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Richard DANIELPOUR (b. 1956)
Talking to Aphrodite for soprano, solo horn and chamber orchestra (2016) (text: Erica Jong) [27:33]
Symphony for Strings ‘…For Love is Strong as Death…’ (transcription of String Quartet No. 6 ‘Addio’) (2014) [33:31]
Kaddish (version for violin and strings) (2011) [17:04]
Sarah Shafer (soprano), Maxim Semyonov (French horn), Evgeni Pravilov (violin)
Russian String Orchestra/Misha Rachlevsky
rec. 2017, Choral Arts Academy V. S. Popov, Moscow, Russia
World première recordings
NAXOS 8.559857 [78:23]

I chose to review this disc as soon as I saw who the composer was; I had reviewed another disc with his music, and found it a thrilling experience.

Talking to Aphrodite reminded me immediately of Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings with its use of the horn in its opening, though the similarity ends there. What an auspicious opening it is, though, and a perfect introduction to Sarah Shafer’s glorious voice, which seems the most natural way to continue. Richard Danielpour confesses his long-held desire to collaborate with writer Erica Jong. Her book Fear of flying caused a sensation when it was published in 1973, but it was her epic poem Talking to Aphrodite that finally provided the spark that led to this work, premiered in 2016. In it a woman who has considered ending her life by jumping off a cliff dreams of a conversation with Aphrodite, Goddess of Love. The result is that the woman changes her mind and decides to continue living. Danielpour selected six sections from the poem to set, and has created a work that makes the case for the overall message in a direct and powerful way.

The three works on the disc suggest that questions of love and death loom large in the composer’s mind. The Symphony for Strings, a transcription of his sixth string quartet, bears the subtitle ‘…For Love is Strong as Death…’ I have not heard the quartet but I certainly am motivated to do it now, for the transcription works so well. The string quartet has as its subtitle Addio, Italian for goodbye. This work’s subtitle is a quote from the Song of Solomon. As Danielpour puts it, both concern “farewells and goodbyes”… “how loved ones are separated from one another through distance, time and death”. The last section is a hymn and variations; as each variation ends, a “section (of the strings) lays down their bows until only the cello section is remaining. The work concludes with the cello section playing on stage with a group of offstage violins and violas.” Once again, Danielpour has written a work that is original in every way. It is so full of gorgeous melodies that it begs to be replayed as soon as it ends. The second section Presto giocoso, in particular, opens with some really infectious music that makes you smile and yearn for its repetition which does come later.

The final work on this record is Kaddish. This version for violin and strings was the composer’s original idea, though he also transcribed it for string sextet. Danielpour was moved to write this work by his father’s death when he was 21, though it only came to him as an idea in 2007, finally coming to fruition in 2011. In the booklet notes, he explains: “Although it is a Kaddish without words, it is music about life, death, and ultimately peace.” I have already used the word ‘powerful’ in this review but it is one that comes most readily to mind at every turn with this composer’s work. Short of simply trying to find a synonym, it is the most appropriate. There is also a very strong feeling of intimacy in his compositions. The listener feels extremely moved and humbled to be taken to the very heart of his innermost feelings. This music demands to be heard. It reminded me how thankful I am that the era is well and truly over that turned its back on ‘tunes’ in favour of often unfathomable and meaningless music. Danielpour is nothing if not tuneful to the Nth degree, and truly has a uniquely distinctive voice.

At first glance, it might seem strange or at least unusual – considering America’s often strained relations with Putin’s Russia – that the works are performed by the Russian String Orchestra. And yet the relationship between Danielpour and the orchestra’s music director Misha Rachlevsky has been cemented ever since Rachlevsky sat in on a rehearsal of Danielpour’s music. Rachlevsky had already taken his music on an American tour. This disc, the result of his suggestion, was recorded in Moscow in April 2017. The Russian band are obviously committed to the music. This comes across very strongly in all three works, and the two soloists give wonderfully nuanced performances. Rachlevsky had assured Richard Danielpour that everything would be alright when the composer told him he could not make the recording. The disc confirms that this was true. If you have yet to discover this composer, then there could hardly be a better place to start.

Steve Arloff

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