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Corneliu Dan GEORGESCU (b. 1938) Model Mioritic (The Ballad of the Yearling Sheep),
for soloists, choir, orchestra and tape (1972)
Soloists, Choir and Orchestra of Opera de Stat Cluj/Petru Zbarcea, Emil
Recording details not known.
Texts not included. DUX 1521 [44:26]
This new issue from Dux, in association with the new music imprint Bôłt Records, constitutes a further instalment in what appears to be a projected series of recordings of contemporary Romanian music. It is the second such disc to have come my way. I strongly suspect the recording was made some time ago, possibly through the auspices of Romanian Radio, but I am speculating; in fact the sound is vivid and more than acceptable if perhaps lacking the last ounce of finesse. While there is an extensive, rather subjective note, the lack of both documentation and libretto are frustrating. But though the playing time is a little short (the duration on the sleeve is stated as 65:19, which is clearly incorrect), Corneliu Dan Georgescu’s “audio-visual spectacle” is not lacking in impact.
Model Mioritic (Google translation is useless here – I suspect the most idiomatic interpretation is ‘The Ballad of the Yearling Sheep’ although that hardly trips off the tongue) is based, according to the note, upon “….a Romanian ballad… that has been handed down in more than 900 variations”. It runs something like this: three shepherds are leading their flocks into the valley. Two of them hatch a plan to kill the third, owing to the latter’s bigger flock, better looks and greater wealth. One of the yearlings from his flock (the Mioriţa of the title) then gives him some kind of ovine heads-up about the evil plot. However, rather than challenging his fate, the shepherd merely anticipates his funeral, seeks to be buried not far from his flock and accepts the event as part of the cyclical nature of the world. Death is thus depicted not as “the end”, but rather as part of the endless processional of life. Or as the note puts it “a phase of a permanent transfiguration”. This has important implications for Georgescu’s treatment of the ballad; the cycle is everlasting, the world turns, therefore it can be seen as static, or in the composer’s word “atemporal”. And stasis is one of the overriding impressions the listener will not fail to perceive on a first hearing of this fascinating, oddly alluring work.
Georgescu’s text apparently mixes and matches extracts from ten different versions of the ballad but avoids presenting the events in any sort of chronological narrative. The note implies that the essence of the ballad itself constitutes a kind of Jungian archetype, and in this regard Georgescu’s structure makes a lot of sense, subverting the idea of linear time. Similar frameworks crop up from time to time in contemporary music; two examples that may spring to mind are Pascal Dusapin’s Romeo et Juliette and Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus. In musical terms, there is a ritual quality to Georgescu’s piece which is utterly compelling and hypnotic; without wishing to be too obscure, for me it strongly evoked the spirit of the little-known oratorios of the Lithuanian composer Bronius Kutavičius (b 1932), most notably one called From the Jatvingian Stone for vocalists and Lithuanian folk instruments. This work is indubitably a masterpiece. (I saw it performed, theatrically and unforgettably at Huddersfield in the early 1990s by the New Music Ensemble of Vilnius – my Melodiya vinyl disc of this work remains a treasured possession).
Woven into the fabric of Georgescu’s piece is an omnipresent tape-loop which takes the form of an ison, a drone-like device which is a staple of Byzantine chant, and a word which crops up in contemporary Romanian music with some regularity. The ison fades in and out of the musical texture – one only becomes aware of its existence during the quieter moments in the work; indeed it’s characterised in the notes as a kind of “primordial…breath of the Earth”. In fact one gains a deeper appreciation of the tiny, hitherto unnoticed details that embellish Model Mioritic at frequent intervals by listening to this recording under the duvet in complete darkness with decent headphones and no distractions: it is a collage of sound which more than repays the closest attention.
A deep other-worldly drone approaches and recedes at the outset, accompanied by weird high bell sounds, washes of electronics, and most affectingly birdsong, before any recognisable instruments enter at all (in this case flutes). Tiny shafts of melodic light peep through this rather dark, curiously inviting monotony. There are gently spiralling winds, the growls of deep gongs and in time the repetitive chanting of a female choir. Another female vocal line insinuates itself around the chant. This music evokes the wind, remote communities, the timeless passing of the seasons, the distant past. One listens hard and detects plangent, isolated notes from a harp and sustained swirls of muted brass. Male voices, extremely deep ones, get in on the act with a lively folk tune which is suggestive of dream or memory in the hubbub of this rich cacophony.
If all this sounds rather random and formless, it clearly isn’t, because for this listener at least there is a palpable sense of flow to the piece, which flies in the face of the knowledge that there is no linear narrative. This brings me back to the lack of a synopsis, text, list of performers or anything else that might provide a clue as to what is actually happening at any one time. I can only comment on the sound. It is intriguing and literally enchanting. Moreover, it sounds even better on repeated hearings. It is music which without question projects to the listener a deep sense of being closer to the earth. The atmosphere Georgescu creates creeps up on one in unexpectedly profound ways. At roughly the 25-minute mark, textures seem to broaden and intensify, and the elements described above are redistributed among solo and choral voices which increase in speed and fervency. The music seems to oscillate between ecstasy and reflection, and between agitation and melancholy until the conclusion of the work, when all that remains is the drone, and the sound of the wind.
Given the important role of solo performers in Model Mioritic, it is a further frustration that the performance is simply credited to the Cluj State Opera choir and orchestra under two directors, Petru Zbarcea and Emil Maxim. Georgescu has a German website, and from that I have learnt that these forces seem to have given the first performance of the work in 1973, which reinforces the suspicion that the recording is of that vintage, in which case it holds up remarkably well. My introduction to this singular and extraordinary work, even without any clear information, has certainly piqued my curiosity about this composer and I look forward to hearing more of his work. In the meantime, I suspect that many readers will find Model Mioritic as consuming and addictive as I have done.