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]
Johannes BRAHMS
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 [6:15]
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, California.
Texts and English translations are included.

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 and singing.
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. 

Oleg Ledeniov 

Beautiful and diverse, thought-provoking and heartwarming. 

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