of his other works. Here again, the touchstone is whether the music is written in a manner that extends the range of the child performers. Noye’s Fludde succeeds here, but the more designedly sophisticated The little sweep by and large does not. The most embarrassing combination comes in music that misses the mark completely, usually because either the words or music are unbearably twee. Hansel and Gretel does not avoid this, but the worst example probably again comes with Britten, where the riddle scene in The burning fiery furnace is a squirmingly awful excrescence on what is otherwise the most dramatic of his church parables. Such passages make one long, together with Anthony Hope who had sat through the first performance of Peter Pan, for “an hour of Herod”.
Having laid down some ground rules, into what category does Songs for Lada fit? At first it seems that the twee-ness factor is going to be overwhelming. The title of the first movement, Ladu-Ladu-Ladki, leads one to fear the worst. The music is reminiscent of the opening of Orff’s Catulli Carmina but without the bitterness. In the middle there is a beautiful pastoral episode with birdsong that suddenly works a magic spell. Borzova tells us that the soprano solo part was written for a “girl soprano” but the more mature and experienced Russian-American Valentina Fleer gives a convincing imitation of a child without any obvious signs of coyness. The second movement, A game with ‘Poppy’, returns us to Carl Orff territory, this time to the more lyrical sections of Carmina Burana. Fleer’s almost shrieked interjections of “Has the poppy ripened?” are here too dramatically full-voiced to be convincingly child-like. This movement introduces a dudka into the orchestral mix, and other Belarusian folk instruments become part of the dramatic texture in the third movement, Once a father had three sons. Here the words of the folk-tale really cannot avoid a strong element of the ridiculous: “Go, little goat, go, white one, one side is tattered, worth three pennies”. Even with the words, it is impossible to tell what the folk-tale is meant actually to be about. The further explanation by the composer in the booklet notes does not help either.
The fourth movement, a lullaby, moves into different territory altogether. This conjures a hypnotic meditation, where various strands of melody drift across the landscape like a pattern of shadows. After about five minutes there comes a beautiful wordless soprano solo. Here the use of a mature voice rather than a “girl soprano” is a positive gain. A cat interrupts the sleeping child - cue for some delightful animal imitations. Then the wordless soprano restores calm and peace together with drifting string counterpoints. This is heavenly music, with some overtones of Arvo Pärt but really like nothing else in the repertory.
The final movement, a hymn to the sun, returns us to the Orff-like motoric rhythms of the opening. The chorus of Lyu-li, lyu-li almost recalls Rimsky-Korsakov’s nature-painting in Sadko and The snow maiden - both based on Russian folk-tales. Borzova rejoices in these links with the past. Her homages to the nineteenth century romantics reflect her period of study with David del Tredici without using the post-Wagnerian orchestral textures of the latter. The music builds to a climax as the warmth of the sun penetrates the atmosphere. At the end the ‘folk contralto’ declaims spoken words over the background of the chorus. It’s almost like a reminiscence of the end of Schoenberg’s Gürrelieder. After this the avian references of the opening movement returns: first on the orchestra, and then with real recorded birdsong which fades into the distance.
The two soloists are native Belarus speakers. The children’s choir seem to have no difficulties either with the Belarusian words, which are available together with translations on the Naxos website. The booklet instead gives us three full pages of session photographs and nearly five pages of artists’ biographies. One would willingly have sacrificed all those for the texts in printed format - they would have run to nine pages in all. That said, the texts are hardly great literature at least to judging on the basis of the translations by the composer and her daughter.
After the cantata we are given a purely orchestral work, To the New World. It’s a programmatic piece describing the feelings of immigrants coming to America. There is a rather beautiful theme, first heard on alto flute, which the composer rightly describes as “poignant yet hopeful”. This enfolds a number of episodes depicting the various nationalities of the immigrants. These include some pastoral folk episodes as well as a full-scale swing jazz section. After this the music returns to the opening “immigrant theme” and fades away with some rapping cowbells which, again according to the composer, represent “the passage of time”. Although To the New World was written in 2001-02, it was not performed until 2007 in Minsk. The composer’s website states that this Naxos recording was to have been issued in 2010. It is not clear why the release was delayed, perhaps because it was hoped to add another work to the CD to increase the running time. It is a readily approachable piece with some lovely passages. One is left with a wish to hear more of Borzova’s non-programmatic music. However an Albany release from 2007 which contains several chamber pieces written between 1980 and 2006 is much less approachable than any of the music here, being rather stridently performed and recorded. One is left wondering in which direction the composer is going.
Fortunately, as it happens, we may have the opportunity to find out, because Leonard Slatkin has apparently taken a great liking to the composer and has described his pleasure in recording these works. This pleasure is reflected in the excellent performances, well recorded here. The recordings are described as ‘live’ but there is no evidence of an audience, and the spread of recording dates would lead one to conclude that these have been assembled from several separate sessions including rehearsals.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Heavenly music … really like nothing else in the repertory.