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Isidora ŽEBELJAN (b.1967)
Balkan Bolero - Chamber Music
see end of review for track listing & performance details
Borislav Čičovački (oboe, oboe d’amore, cor anglais, oboe sopile)
Ensemble listed below
rec. 2012/13
OBOE CLASSICS CC2028 [65:56]

There was a time when I could keep up with technology. Now things are constantly being developed and no sooner do I discover a new method of communication, ways of playing, downloading, storing and transferring music or viewing TV programmes, another supersedes it. I feel rather the same when it comes to music; when I was discovering my love of it back in the 1950s and 1960s the choice of composers whose repertoire I could explore was a lot narrower than it is today. Now the list of ‘new’ composers grows almost daily, and the fear expressed by the likes of Norman Lebrecht twenty years ago that recorded music was under threat seems to be well and truly dispelled as an increasing number of new record companies emerge to help launch these composers onto the market.
In the case of Isidora Žebeljan the booklet informs me that she is already pretty well known in some circles having attracted international attention with her opera Zora D which was commissioned by the Genesis Foundation of London and premièred in Amsterdam in 2003. In addition her music has been performed throughout Europe, the USA and Asia, as well as having been featured at many and varied music festivals. However, she is new to me but what a discovery.
Born in Belgrade and spending a lot of time with her grandparents in an area greatly influenced by its proximity to both Hungary and Romania, Žebeljan absorbed the folk music of the area. This shows markedly in her compositions which are shot through with these influences, along with popular music and jazz. The result is a heady mix of rhythmically exciting and superbly crafted pieces. The lead instruments here are members of the sinewy and supremely expressive oboe and cor anglais family.
The first work is Dance of the Wooden Sticks based upon an old legend from Eastern Serbia and scored for cor anglais and strings. It was fascinating to read soloist Borislav Čičovački’s track notes in the extensive 20 page accompanying booklet. In this he not only tells the story of the legend but explains what the music is describing and how the sounds were achieved. Some were made by a completely new instrument created by Čičovački in 2008 at the composer’s request, the oboe sopile. This a specially adapted oboe which uses a reed 15mm wide and 68mm long which grows in Istrian swamps. This makes it sound a semitone lower than a standard oboe. Creating the atmosphere of a ritual the music uses as Čičovački explains “... microtones, glissando, flutter-tonguing, applying considerable air pressure (which creates whistle-like sounds), playing string instruments (such as mandolins) using plectrums, as well as using the percussive potential of the belly of the double bass.” The music has a considerably ‘Eastern’ flavour reflecting the geographical position of the Balkans and its proximity to Turkey and the Middle East. There are regions of the Western Balkans where a dance still exists that is based upon the legend of how an old woman using magic threw seven wooden sticks at seven young men who had kidnapped her daughter. The sticks turn into the constellation of Orion while they became the Pleiades. In Žebeljan’s piece the story is very convincingly portrayed.
Next comes Leonce and Lena, a suite in four movements that Žebeljan made from the music she wrote for a Belgrade production of a theatrical work of the same name by Georg Büchner based upon an old fairy tale. In it a soprano sings, mostly wordlessly against a background of flute, oboe, viola, double bass, piano and percussion. It is a piece lasting under ten minutes but it is highly expressive and soprano Aneta Ilić sings it superbly. The composer chose to look to the courts of the renaissance for inspiration when writing this. The small group of instruments helps to create the atmosphere of a travelling troupe of minstrels.
Sarabande played on this disc by cor anglais, violin and piano is one of those works that has a life of its own as a result of having been adapted for various sets of instruments in much the same way as Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. It thus has become one of the most frequently played miniatures by the composer. It is a hauntingly beautiful piece which well deserves its success.
Girotondo is very much a quirky contrast with its clever mixture of folk and popular music. It is a fast-whirling folk round-dance based on a Serbian dance, the kolo with the title the Italian equivalent.
The Miracle in Shargan is another piece the composer wrote for a Belgrade production of one of the best-known pieces of drama in Serbian literature. Once again it has been transposed to be played in various different versions. Based on the folk rhythms of Central Serbia we can once again easily recognise the influence of music from much further east. In it we can also hear allusions to the famous Bolero that helps give the disc its title.
Simon and Anne, a very recently completed work, is a suite scored for cor anglais and piano whose title refers to the biblical pair with three contrasting short movements the fast Hymn followed by a plaintive Psalm and rounded off with the almost manic and furious Réjouissance in which the full capabilities of each instrument are put to the greatest of tests.
Three Goat’s Ears comes from music the composer wrote for a performance of a well known play for children. It is wonderfully melodious with its echoes of the folk music of Serbia and Romania. This version, scored for oboe, violin and string orchestra, exists alongside one for oboe, violin and piano. It is easy to see why Žabeljan’s music is so easily adaptable to several versions because it is all so very rhythmic and exciting – just listen to the last section, Baccanal and you’ll see what I mean; brilliant.
The Miracle in Shargan in its version for oboe and piano shows how each version has something different to offer. Here the oboe carries all the melody with the piano very effectively playing the role of percussion.
New Songs of Lada without Words is a version of a work Žabeljan wrote originally for soprano and string orchestra (or string quartet). It is based upon anonymous 18th and 19th century poetry from the Vojvodina an autonomous region in the north of the country (capital Novi Sad). It hosts a remarkable 26 different ethnic groups and 6 official languages among its small population of under two million: almost 27% of the country’s total. The suite is in six short sections beginning with a Cradle Song. Being full of anxious foreboding it is unlikely to allow the child to sleep. This is followed by a frantic string Intermezzo. Then comes a sad ‘song’ sung by a girl ignored by her sweetheart and which sees a musical meeting of Serbian melodies and Turkish sevdah. Looking up the word ‘sevdah’ I found the following explanation “Sevdah is a Turkish word which means love. It is influenced by Ukrainian, Greek, Romanian, Gypsy, Sephardic Jewish and Ottoman Turkish music, which merged in the cross-cultural melting pot of Balkan towns”. It is small wonder reading this as to why there are so many influences present in the music of this fascinating composer. Another fast Intermezzo follows, lasting all of 17 seconds. The third ‘song’ again is full of sad overtones exemplified by the reedy sound of the oboe d’amore and it segues seamlessly into the final one. This is a melancholy telling of how a girl chooses to die having been refused permission to marry her chosen man but who, in heaven, is reunited with him in an ecstasy of sound.
The Mousetrap is from incidental music the composer wrote for a production in Belgrade in 1995 of the longest-ever running play of the same name. I saw it in 1953 when there was talk of its run coming to a close which of course was pure rumour since it is still playing daily at London’s St. Martin’s theatre in its 62nd year. Žebeljan’s music echoes the tune Three Blind Mice which was the original story’s title and is the title of the first part of the piece. The Epilogue is in the form of waltz but the whole piece is fraught with foreboding. We all know what happened to those mice.
The final work here is Two Songs of Bride of the Wind, a work scored for the surely unique combination of cor anglais and accordion plus double bass in the first song. It’s another piece written as incidental music for a play and based this time on Croatian rhythms. It has as Čičovački points out in his notes Žabeljan’s ability to fuse ancient and modern. The two strands run simultaneously into a single whole to create something totally different while the elements remain clearly discernible. Each of these two instruments have wonderful possibilities of expressing melancholy as well as frenzied excitement both of which are represented here.
This is an amazingly surprising and rewarding disc that never fails to thrill and excite. It showcases the tonal colours of the cor anglais and oboe as well as the fantastic abilities of soloist Borislav Čičovački. That said, every player deserves recognition for this thoroughly committed playing.
This disc has been a revelation to me and I cannot wait to explore further the music of this endlessly talented composer. Žebeljan deserves greater exposure; what a wonderful thing it would be to see that some of her music has found its way onto a programme of the BBC Proms; audiences would love it.
Steve Arloff

1. Dance of the Wooden Sticks [7:09]
2-5. Leonce and Lena [9:26]
6. Sarabande [4:00]
7. Girotondo [3:08]
8. The Miracle in Shargan – 1 [2:45]
9-11. Simon and Anne [7:42]
12-15. Three Goat’s Ears [7:58]
16. The Miracle in Shargan – 2 [2:48]
17-19. New Songs of Lada without Words [12:02]
23-24. The Mousetrap [3:17]
25-26. Two Songs of Bride of the Wind [4:26]
Borislav Čičovački (oboe, oboe d’amore, cor anglais, oboe sopile); Isidora Žebeljan (piano — tracks 2-4, 7, 16, 23-24 and percussion — track 2); Aleksandar Madžar (piano — track 6); Miloš Veljković (piano — tracks 9-11); Aneta Ilić (soprano — tracks 2, 4, 5); Juljia Hartig (violin — tracks 6, 8, 12-15); Mirjana Nešković (violin — tracks 23-24); Nataša Petrović (viola — tracks 2-5); Boban Stošić (double bass — tracks 2-5,7,25); Aleksandar Stefanović (accordion — tracks 25-26); Miroslav Karlović (percussion — track 7); Neda Arsenijević (flute — track 2)
Žebeljan Orchestra/Premil Petrović (tracks 1, 12-15, 17-22)
rec. Kolorac Hall, Belgrade, Serbia, 8 December 2012 (tracks 2-5, 16); 14 March, 2013 (track 7); 8, 14, 16 April 2013 (tracks 1, 6, 8, 12-15); 4 June 2013 (tracks 9-11, 23-24); 1 July 2013 (tracks 17-22, 25-26).