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With Strings Attached
Veronika KRAUSAS (b.1963)
language of the birds [15:17]
Stephen LEEK (b.1959)
Hollow Stone [8:53]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Four Quartets, Op.92 (1884) (transcr. Z.Grafilo) [9:51]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Elegiac Song, Op.118 (1814) [5:09]
Michael GANDOLFI (b.1956)
Winter Light [9:15]
Ballade in D Major, Op.10 No.2 (1854), transcr. by Z.Grafilo [5:01]
Intermezzo in A Major, Op.118 No.2 (1892-93), transcr. by Z.Grafilo
Paul Seiko CHIHARA (b.1938)
Clair de Lune [8:31]
San Francisco Choral Artists/Magen Solomon
The Alexander String Quartet (Zakarias Grafilo, Fred Lifsitz (violins),
Paul Yarbrough (viola), Sandy Wilson (cello))
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (narrator) (language of the birds)
rec. 22-25 May 2012, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere,
Texts and English translations are included.
FOGHORN CLASSICS CD2006 [68:55]
This recording grew out of a series of concerts that the Alexander
String Quartet and the San Francisco Choral Artists gave in
2011. Alongside music by big classical names we get some transcriptions,
and some interesting new works commissioned for the project.
The old and the new combine to create a beautiful program shining
like facets of a beautifully cut crystal. The performances are
is expressive and subtle, and the entire disc is highly gratifying.
You might have heard the name of Veronika Krausas in connection
to her recent opera The Mortal Thoughts of Lady Macbeth.
Born in Australia and raised in Canada, the composer now lives
in the US, but her Lithuanian heritage shines through in her
music. The Baltic voice is umnistakable. Language of the
birds is a set of five small pieces, each based on a line
from a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; one is by Jacques Prévert
translated by Ferlinghetti. The poet himself reads the line
before each part. In No.4 he also reads it over the music,
which is less successful; his manner of reading does not really
resonate with the musical fabric and in juxtaposition sounds
quite alien. The music is inventive and evocative; the three
odd-numbered ones are more active and angular, while the two
even-numbered ones are still and pensive. The music is motif-based,
delicate and attractive, witty in the faster numbers, mesmerizing
in the slower ones.
Hollow Stone was inspired by a line by Australian poet Randolph
Stow: Sleep, all who are silent, make me a hollow stone.
The piece is atmospheric, with evocative effects and excellent
choral writing. In the beginning the voices weave a wavering
veil, which morphs into a static, throbbing cloud of sound,
out of which the song grows. The music rises to a passionate
plea, and recedes into the mist.
The first of Brahms’ Four Quartets is soft and
a little reminiscent of Stille Nacht - something of a
waltz. The second is icy and barren. The highly syncopated third
is more cheerful, yet still gentle, stepping softly. Number
four starts with solemn hymn-like exclamations, but then calms
down to find Brahmsian waltzing consolation. The entire cycle
is colored in pastel tones and leaves a feeling of serenity.
The performance glimmers softly; the chorus sings with tender
power. The arrangement of the accompaniment for the string quartet
is very natural, and steers well clear of the salon, flavor
that pervades the original piano version.
Beethoven’s Elegiac Song was written in memory
of his friend’s late wife. In luminous major key, this
music brings not condolence but consolation, and strangely foreshadows
the composer’s late quartets. It is performed with care
and peaceful sensitivity.
Michael Gandolfi’s mini-cycle Winter Light sets
two poems by Amy Lowell. The first, Falling Snow, is
hushed and poignant, and conveys the feeling of solitude. The
winter-music in the accompaniment pictures the whirling snow
and the tolling of a distant church bell. The voice of the poet
speaks over the music, sadly and candidly. The second poem,
Opal, references the union of two women as a game of
sudden contrasts: You are ice and fire… You are cold
and flame. Accordingly, the music darts and flickers between
the major and the minor, a simple but effective design. The
music has raw power, it is ardent and impatient, a nervous frenzy.
This is a memorable piece, and is performed with ecstatic power.
Two Brahms transcriptions follow, without voices attached, though
a chorus would be fitting in both. They are skillfully prepared
for the string quartet by the Alexander Quartet’s first
violin Zakarias Grafilo. The Ballad actually sounds as
if it has been extracted from one of Brahms’ string quartets;
such is the quality of the arrangement. The performance is restrained
Paul Chihara sets the same poem of Paul Verlaine that previously
inspired Fauré and Debussy. It is translated - more like
retold - into English, but a few lines have been left in the
original French. The poem is more about dancing in the moon
than about the moonlight itself, and so the music is very dynamic:
Our soul sings like a nightingale, / Swaying softly, gentle
lovers in the shade. There is an interesting interview with
Chihara on YouTube, where he states his belief - inherited from
his teacher Boulanger - that the music should breathe. His Clair
de Lune does just that, its chest rising and falling. This
sad mesmerizing waltz definitely takes place in the open air,
amid marbled fountains and trees where the birds sing. The counterpoint
is beautiful, and the entire piece has a memorable face: it
is Romantic, but stays modern, never plunging deep into the
realms of either Brahms or Debussy.
Throughout the disc, the string quartet is sonorous and lean.
The chorus is taut and crisp. The entire experience is very
clean and dry in a good sense, without wobbly wateriness or
lush puffing. The program is filled with beautiful and diverse
music, thought-provoking and heartwarming: romantic at its core,
though carried over the span of two hundred years. The new works,
commissioned for this project, are written to the highest level
of inspiration and skill. This combination of forces is uncommon,
and the composers were clearly intrigued by the opportunity
and put their best foot (ear?) forward. Nothing here to complain
about; only to like more and more.
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