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Thomas SIMAKU (b. 1958)
Solos and Duos for violin and piano
Signals for solo piano (2015) [8:21]
Capriccioso for solo violin (2014) [8:02]
Moj e Bukura Moré, Albanian Folk Song, version for violin and piano (2015) [4:28]
Soliloquy V – Flauto Acerbo for solo alto (treble) doubling tenor recorder (2008) [10:15]
ENgREnage for violin and piano (2014-15) [7:37]
Deux Esquisses for solo piano (2013) [8:06]
Sound Tree – Richard Robbins in Memoriam for violin and piano (2013) [8:19]
The Flight of the Eagle for solo piano (2000) [13:22]
Peter Sheppard Skćrved (violin)
Chris Orton (recorders)
Joseph Houston and Roderick Chadwick (piano)
rec. 2016, Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, York, UK
World Premiere Recordings
NAXOS 8.579035 [69:20]

I first encountered the music of Thomas Simaku when I reviewed a CD of Albanian Piano Music, where one of his compositions provided the opening track. The piece in question was Simaku’s Love Your Name, based on the theme of the sound track for the Albanian film of the same name, which had been premiered back at the 1985 Balkan Film Festival.

An Albanian-born English composer, Simaku graduated from Tirana Conservatoire, before moving to England in 1991, gaining a PhD in Composition at the University of York where he has only just recently been awarded a Professorship. He has received numerous prestigious international awards and accolades for Composition, where the expressive qualities and unique blend of drama, intensity, and modernism have been particularly appreciated in his music.

Indeed it was the haunting lyricism of Love Your Name and the stark visual attraction of the CD cover that drew me inexorably to Simaku’s music, which even now seems to accord so well with his hitherto unknown and almost mysterious homeland. But, of course, that score appeared more than twenty years ago and was film music pure and simple. Once relocated in York, he was quickly introduced to a lot of composers, especially the Second Viennese School whose music had been banned at the time in Albania. This obvious sense of musical liberation and the opportunity to hone an individual voice, yet ever mindful of the folk-music legacy from his homeland, not surprisingly has created a musical style, light-years removed from that much earlier film-score.

According to Naxos’s own publicity statement on their new CD, Simaku’s music has been described as ‘visionary and entirely original’. In a recent interview, when asked the sixty-four-thousand dollar question about how the composer would categorise his musical style, Simaku replied – significantly upping the stakes to a million dollars – that it would be difficult to describe in words what can best be expressed with sounds and that, in today’s musical climate, it might be truer to say ‘styles’ where many composers will often use a number of different techniques and approaches at any one time.

Specifically, Simaku cites an important process in his own works, seeking to combine elements from disparate musical cultures, or juxtapose complex chordal textures with sections that might revolve around a single note. Furthermore his use of drones, characteristic of the ancient musical quality of the Balkans is a salient point. I would add just one more thing that does seem to emerge as a recurring feature – his considered and effective use of silence, something of which the late John Paynter made us aware in school music, when his Sound and Silence, co-written with Peter Aston, became a vade mecum for the introduction of Creative Music projects in the classroom.

Returning to the new CD, it would be fair to say that all the pieces, recorded here for the first time, exemplify the heterogeneous stylistic elements cited by Simaku to varying degrees, depending on the resources used. To guide the listener through the CD, the composer has provided full programme notes for each piece which, as he said earlier, don’t physically describe in words what you’ll hear in his music, but aim to outline the thought processes involved. Describing the way he composes Simaku says that he works very hard on every single work, large or small, and every note. I would add that, whether his music is for you or not, it cannot be denied that it is exceedingly well-crafted within the genre. Some of the rapid and intricate arpeggio patterns heard, for example, clearly attest to a meticulous ear and a painstaking worker who addresses the smallest detail, particularly in terms of articulation and dynamics. As a result, every note has its allotted place even at moments of dissonance or extreme rapidity.

A good number of the works heard are played by their original dedicatees, as is the opening track, Signals, which does, in fact, contain a ‘signal’ or two. Capriccioso essentially focuses on a single note, an ‘ison’, as the composer informs us, and a new word to me. ‘Ison’ is a drone note or slow-moving lower vocal part. It is used in Byzantine chant and some related musical traditions to accompany the melody thus enriching the singing but, at the same time, not transforming it into a harmonised or polyphonic (multi-voiced) texture.

The third track is by far the most approachable on the CD and is based on an Albanian Folk Song, My Beautiful Morea that has its origin in Calabria, Southern Italy, where an Albanian community has lived for more than 500 years – and so has the song. While we’ve come a long way from Love your name, there are still definite fingerprints that tie the two pieces together, apart from their ethnicity. Soliloquy V – Flauto Acerbo, is the fifth in a series of Soliloquies, the first three being for string instruments while the fourth is for bass clarinet. Simaku states that the quality of this particular Soliloquyis to be found perhaps in the second part of the title, Flauto Acerbo!’. It certainly does do what it says on the tin.

The somewhat bizarrely-named ENgREnage is actually a shortened form of the work’s full title – Engrenage en Ré. All is revealed in Simaku’s programme-note – the longest, and perhaps most extensive of them all. But suffice it to say that the French word engrenage, in engineering parlance, can mean two meshing gears transmitting rotational motion. It can also have figurative meanings like spiral, chain of events, or cycle. The title further confirms that the piece is resolutely centred on D, ‘En Ré’.

Deux Esquisses is dedicated to Terry Holmes, a long-standing supporter and friend of Simaku at York, written on the occasion of Holmes’s eightieth birthday. Simaku takes three letters from Holmes’s name – E flat, or ‘es’ German, E natural, and B, represented in German by ‘H’ – and manipulates them from the start of the first Esquisse. Again, Simaku’s programme note elucidates the processes involved in producing these two, contrasting compositions.

Sound Tree is dedicated to the memory of Richard Robbins, a prolific painter and sculptor, whose father essentially made possible Simaku’s dream of studying at a western university, through the award of the Lionel Robbins Memorial Scholarship in 1993. It is the composer’s intention to ‘plant a tree with sounds’ in memoriam.

Simaku returns to his roots for the CD’s final offering, The Flight of the Eagle. Sounding rather like the title of another piece of film music, it was in fact inspired by an ancient Albanian proverb, ‘the Eagle Flies in the Sky, but makes its nest on Earth’. In no way is it programmatic although, according to the composer, the music alternates between flying and floating, ‘and it is not until the end of the piece that the flight really takes off’.

From the evidence of this much-awaited new CD of Simaku’s works, as a composer he is rich in ideas and novel invention, all of which he has the necessary expertise to translate into appropriate sounds and textures. Just as fellow-reviewer Hubert Culot noted in a previous review of Simaku’s music in 2008, the music is often multifaceted and challenging but ultimately fulfilling, to which I would simply add, especially with repeated listening. Likewise the sleeve-notes are a font of information, though hardly bedside reading. As Culot went on to say, his only slight reservation with the earlier Naxos CD was that perhaps the Second String Quartet might have been placed first on the CD, as he feels it is the most accessible work recorded. If that reasoning were applied to the current CD, then the Albanian Folk Song could be similarly promoted. But it is not so representative of Simaku’s musical language as the first track proper, Signals. As the previous reviewer suggests, if you have never heard any of Thomas Simaku’s music and are keen to give it a try, then you can always break yourself in more gently by starting, on this occasion, with My Beautiful Morea. Equally, if you’re new to contemporary music of the acoustic, rather than electronic variety, then this new CD is certainly worthy of serious consideration. The performances are first-class and totally idiomatic. Everything is recorded with exceptional clarity, which is crucial where extremes of dynamics are encountered, together with quite extended periods of silence along the way.

Philip R Buttall

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