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August 16, 2010

Pungent Harmonies Drawn From Ancient Traditions

New York Times:

When the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center was being revamped a decade or so ago, some thought that it should give its overworked hero a rest and do something else entirely. Instead the festival has deftly continued to serve Mozart, if a bit more judiciously, and done things that are completely different. Never more so than in the current minifestival Bach and Polyphonies, which juxtaposes examples of Renaissance and Baroque polyphony with works of modern vintage.

It was the male Ensemble Basiani from the Republic of Georgia, singing two sets of Georgian polyphony descended from an ancient tradition, that stole the main show at Tully against strong competition. Mr. Aimard said from the stage that he had first heard recorded examples of this tradition 30 years ago and had always wanted to hear it live.

The rest of us could only be grateful for his obsession. The ensemble, singing in close harmony, presented sacred and folk music displaying polyphonic devices ranging from simple drones to intricately interwoven melodies, which often crossed or combined to produce harmonies pungent to the Western ear.

There was full-throated singing of the kind heard from Russian choruses, but in what seemed the more characteristic style of vocal production, sounds were sparingly emitted from the throat rather than shaped in the mouth and then actively projected. The quaintest number, Chela, in which a farmer regales his uncomprehending oxen with his sorrows, involved a kind of yodeling.

This idiom seemed as far removed from Bach’s glorious motet “Jesu, Meine Freude” as it did from 1960s works of Ligeti and Xenakis, all magnificently performed by the mixed chorus Ars Nova Copenhagen, conducted by the choral wizard Paul Hillier.

For the Bach, Mr. Hillier used 16 voices, unobtrusively supported by a portative organ, and you had the distinct sense that every voice counted. As usual, Mr. Hillier achieved marvels of balance and textual clarity that most choruses would envy but that was here, it seemed, only a starting point. A scintillating display of individualities and shifting emphases enlivened the performance at every moment.

The performances of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” and Xenakis’s “Nuits” were no less accomplished. These are treacherous a cappella tours de force that you never want to hear an inferior chorus attempt.

The Ligeti work, used in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey,” develops something of a paradox, a sort of static polyphony. It consists mainly of long-held notes by single singers entering periodically, generally within close pitch clusters but sometimes floating aloft, as if emanating from another planet; either way, finding the pitches requires intense concentration from the singers and in this case, at least for one, occasional help from a tuning fork.

After the weaving of this fine “tissue,” in Mr. Aimard’s description, came the “explosion” of “Nuits,” in which Xenakis deploys isolated sounds of ancient languages (though no text per se) to evoke, abstractly, the dark nights of political prisoners. After a swooping, squalling opening, come wavery vibrato, toneless aspirations, croaks, cartoonish sound effects, even whistling: almost any sound mouths can deliver. Here it was tuning forks all around. Read more.

Posted by acapnews at August 16, 2010 9:55 PM


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