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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Kati AGÓCS (b.1975)
The Debrecen Passion (2015) [23:04]
Requiem Fragments (2008) [7:06]
By the Streams of Babylon (2008) [4:57]
... like treasure hidden in a field (2010) [12:58]
Vessel (2011) [8:53]
Kati Agócs (soprano), Lisa Bielawa (soprano) (Babylon)
Margot Rood (soprano), Sonja Tengblad (soprano), Katherine Growdon (mezzo) (Vessel)
Lorelei Ensemble/Beth Willer (Passion)
Boston Modern Orchestra Project/Gil Rose
rec. 25 January 2015 (Passion), 6 June 2010 (Babylon) Distler Performance Hall, Somerville; 30 May 2010 (Requiem), 24 March 2011 (Treasure), 21 November 2011 (Vessel) Jordan Hall, Boston
BMOP SOUND 1046 SACD [57:00]

The genesis of this project makes for an interesting read. Gil Rose and the composer decided to assemble this CD over a period, recording the works as they were written and on the back of concert performances at Jordan Hall, Boston and Distler Performance Hall, Somerville MA. The venture took five years to complete, the culmination being the premiere performance and recording of The Debrecen Passion in 2015, the only work here specifically commissioned by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.

Perhaps I should say a few words about the composer. Kati Ilona Agócs was born in Canada to an American mother and Hungarian father. She studied at the Juilliard in New York, and also spent some time at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. She’s now based in Boston, where she teaches composition at the New England Conservatory. She’s also a trained singer, and a fine one at that, as demonstrated by her impressive vocal contribution in By the Streams of Babylon, and her vocal expertise gives her insight and understanding on how to get the best from her vocal writing. Canadian, American and Hungarian cultures influence and inform the direction of her music, which is mostly tonally centred, but also draws on contemporary modes and techniques when the need arises. She’s also very conscious of the power of the word, and chooses her texts (Latin and Hungarian) carefully, aided by her brother who is a classics scholar. All of the compositions here embody religious or mystical themes. Three of the works are sung, two are purely instrumental; they are positioned alternately on the disc.

The Debrecen Passion forms the centre-piece of the disc and, at 23 minutes, is the largest work. Agócs’ adventurous score employs 12 female voices, a chamber orchestra, whose motley percussion section includes a cimbalom, and vocal texts drawn from diverse sources. The poems of Szilárd Borbély (1963-2014) form the backbone, and these are interspersed with Latin fragments, a Medieval Hungarian lyric poem, a Kabbalistic Prayer and a Medieval Georgian hymn. The work takes its title from Debrechen, the second largest city in Hungary, home to Borbély, who tragically committed suicide a year before the Passion’s composition. Its central thread is the story of the persecution and death of Christ. Ambitiously constructed, this visceral work is expertly orchestrated, Agócs achieving a myriad array of instrumental colour and texture. The vocal writing, calling for solos, duos, trios and chorus, is expertly crafted. The Lorelei Ensemble under Beth Willer are obviously well-rehearsed, and their flawless ensemble, clarity of articulation, shapely voicings and precise diction helps secure favourable results. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project provide sterling support. Gil Rose’s sympathetic and supportive direction presents music rife with detail and he truly brings the score to life. All told, this work delivers a moving, spiritual experience, both powerful and uplifting. I must just mention one particular section which left its mark. At 12:30, an aggressive percussion passage heralds a brief orchestral interlude; it has a spacious outdoor feel and is very American sounding.

The earliest of the two short vocal works is By the Streams of Babylon (2008). For this Agócs puts on her soprano hat, joining Lisa Bielawa for this delightful piece, a setting of Psalm 137. Using the Latin text, it narrates the grief of the Israelites in exile. The two voices blend superbly, their vocal lines weaving and hovering over the sumptuous orchestral musings. Vessel dates from 2011 and is written for two sopranos, alto and seven instrumentalists. Agócs combines English, Hebrew and Latin poems with interrelated subjects. They represent "three perspectives on a lover addressing her beloved (or child or loved one)". It is economically scored, and each performer is sharply profiled. Gil Rose strives for a pliant account of linear clarity and nuanced voicing. It’s music with a timeless appeal.

Of the two purely orchestral compositions, Requiem Fragments is the earliest, dating from 2008. Cast in the context of a requiem, it traces a lifespan from idyllic childhood and onwards through the complications and complexities of everyday life. Feeding into it are the experiences of expatriates and refugees, so it has a burning resonance today. Insecurity and loss of innocence inform the narrative, and the music conveys a sense of forward movement throughout. The other work started life in 2008 as Pearls, and in 2010 underwent a makeover and emerged as ‘....like treasure hidden in a field’. Inspired by texts in Mattthew 13:14-16 it urges the reader to keep spiritual values at the forefront of the mind. It’s structured as a five-linked movement sinfonietta, and offers the percussion section a field day. Chinese wind gongs and bells add that extra fillip of vividness to the canvas, evoking an aura of mystery and magic. Once again the BMOP acquit themselves with distinction under Gil Rose’s charismatic direction.

All of the works here are compelling and hold the attention; none outstays its welcome. In bright and vivid sound, these are beautifully balanced recordings, superbly engineered, and facilitating inner detail and transparency of orchestral texture. I must commend BMOP for their beautifully produced 38 page booklet, supplying analysis and context, and providing background portraits to the participating artists. Texts and English translation of the vocal works are provided. This is most definitely a disc worthy of attention, and guaranteed to offer an overwhelming experience.

Stephen Greenbank


 

 




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