This is an unusual and interesting disc. It is of particular interest to me since I have known both of the main creators - composer Siobhan Lamb
and librettist Gregory Warren-Wilson - for many years. Curiously, neither in the primary roles they fulfil here. Siobhan was a very fine flute player before devoting herself to composition and Gregory continues to be an excellent violinist; he performs as such as a member of the Suoni Ensemble here. The music and the performances are very fine and greatly enjoyable. The disappointment is that elements of the production and presentation of the music on this disc severely hamper the pleasure.
The many positives first; Siobhan has written a five movement song-cycle - curiously her website refers to this as a work-in-progress opera - in a uniquely contemporary idiom aimed directly, but by no means exclusively, at a young audience based on Aesop's Fables. Gregory has supplied a very effective libretto by turns witty, poetic and always apt. The scoring is for four vocal soloists, string quartet, harp and - for want of a better description - a jazz trio of trumpet, saxophone and drums/percussion. Normally when one hears a composer's work for the first time it is all too easy to start allocating 'similarities'. Siobhan's approach is quite different. It is as if she has taken a huge melting pot of different musical influences and styles into which she dips as the music demands from moment to moment while remaining uniquely herself throughout. A key and central influence is the presence in the group - pardon the pun - of her husband the excellent jazz trumpeter Gerard Presencer. Together with alto saxophonist Helge Albin they make the work a fascinating fusion of carefully structured cycle and improvised jazz. In no way is this any kind of cross-over album. Neither is it a Jan Garbarek-esque 'Officium'. Away from the overt jazz sections the remaining players - who are far as I can tell are not required to improvise to any extent - play music which has elements of minimalism, Eastern European folk and just about everything else in between including plainsong. To speak of tonality seems rather redundant, the idiom is modern but not, contemporary but accessible. The vocal group act as narrators and characters relating the stories. Although this is a Denmark-based group and the singers are all Danes the songs are sung in excellent English.
Five of the most famous fable have been chosen and according to the liner the performers are allocated animals as well as musical roles. Quite why this should be is unclear - with the exception of Gregory's Violin/The Grasshopper who plays a wild dance to encourage the earnest worker ant to give him some grain. There are moments where the music clearly illustrates the text - the first line of the first poem refers to "the shimmering pond" and the harp obliges and within those first few bars the easy brilliance and beauty of Presencer's trumpet playing becomes clear too . A lot of the time the music derives from quite small melodic/harmonic motifs which are then expanded - a technique in part dictated, I guess, by the part-jazz nature of the work. The four singers are often treated as a chorus commenting en masse rather than being allocated a character within each fable. In the fourth story; "The Mouse, The Bull and the Flea", the singers are given 'roles' and it has to be said that it makes the narrative there easier to follow and more theatrical. In many ways this is the most instantly appealing section - genial, witty and skilful. I can imagine this movement in particular appealing to children - the bull charging into a wall, the flea nipping away at mouse and bull are wittily illustrated and excellently performed here. Interesting to note it is this section that is used to illustrate the work online on YouTube
. With a couple of notable exceptions the underlying pulse of the bulk of the movements is quite steady - which again seems to allow the improvising instruments free rein. One of these sections is the aforementioned Grasshopper Dance and the other is in the second movement 'The Hare and the Tortoise'. The hare goads the tortoise to "jump" which unleashes the jazz trio into a riotous be-bopping section that is as fun as it is brilliant.
In the interview that is part of the YouTube presentation Siobhan makes it clear that this music is intended to be inclusive and accessible to all. Her great triumph - together with Gregory - is that it is just this. Neither music nor lyrics patronise their audience but neither do they alienate listeners. I am always a little uneasy at the concept that any programme of Art needs adjusting for a particular audience. Perhaps rather idealistically I would like to think - with the possible exception of length - good Art well performed will appeal to anyone with an open mind. Before moving on, a further comment on the poems themselves. They are printed in full in the booklet and are worth reading in isolation, excellent though they are when set. Gregory finds an impressive balance between poetic and illustrative imagery. The vocabulary is evocative but wholly comprehensible to most children. Its rhyme schemes have interesting internal rhythms of their own. He can turn a nice couplet too; "The Hare was fast, but galloped too late. No-one can ever run faster than fate" given a Sondheim-esque setting. The liner mentions that this is a recording of a live performance - although it would appear to be a different
one from the YouTube video - the harpist there is definitely not the excellent Hugh Webb. Performance standards are high from all parties and audience noise barely noticeable. After the cycle we are given what is termed a bonus track; a short voice-led setting of a nonsense poem cum limerick "My Little Wife". Pulling another influence from her musical bag this has the feel of a Lambert-Hendricks-Ross jazz vocal arrangement with the singers singing in canonic close harmony. It’s great fun, but a lot harder than it sounds I suspect.
So if the music and performances are so fine why am I not wholly delighted with this disc. The recording as such is perfectly good - instruments and voices caught truthfully in a pleasing acoustic. Post-production balancing has resulted in a major misjudgement. Far too often in a narrative/text-led work such as this the words are swamped by the ensemble. This is not
a comment on the clarity of the singers simply one of balance. Even over headphones there are significant passages where the words are inaudible. Siobhan is listed as producer of the disc - so sorry, we hear things differently.
Similarly, the presentation is poor. I suspect it is because it seems to spring from a Jazz aesthetic where liner-notes and information are not at a premium. So
many questions posed by this music are unanswered. The liner contains nothing except the excellent texts, a recording venue (no date) and some thanks. The cover of the disc gives the title as "Through the Mirror Tales from Childhood" and then coyly adds "... where everyone has a part to play..." (the three dots on either end are theirs). What does this mean? What is the actual title of the work? There are pictures of animals but no context. When you visit the YouTube website it suddenly becomes clear that in fact these are pictures of headpieces worn in performance. Again, rather beautiful but it in turn throws up the question why does a certain player always wear - say the fox hat - when they are not particularly associated with that animal. Also, why the deliberate anachronism of traditional bow-ties and black jackets but comic hats? Other careless annoying things - track 3 is listed as 12:06 - in fact it runs for 6:28 - careless proofing. So, if you want to buy the disc what to do? Amazon has it listed at full price £14.88 - rather steep for a disc that runs to just over 40 minutes - why not release this a CD single with price-point to match or wait until there is other repertoire to record. This is the third Proprius disc (Meditations
PRCD2068 and The Nightingale and The Rose PRCD2068
) dedicated to Siobhan's music - I rather like the consistent design that is used - so they are clearly committed to her as a composer. However, if you try and buy it through the Proprius website
the result is comical; "Do you want to buy this record?" a box asks. Clicking this brings up a pop-up for non-Swedish customers that redirects you to Swedishmusicshop.com. There, the page appears usefully in Japanese. Clicking translate on my PC produced something - literally - pornographic. What a shame that something fundamentally so good is limited with this kind of presentation and promotion.
Certainly, this makes me want to hear the other two discs which, from the information on the Proprius website, seem to follow the same goal of fusing contemporary classical disciplines with the freedom of jazz. For those seeking a seriously light-hearted new work that appeals to the head and the heart this is an easy recommendation but, come on Proprius, don't scrimp on that ha'p'orth of tar.