Kosmos Ensemble’s Musical Pomegranate

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POMEGRANATE / TRAD. GREEK: Eyes Like Yours. AUSTEE: Burning Stones. Date Palms Medley: AL-MOUSOLI: Foq el Nakhal/BRAHEM: Parfum de Gitane. TRAD. GYPSY: Dark Eyes. TRAD. ROMANIAN: Geamparale à la Kosmos. PAGANINI: Caprice No. 24 (retitled Kosanini). AL-MASRY: Lamma Bada.* VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: The Lark Ascending (mixed w/trad. Hungarian-Romanian tunes). BAY: Longa. PETERSBURSKI: Polish Tango. TRAD.: “Ukrainian” Dances. PIAZZOLA: Liberkleztango (Libertango)* / Kosmos Ensemble; *Vasilis Sarikis, perc / Nimbus Alliance NI6378

Here’s a strange chamber music album by the rather experimental Kosmos Ensemble featuring a bevy of traditional and through-composed tunes from the Middle East and Eastern Europe along with their own “takes” on such classical standards as Ralph Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and Astor Piazzola’s Libertango. It’s certainly a strange mixture but a fascinating one.

The Kosmos Ensemble consists of violinist Harriet McKenzie, violist Meg-Rosaleen Hamilton, accordionist Miloš Milivojević and cellist Shirley Smart, although only bios for the first three musicians appear on the group’s website. Their media info tells us that, in addition to concertizing, they also have “a wealth of experience and enthusiasm in musical outreach and educational work, interactive concerts and workshops. As part of Yehudi Menuhin’s ‘Live Music Now!’ Scheme, Kosmos has toured the whole of Great Britain performing and giving workshops to older people, mainstream school children, children with special needs, children with learning difficulties, adults with brain injuries and at prisons, hospices and care homes. They were also invited to the ‘Musique et Adventure’ residential music course in Jersey to work with talented children and recently, Kosmos has also been working with victims of human trafficking, torture and human rights abuses with the Helen Bamber Foundation.” They are certainly a lively group which combine Eastern and Western classical elements, klezmer and jazz elements in their playing. The second piece on this CD, Burning Stones, was written by a founding and former member of the group, Laura Austee, and this one sounds so much like something the Turtle Island String Quartet would have done that I was delighted and surprised.

Their Date Palms medley uses two Arabic pieces, to which they have added a hypnotic introductory taqsim in the form of an introductory improvisation. The music eventually becomes quite lively indeed, one might say an Arabic (possibly Sufi) version of a hora, except that cellist Smart gives the pulse a jazz-like beat. And the slightly wacky feeling continues into their transformation of the traditional Gypsy tune Dark Eyes, introducing polyphony and both shifting rhythms and harmony…including jazz rhythm beginning at 3:15 into the piece. It’s quite a trip!

Next up is the Romanian tune Geamparale à la Kosmos, and here at last we hear our hyper accordion player Milivojević join the group for an uptempo romp. Smart plucks her cello like a jazz bassist, in a surprisingly slow tempo, at the start of their transformation of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24, here renamed Kosanini). The Italian violin wizard may not have liked what they do with it, but I’m sure he’d love the enthusiasm of their performance, which, again, includes Milivojević on the accordion. (Remember that Paganini once toured for a year with a Gypsy guitarist whom he adored, sort of a 19th-century Django Reinhardt.)

Salim al-Masry’s Lamma Bada is described in the notes as a muwashshah or “a vocal composition based on a particular form of Arab-Andalusian poetry,” transformed here into an instrumental in 10/8 time, on which they are joined by percussionist Vasilis Sarikis. It is a slow, hypnotic piece that captivates the listener with is melismas—yet ends suddenly on an unresolved chord. This, in turn, is followed by a slow, hypnotic arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ famous The Lark Ascending on which Milivojević holds long accordion chords in the background as the violin and viola flutter about in the foreground. Eventually, the tempo increases and we go into some wild extemporé playing that sounds like klezmer; after another slower passage, the music ramps up again, only to slow down for the cello to play a quote from Saint-Saëns’ The Swan as the violin-lark, apparently on speed, twitters crazily in the background before a klezmer-like rideout.

Longa, according to the notes, merges two lively 2/4 longas by Cemil Bay into one lively piece. Cellist Smart takes a pretty lively solo in this one., and we get a surprising key change just before the end. The next piece, Jerzy Petersburski’s Polish Tango, also known as The Suicide Tango because it depicts the despair of two lovers who are forced to part. It begins very slowly and dolorously, but picks up at the 1:40 mark albeit with some rallentandos thrown in for good measure. When the tempo picks up again, we hear wild upward glissandi and lots of pizzicato cello. The same sort of invention carries over into the “Ukrainian” Dances, in which the ensemble adds some mime activity in their live performances.

The album wraps up with their own twist on Piazzola’s famous Libertango, here renamed Liberkleztango and played with far more energy than Piazzola normally gets. It’s also a lot more inventive than the original piece, with lots of weird violin glissandi tossed in for good measure. Sarikis returns on this one as percussionist, but although I liked it a lot I couldn’t actually say that it leaned too much in the klezmer direction.

Still, this is one of those CDs that will pick up your spirits and have you smiling regardless of your mood or the world situation. It’s that rarity, feel-good music with a strong classical bias and a near-perfect fusion with folk, klezmer, Arabic music and jazz.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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