Dreams and Prayers
Hildegard von BINGEN (1098-1179)
O ignis spiritus paracliti [8:37]
Mehmet Ali SANLIKOL (b.1974)
Vecd [6:53]
Osvaldo GOLIJOV (b.1960)
The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind [33:31]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Heiliger Dankgesang from Op. 132 [16:29]
A Far Cry; David Krakauer (clarinet)
rec. 21-23 October 2013, Sacred Heart Church, Fall River, Massachusetts, USA
CRIER RECORDS CR1401 [65:30]

A Far Cry is a brilliant young Boston-based string orchestra which gained our attention with a Naxos recording of the Copland and Aldridge clarinet concertos (review). Their first album on their own record label, Dreams and Prayers, focuses on the border regions between spirituality, mysticism, and beautiful mystery. There is music from all three of the Abrahamic faiths. This stands a good chance of being the most exciting concept album of the winter.

From Christianity we have two familiar works in new guises. Hildegard von Bingen wrote her chant O ignis spiritus paracliti in the late 1100s, over eight hundred years ago. A Far Cry’s unison transcription uses only violins. This is not my favourite style of music, and without words it can get repetitive, but the arrangement is faithful and the performance sympathetic. The other Christian work is even bigger: Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang, arranged up from the original string quartet by A Far Cry. The booklet hilariously credits “Ludwitn Beethoven,” but the transcription is a very serious achievement. The enlarged ensemble makes dynamic contrasts even bigger, as at 3:21. For string orchestra rather than a quartet, the piece reminds me occasionally of Vivaldi, and very frequently sounds a lot like Brahms.

Even more interesting are the two works in between. Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol, a Turkish composer who studied at the New England Conservatory and now works in Boston, based Vecd on the meditative state, and trance-like music, of Sufi mystics. You know them as “whirling dervishes”. The music carefully and cleverly avoids cheap exotic sounds and folk-tunes, instead evoking the dervishes through a “spinning” circular bass motive, repeated as a passacaglia. Above this, the rest of the strings spin a theme into gradually more and more complex, fast and transcendental variations.

The big piece, occupying half the album’s total length, is Osvaldo Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Originally written for string quartet plus clarinet, the piece works beautifully in the composer’s orchestral expansion. Also: it’s stupendous. This is the best Golijov I have yet heard, although clearly I need to hear more.

Isaac the Blind is in three big movements, with a prelude and postlude. The brief opener and closer have an almost mythic quality: “Once upon a time…” At 2:40, the introduction explodes with a primal lusty yell of a clarinet melody, which leads right into the first movement. Clarinet and string orchestra enact a passionate Jewish mystical drama, with extensive quotations from a celebrated klezmer song. There’s a push-pull between religious music and klezmer dancing, with the solo clarinet right in the middle. Golijov thinks of the first movement as being in Aramaic, the klezmer-heavy second movement in Yiddish, and the third in ancient Hebrew. There are no texts.

I’ve been searching for adjectives to describe David Krakauer’s performance. Authentic is too weak; more like authoritative. He brings all the best elements of Jewish folk music and classical training together, from the deep passion of his playing to its technical perfection. The latter is hard to notice given how wild, feverish, and exuberant Golijov’s score can get. This is Krakauer’s second recording of the piece; he also did its very first appearance on disc, with the Kronos Quartet.

A Far Cry is with Krakauer every step of the way, and they’re fantastic in the Hildegard, Sanlıkol, and Beethoven, too. If the other three composers’ works pale a little in comparison, well, is that what you expected? How often is there an album where late Beethoven gets upstaged?

This album was funded by the orchestra’s backers on Kickstarter. When they announce a new recording, I may want to join them. The crowd-funded effort produced a beautiful package with a big group photo and booklet notes by Golijov and Sanlıkol, although they could have added track-timings and caught the typo in Beethoven’s name. Recorded sound is very good, though not spectacular: it’s recorded in a church, fittingly given the programme, and you can tell. There’s a very soft background sound in the silences, probably just a draught of air, which carries over track to track, so when I listened on headphones at night, it sounded like the whole thing was recorded in one take. That was not the case. However, from the first seconds of Mehmet Ali Sanlıkol’s Vecd to the end of the Beethoven, the inspiration and passion don’t flag for a single note.

Brian Reinhart

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