Csányi-Wills’ Haunting Orchestral Songs

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CSÁNYI-WILLS: 3 Songs–Budapest 1944*. 6 A.E. Housman Songs+. Elegy for Our Time* / *Ilona Domnich, soprano; +Nicky Spence, tenor; +Jacques Imbrailo, baritone; +Chris McKay, hornist; Londamis Ensemble; Mark Eager, conductor / Toccata Classics TOCC0329

This is how musical connections sometimes come my way. I gave a glowing review to the two CDs of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Violin Sonatas by violinist Yuri Kalnits and pianist Michael Csányi-Wills, then I sent a link of the review to the pianist (I couldn’t find an email address for the violinist, and his on-site contact form didn’t work), and voila, Csányi-Wills wrote me back and asked if I knew he was also a composer (I didn’t) and if I had heard his album of songs with orchestra (I hadn’t). So he kindly sent me download links for the album as mp3 files,and here we are.

What drew me to review these songs were the trailer for them on YouTube. There, I heard music that was intriguing: modern, yet tuneful. The vocal line reminded me a bit of Vaughan Williams, but the orchestral context sounded more modern and, dare I say it, unique and personal. The basic language is tonal, but the overall feeling of each song seems to vacillate in key structure, primarily through the highly imaginative orchestration in which colors, and chord positions, shift rapidly like a light switch being turned on and off.

Interestingly, all of these orchestral songs deal with loss. In Three Songs–Budapest 1944 Csányi-Wills uses incidents in his own family history to overlay the fate of Hungarian Jews under the Nazis. Mortality is an omnipresent theme in A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad poems, and Elegy for Our Time sets an anguished lament by Jessica d’Este, sparked by the death of her granddaughter in a car crash. Csányi-Wills responds to the stimulus of these dark texts with music that is hauntingly lyrical and elegiac. It is also remarkable in structure and form, borrowing bits of Britten, Vaughan Williams and Knussen yet swathed in his own feeling for melody and structure. Listening to these songs, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had heard this musical style before but just couldn’t place the composer. That’s how good they are, and how deep an impression they made. Moreover, the style for each separate group of pieces differed from the others, always the mark of a fine composer. There is an almost Mahlerian sense of deep sorrow in these songs; taken as a whole, in one sitting, is almost a bit overwhelming for a sensitive listener.

It also doesn’t hurt that Csányi-Wills was extremely fortunate to find singers who possess outstanding voices as such, generally good diction, and communicative skills. It would be easy for a professional singer, hired for the occasion, to give a good, solid reading of this music without getting into an understanding of the text, but the singers chosen deliver the goods on all of these levels. The first three Housman songs are sung by the baritone, originally written for James Robinson, while the last three for tenor were composed, it seems, individually, one by one, for conductor Mark Wilson and the Dunblane Chamber Orchestra.

One of the salient features of Csányi-Wills’ compositional style is his knack for finding just the right sound-color for each note and phrase, and as one goes through the album one is often surprised by his sheer variety of sound. I was particularly struck, for instance, by one of the tenor songs from the Housman group, On the idle hill of summer. Here, the composer uses a surprisingly lush-sounding body of strings, yet resists the temptation (too easy nowadays, alas) to swath his music in comforting “pretty” sounds. Indeed, as the song progresses and we reach the section with the words, “Far and near and low and louder / On the roads of earth go by, / Dear to friends and food for powder / Soldiers marching, all to die,” the mood suddenly becomes darker and much more tense, the strings playing sweeping yet stabbing figures as the vocal line is intensified not only in volume but by the use of a higher tessitura. This agitation is continued and built upon as the strings move into fast-moving scale figures, rising upward like stabbing shards of lightning, as the tenor sings “None that go return again / Far the calling bugles hollo, / High the screaming fife replies “ This is the mark of a first-rate composer who understands mood and how to create and sustain it. This is immediately followed by White in the Moon, and here Csányi-Wills creates an entirely different soundscape behind the singer, an almost palpable “white” sound as the strings play sparsely scored figures and the vocal line is more ambiguous.

The recital ends with Elegy for Our Time, in which the incessant ticking of woodblocks is heard both by itself and behind the softly-scored low string and wind blend, made to sound edgy despite its quietude, as the soprano enters on a mid-range note that doesn’t quite fit the surrounding harmony. Here again, Csányi-Wills has managed to find just the right expression for the words and the instrumental context in which they are set, and again it is different from what came before. In truth, this album could stand as a primer for new composers on orchestration.

I was mesmerized by this album and think you will be, too. Highly recommended.

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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