The Whole Music Experience : 2/7/10 - 2/14/10

Saturday, February 13, 2010

FYI--German Website Regarding Doshas and Music

Yesterday an Ayurvedic doctor referred me to this wonderful site:

If you are interested in Indian classical music and balancing your dosha, I recommend this site and the CDs sold on it.

Friday, February 12, 2010

In review--Medieval Turkish Delights

Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI
Istanbul—Dimitrie Cantemir (1673-1723)
Aliavox (distributed by Harmonia Mundi)

I have never heard medieval or renaissance Turkish music before, though I have heard Turkish music played on traditional instruments as well as, Armenian and the music of Sephardic Jews. When I received Jordi Savall and Hespèrion XXI’s Istanbul in the mail, with its booklet and gorgeous music, I knew that reviewing the recording would require a steep learning curve, but with each pleasurable listen, I heard both familiar and unfamiliar instruments, familiar and unfamiliar modes. The experience was not totally new to my ears since I have attended my share of Oriental music concerts over the years and it seems that my DNA is predisposed to these modes because I never experienced an adjustment period coming from the West.

Savall leaves his viol de gamba behind for this recording and plays a rebab (type of fiddle played vertical while resting on the lap, a vièle (another fiddle) and a lyra à archet (I cannot identify this instrument), but my guess is it’s a member of the fiddle or lyre family. Other instruments on the recording include the oud (Arabic lute), ney (reed flute), tanbur (a long-necked lute), kanun (zither played on the lap), santur (dulcimer), duduk (Armenian reed instrument), flute, Turkish kemence (long-necked fiddle), kamanche (Iranian spiked fiddle) and percussion (frame and hand drums).

I listened to the recording several times. The first time I listened to the recording I acclimated to the Oriental rhythms and modes. The other times I distinguished between instruments and musical traditions. The music on the recording hails from Christian, Muslim and Sephardic Jewish traditions. According to the liner notes, “On 29, May, 1453, Constantinople was captured by Sultan Mehmet II. This glorious capital of the Byzantine Empire, now known by the name Istanbul, became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, as well as, the cultural center of Islam. In order to renovate the city, populate it, and rapidly turn it into a flourishing and prosperous capital, Mehmet II adopted a policy of transferring Muslim, Christian and Jewish inhabitants from various regions of the empire.”

The music performed on this recording also hails from various regions. Al-Rumi’s Sufi music appears along side, Sephardic Jewish music (origins in Spain), Greek and Armenian music. And as you might suspect with a list like that, the recording takes a few listens for review purposes. It’s not just a matter of pointing out a ney on one song or an oud on another song. And much of what appears on this recording is beyond my expertise though I will mention a few pieces that stood out each time I listened to Istanbul.

Three Sephardic pieces, Los Paxaricos with its melancholic conversation between an oud and a lyre à archet, El Amor Yo No Savia with its sweet, but fast tempo melody played on a flute, and Spanish influences that recall the 20th century French composer Maurice Ravel’s Bolero and Madre de la Gracia also lively with ney, spiked fiddle and lyre à archet all stood out for me. The Armenian pieces, Chant and Dance with its varied tempos and instruments, though the focus is on the duduks and Lamento with two duduks (one playing the continuous drone and the other carrying the mournful but sweet melody). The Islamic pieces which appear in sets of taksim (improvisations) followed by makam (composition) also vary in tempo and instrumental arrangements with the oud, ney, percussion, kanun, tanbur and santur playing key roles.  These pieces sounded modern to my ears and I wondered if a long succession of musicians have kept this music alive since medieval times.

I would love to say more about this recording, but I don’t feel like I know enough about early Oriental music. I will say that my ears adjusted to this recording right away and I felt at home. Many of the songs are lively (not quite belly dancing music) with a few romantic pieces and laments included. I applaud the musicians on this recording for their scholarly research (see the booklet), their knowledge of traditional instruments and their magnificent performances.

And if you enjoy this recording, Jordi Savall has another 67+ early music recordings available through his label Aliavox. And his daughter Arianna Savall, son Ferran Savall and wife, opera vocalist Montserrat Figueras also released recordings on the label. Call it a family affair. At least it’s a pleasurable one.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In review--Russian Icons

Gloriae Dei Cantores
Unto Ages of Ages
Sacred Choral Music of Sviridov, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky
Paraclete Press/Harmonia Mundi

I have never stepped foot in a Russian Orthodox Church, but in 2005 I attended a concert given by a Greek Orthodox choir at a Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle’s Montlake neighborhood. It felt like stepping into a surreal universe, icons and stories appearing on gold painted ceilings and walls, and I can’t even begin to describe the men’s choir which sang chants rich in chromatic scales and otherworldly harmonies. Five years later I recall the experience as if it happened yesterday.

The Massachusetts-based mixed choir Gloriae Dei Cantores (Orleans, MA) performs sacred works composed for the Russian Orthodox Church by Russian composers Tchaikovsky (1840-1893), Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Georgy Sviridov (1915-1998). I’m of course familiar with the repertoires of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, but not of the 20th century composer Sviridov (whose pieces incorporate influences of the other two Russian composers). I knew about Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, but not about Tchaikovsky’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, op. 41, but the liner notes cite the composer’s religious inclinations and the passion he felt in the walls of the Russian Orthodox Church.

If you’re like me and this is new territory for you to explore, will quote the liner notes, “One can enter a Russian Orthodox Church and hear the numerous chants and choral works central to the worship sung in an almost unbroken wave of sound. An evocative visual iconographic element of the saints and important religious figures surround the space in layers ascending towards the ceiling. The aural experience is carried by the choirs in the upper balconies, helping to create their vision of a temporary heaven on earth…”

This recording provides listeners with excerpts from the well-known liturgies All-Night Vigil and St. John Chrysostom and newer 20th century work, Ineffable Mystery by Sviridov. This entire album of heavenly music runs just under one hour, but it’s an hour of music that will leave your mind and spirit in suspension.

The album opens with four excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s sacred work. The Cherubic Hymn grabbed my attention. It starts out on a solemn vein with layered monody vocals. The rich basses ground the piece, while the soprano voices pierce the veils of heaven. Soprano voice rise and male voices respond, and dip, ascend and descend. During the last minute of the piece, the vocalists break out into rich and passionate polyphony as they chant the alleluias.

The Lord’s Prayer features a monophonic chant with quiet passages weaving in and out of full-throttle passionate outbursts. Soprano alleluias receive a response from the male voices and this section rivals Handel’s "Alleluia Chorus" from Messiah with its rich polyphony of cascading vocals.

While I’m mostly familiar with Rachmaninoff’s fiery virtuosic Piano Concertos, 2 and 3, his more solemn works, such as this All-Night Vigil emphasizes the composer’s range. While Tchaikovsky’s pieces blended monophonic with polyphonic vocals, he did not include any solo parts for his vocalists. Rachmaninoff on the other hand, includes short solos for alto and tenor. Come Let Us Worship features soloists singing over a continuous choral drone. The harmonies and melodies provide movement with some overarching melodic passages—something I would expect from the composer of piano concertos 2 and 3. The pieces range from just over 2 minutes to nearly 7 minutes long, but move by quickly. On the piece mentioned above, the sopranos lift their voices to heaven and the bass and baritones gently anchor the piece to the earth.

Glory to God in the Highest feels tranquil and hopeful with Russian folkloric music qualities especially in the melodies sung by the women. Some of these staccato phrases remind me of motifs in the composer’s piano concertos—a passionate crescendo ends the piece, without a musical resolution. But what I will say, is that this set of sacred chants resonates with listeners long after the disk stops spinning.

The last set of chants by 20th century Russian composer Sviridov garners influences from the other two Russian composers, but the passages are chromatic and solos were composed for tenor, soprano and bass-baritone voices. My favorite of the excerpts, Glory and Alleluia brings in some splendid key changes during the soprano solo/aria ¾ of the way through the piece. Then the album ends with Ineffable Mystery, a powerful chant in its own right.

I spent some quality time with this recording because this is my first exploration of Russian Orthodox Church chants. I first listened to the disk after coming home from running errands. I needed to make that adjustment between the outside world and my inner sanctum and this recording took me there in a heartbeat. The second time I listened to the disk was when I was getting ready for bed. I fell asleep through part of the music, only because it helped me unwind and relax my tense muscles. The third time I listened to the disk took place when I awoke and went through my morning meditation and journaling. And what I found each time is that music resonates with us like food. It lingers in our cells, we digest it and grow healthier or not, from the musical vibration.

If I had to choose my musical diet, this recording would act as the main course. I realize that many readers of this blog wish to delve into religious text or listen to sacred music. However, if you seek to escape the mundane world, no matter your religious belief, Unto Ages of Ages, will take you for a journey, you won’t soon forget. You might listen to it on your head phones on a bus or on a stereo in your home, but you will feel swept away to a domed church with iconographic images staring down at you. You won’t be the same from the experience.

Paraclete Press

Distributed by Harmonia Mundi