THE COMPASSION PROJECT / TAVERNER: Song of the Angel / Ulf Hoelscher, vln; Susan Narucki, sop; Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orch. (CPCO); Lukas Foss, cond / RAN: Yearning Edna Michell, vln; Michal Kaňka, cel; CPCO; Foss, cond / YI: Romance of Hslao and Ch’in / Hoelscher, Machum Erlich, vln; Karlsruhe Ensemble; Andreas Weiss, cond / HENZE: Adagio adagio / Michell, vln; Kaňka, cel; Igor Ardašev, pno / LEEF: T’Filah. KURTÁG: Ligatura / Michell, Hoelscher, Erlich, vln / RUDERS: Credo / Shlomo Mintz, Hoelscher, vln; Ludmila Peterková, cl; CPCO; Foss, cond / SATOH: Innocence / FOSS: Romance / Patricia Rozario, sop; Michell, vln; CPCO; Foss, cond / RIHM: Cantilena / Michell, vln / XENAKIS: Hunem-Iduhey / Michell, vln; Kaňka, cel / HUSA: Stèle / Michell, vln / B. OLIVERO: Achòt Ketana / Michell, Hoelscher, Bohuslav Matoušek, vln; Rozario, sop; CPCO; Foss, cond / GLASS: Echorus / Michell, Hoelscher, vln; Allen Ginsberg, narr; CPCO; Foss, cond / REICH: Duet / Michell, Hoelscher, vln; Karlsruhe Ens.; Weiss, cond / SAARIAHO: Changing Light / Luyba Petrova, sop; Michell, vln / EBEN-KORTE-KALABIS: 3 Frescoes From the Old Testament / Michell, vln; Frank Glazer, pno / BERIO: Glossa / David Schifrin, cl; Ettore Causa, vla / TISHCHENKO: Wild Honey Smells of Freedom / Petrova, sop; Michell, vln; Ole Akahoshi, cel / HICKEY: Lunula / Tara Helen O’Connor, fl; Claire Brazeau, E-hn / TAL: Piano Quartet / Cantilena Piano Qrt / BANSHCHIKOV: Elegy / Michell, vln; Akahoshi, cel / FOSS: Round a Common Center / Yehudi Menuhin, vln; Cantilena Piano Qrt; Elaine Bonazzi, mezzo; Orson Welles, narr / Innova 971
The genesis of this album is explained in the liner notes by violinist Edna Michell:
In 1993, following recording sessions in the Czech Republic, Yehudi Menuhin and I were on the way to Vienna to catch flights to different destinations. Menuhin was despairing about the atrocities of the world. To change the mood, I came up with the idea of composers from around the world writing short works inspired by the theme of compassion. It struck a chord with Menuhin, and he remained immersed in the project for the rest of his life.
Menuhin and I were involved in many projects together over many years, but his focus on this one was astonishing. I was amazed to see Menuhin’s enthusiasm, involvement, excitement, dedication, and commitment expressed in the many handwritten faxes and letters he sent to people around the world. Menuhin would call me from wherever he was in the world at 3 AM New York time and would exclaim, “I just had an idea and wanted to tell you about it…” The more the project developed, the more he wanted to carry on with it. His fervor to see this project fulfilled was inspirational.
Of course, atrocities in the world are nothing new; they’ve been around for millennia, and aren’t going to go away any time soon no matter how many concerts are dedicated to compassion. But it made Menuhin in particular feel good about it, perhaps in part because he hadn’t done anything to address the atrocities of the Nazi, Fascist and Communist regimes of the 1930s through the 1950s.
In the end, however, it is the music that either stands or falls on its own merit, and for the most part Menuhin and Michell chose their composers and their pieces wisely. Being much older and not always in the best of health—the 1990s was the only time I had the chance to hear Menuhin perform live, and he was so sick that he refused to receive visitors in the green room after the concert—it was largely due to the unflagging energy of Michell that this whole project came together at last. The first session was recorded in 1994 (the Eben, Korte and Kalabis pieces) while most of the album was made in the 21st century, after Menuhin’s death: the Berio and Hickey pieces, in fact, were made in May 2016, so in a sense some of this album is new. The only track featuring Menuhin on violin was actually recorded before the project began, in 1982.
John Taverner’s Song of the Angel is that rarity, a slow, tonal piece that avoids sounding tacky or sentimental. Violinist Ulf Hoelscher and soprano Susan Narucki are the stars here; indeed, one will find Hoelscher on several tracks in this collection. To a certain extent, however, it is Narucki’s smoldering, sexless yet impassioned singing that “makes” this track work. She, too, manages to sound sweet and lyrical but not cloying.
Shulamit Ran’s Yearning is based on a tale from the Dybbuk in which Khonnon yearns for his beloved Leya but dies when his love is not returned. Michell is the violin soloist in this one, with cellist Michal Kaňka playing countermelodies beneath her. In both of these first two works, the orchestral parts are generally quiet, scored for low instruments (basses and celli in this one) and meant to create a background mood to whatever the soloists are doing. The violin part, and to a lesser extent the orchestra, becomes more agitated in the middle section. The music is excellent.
Chen Yi’s Romance of Hslao and Ch’in is that rarity, a piece by a Chinese composer that actually sounds Chinese and not like Western Romantic music—though the middle section is clearly developed along Western lines. Yi states that he tried to reproduce the sound of Chinese instruments through Western ones: the hslao, a vertical bamboo flute, and the ch’in, an ancient seven-string zither. Interestingly, the orchestral part here is more complex and prominent than in the first two works by Western composers.
Henze’s Adagio adagio is described as a Serenade for Piano Trio, and quite a lovely one it is without sacrificing Henze’s excellent grasp of form and subtle use of modern harmonies. Fortuitously, Henze composed it in 1993 as a birthday gift for an old friend and received its first performance that year played by Menuhin with two colleagues in Darmstadt, Germany, so into the Compassion Project it went. Michell, Kaňka and pianist Igor Ardašev play it with wonderful feeling. This is followed by one of the strangest pieces on the album, Yinam Leef’s T’Filah, the Hebrew word for prayer, described in the notes as a piece in which “each one of the three violins keeps its own personal voice, sometimes while sharing the material with the others, or when allowing one of them to take a leading role, not unlike a Chazan.” Michell and Hoelscher are both on this track, joined by Machum Erlich. I don’t know which violinist is playing which part, but they certainly do complement each other.
Next up is Poul Ruders’ Credo, another slow piece in a meditative mood that is not cloying. Here the well-known violinist Shlomo Mintz joins Hoelscher and clarinetist Ludmila Peterková in an impassioned prayer for peace that rises in both a scalar and chromatic fashion to almost hysterical heights, backed by the cellos and basses of the Czech Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra (CPCO) conducted by Lukas Foss. Somei Satoh’s Innocence is in the same vein but uses different harmonies and melodic lines; Michell’’s violin acts here more as a sort of obbligato instrument to the high winds of the orchestra while soprano Patricia Rozario sings sweetly with a pure, vibratoless tone. This is followed by yet another slow piece, Wolfgang Rihm’s Cantilena, written in 2000 and played by Michell alone. It moves at almost a snail’s pace, yet holds the listener’s interest because the notes are so well chosen.
Hunem-Iduhey, which means “non-vibrato,” was written by Iannis Xenakis in 1996. This is the edgiest piece on the album so far and the furthest removed from any concept of “compassion”; indeed, Xenakis himself states that he is someone who just does things and doesn’t try to analyze them too much. Like much of his music, it’s very atonal in an abrasive manner, which is then offset by Lukas Foss’ Romance. Rozario is again the soprano soloist. Karel Husa’s Stèle is a meditation for solo violin, played superbly by Michell.
Indeed, as one listens to the entire album, one feels the urge for humanitarianism without either the music or the words (when there are any) being preachy or maudlin, and that in itself is a rare experience nowadays. Betty Olivero’s Achòt Ketana (In Memoriam) brings soprano Rozario back to join a trio of violinists and the CPCO playing in am impassioned manner behind them. György Kurtág’s Ligatura for two violins was written in 1998 as an 80th birthday present for Menuhin, and is thus one of the few “compassion-less” pieces on the album, yet it fits in due to its slow movement and generally calm demeanor despite the continually abrasive harmonies.
You don’t even have to look at the composers’ list to know that Echorus was written by Philip Glass: his repetitive minimalist style is both unmistakable and predictable, though here it is relieved somewhat by Allen Ginsberg reciting one of his poems, Wales Visitation. Although Steve Reich is also a minimalist composer, in fact older than Glass and one of his influences, his music has more rhythmic motion and counter-motion and is thus more interesting. The Duet for two violins and string orchestra is a fine example of his work.
The second CD begins with Kaija Saariaho’s Changing Light and, although I feel that most of her music is comprised primarily of effects, this short piece is effective because of its light, transparent texture and its brevity. Luyba Petrova is the soprano soloist, and she has a superb voice including a trill which she puts to the service of the music. If Saariaho’s recent opera were written in a compact a form as this, I’d certainly have liked it much better than I did. Michell plays the violin obbligato. Following this is a rare collaboration between three composers—Petr Eben, Oldrich Korte and Viktor Kalabis—who wrote 3 Frescoes from the Old Testament. The first of these is a surprisingly edgy piece for violin and piano, played with appropriate angst by Michell and Frank Glazer. The notes tell us that these three Czech composers were contacted to contribute something to the Compassion Project, and each, without the knowledge of the others, chose themes from the Old Testament. Zuzana Ružicková, Kalabis’ widow, expressed surprise that the works of these three composers, “each with a highly individual style, resulted in a unique and coherent work of great inspiration, expression and human compassion.” Following Eben’s piece we hear Korte’s, which is more lyrical than Eben’s (and settles into a regular 3/4 rhythm) but no less passionate and strong in its emotions. The Kalabis piece is the most intense of the three and, as Ružicková stated, provides a surprising complement to the preceding two works.
Luciano Berio’s Glossa for clarinet and viola is another odd piece, being considerably louder and edgier than any of the music preceding it. This was recorded in May 2016, so it’s another late addition to the set. So too is Boris Tischenko’s Wild Honey Smells of Freedom, recorded in 2010, with Petrova making a return appearance as vocalist. Set to a poem by Anna Akhmatova, it is sung in Russian.
We return to calmer music with Sean Hickey’s Lunula, written for flute and English horn and played superbly by the wonderful flautist Tara Helen O’Connor, whose superb album The Way Things Go I raved about in March 2016 on this blog. This is another track from May 2016. We then break, I would say, almost completely away from the concept of music representing compassion with Josef Tal’s Piano Quartet. This is an edgy atonal work which requires great powers of concentration to follow and certainly extra-human skill to perform. I should point out that violinist Michell and pianist Frank Glazer are both members of the Cantilena Piano Quartet. Oddly enough, this track was one of the earliest made for this project, in 1993 at the Jerusalem Music Center. One of the keys to its success is Michell’s soaring, impassioned violin playing, which gets a brief solo or two within its 10-and-a-half-minute span. As I’ve said many times before, there’s good atonal music and bad atonal music; Tal’s quartet is masterful, to my ears, because it says something and develops cogently rather than just spitting out harmonically edgy ideas. Cellist Steven Thomas also gets a brief solo passage, but by and large it is pianist Glazer who “drives” this quartet with his powerful chunky chords and occasional running bass lines.
Gennady Banshchikov’s Elegy for violin and cello, written in 2004 in memory of Yehudi Menuhin, is a lyrical piece that again does not wallow in bathos, played superbly by Michell and cellist Ole Akahoski. Banshchikov cleverly gives the cello slow rhythmic figures that propel the music ever so gently, with the violin playing above it, occasionally having them play opposing lines with the cello using longer notes than the violin. At the 4:12 mark, the music suddenly becomes edgier for a few bars before receding back to its lyrical state.
The program concludes with the one Menuhin recording, Lukas Foss’ Round a Common Center, written for the 1980 Olympics. The text, recited by Orson Welles, is a bit on the pretentious side, but the music is excellent. The vocalist here, singing wordlessly, is mezzo-soprano Elaine Bonazzi, a mainstay on the New York music scene for decades. I saw her in person once; she had an excellent voice, but made the most alarming faces when singing that I dubbed her “the mask of tragedy.” Welles’ narration sounds a bit hammy, not unlike his TV ads: “We will sell no wine before its time!” It’s an interesting slice of history although, to be honest, Menuhin’s lines in the opening section are not particularly distinguished ones. He does not come into his own until the 5:10 mark, when his part becomes more complex, suddenly intertwining with cellist Marcy Rozen (Steven Thomas’ predecessor) of the Cantilena Piano Quartet. This is the section of the music meant to represent Olympic athletes in action, and it’s very well written. Bonazzi even gets a few notes here and there, probably because Foss remembered that she would be in the room at the time.
I can’t think of another album of contemporary music I’ve enjoyed this much in recent years with the exceptions of Outi Tarkiainen’s and Dimitri Tymoczko’s CDs. Every piece is interesting, well written and well played. My attention never flagged for a moment throughout the entire two CDs, running more than two hours, and that’s saying a lot. Heartily recommended. I urge you to get this set!
—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley
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