Byambasuren Sharav: Legend of Herlen
Lou Harrison: Pipa Concerto
Sergei Prokofiev: Scythian Suite
Review By Joe Milicia
In 2006-07 the city of Chicago offered a year-long celebration of cultures of the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade routes stretching from China to the Mediterranean. Central to the project was the Silk Road Ensemble, founded back in 1998 by Yo-Yo Ma and a group of like-minded musicians and composers to perform some traditional but mostly new music written for combinations of Western, Asian and Middle Eastern instruments. The Ensemble has performed and recorded for Sony as a chamber group, and played several years ago with the Chicago Symphony. Following the Silk Road Chicago festivities in 2007 the group recorded two CDs with the orchestra: one for Sony (New Impossibilities) and the present one for the orchestra's new in-house label. Miguel Harth-Bedoya participates in both recordings, but on the CSO-Resound CD he shares the podium with the new conductor-designate of the New York Philharmonic, Alan Gilbert. This particular recording takes us to ancient Israel, then to Mongolia, China and the lands of the ancient Scythians, just north of the Black Sea.
Jerusalem may not have been a major stop along the Silk Road, but the Swiss-Jewish-American Ernest Bloch's 1918 Schelomo, with its distinctive and complexly designed "Jewish sound," is a blend of East and West well suited to the Silk Road Project, not to mention its "star" cellist. A cross between a one-movement cello concerto and a Richard Strauss tone poem, and the probable source for every Hollywood biblical epic's soundtrack, Schelomo is thrilling from first note to last (to its fans, at least), an impassioned outpouring that Bloch intended as a portrait of King Solomon as author of the Book of Ecclesiastes. The famous message is "Vanity, all is vanity!" and the music certainly has extensive passages of lamentation, often quiet, but it also features calls to battle, glittering sounds that suggest perfumed nights in Oriental gardens, overwhelming anguish, and an orchestral climax of wild hysteria halfway through.
Ma has recorded Schelomo before, with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony for Sony in 1994. He has not changed his interpretation a great deal, though the performances are by no means identical — perhaps more poetically melancholy with Zinman, more impulsive with Harth-Bedoya. In any case, his is a relatively refined Solomon, not a hyper-emotional heart-on-sleeve one. The cello itself sounds more immediate, more realistically present on the CSO CD — an important reason for Ma fans to acquire the disc. On the other hand, Harth-Bedoya, even with the splendors of the CSO at his disposal and better sound (except for an overly distant trumpet), gives a relatively routine performance compared to Zinman's, which is more atmospheric in quiet passages and more rousing in the grand tuttis. (My own favorite performance with the CSO, sensationally exciting, is a tape of a radio broadcast of a 1967 performance with their legendary first cellist Frank Miller and, of all people, Arthur Fiedler on the podium.) The Baltimore version, part of The New York Album, is paired with Bartok's Viola Concerto (played by Ma on an alto violin, i.e., an instrument with a pole resting on the ground like a cello) and a concerto by Stephen Albert.
Legend of Herlen (composed in 2000)is an 11-minute piece for vocalist, morinkhuur (a kind of 2-stringed Mongolian cello), three percussionists, piano, and three trombones. The Silk Road Ensemble recorded this piece for their first CD, Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet (Sony Classical) in 2001, with the same forces except for the trombonists. The Sony recording has a somewhat wider dynamic range—more striking contrasts between thundering tympani and gentle chimes — and a slightly more exciting presence, but in a tender duet passage between "long singer" (the gloriously expressive Khongorzul Ganbaatar, whose words celebrate the Herlen River in Mongolia) and morinkhuur, Ma seems less reticent, more a soulful partner, in the new recording. Incidentally, it is astonishing how much Ma's performance on this instrument with its distinctive timbre reminds us of his own distinctive cello-playing. But the greatest difference between the two performances is heard in the trombonists: in the Sony recording they have a "lighter" sound and articulate their notes, one after another, with a sort of "ping," while the CSO trombones are practically a wall of sound, much "darker" and blended. It's good to have both versions.
The West-Coast American Lou Harrison was a sort of one-man Silk Road Project in himself, in that so much of his music combines Eastern and Western sounds and structures. His Pipa Concerto of 1997 is one of his last works. The pipa, a Chinese lute with a twangier sound than the Western variety, is here played by Silk Road Ensemble member Wu Man, for whom the concerto was written. (She recorded it previously for the Mode label, with Rebecca Miller conducting the New Professionals Orchestra of London in an all-Harrison-for-strings program.) It's a charming work, scored for string orchestra (though this is nowhere mentioned in the CD booklet), with an unusual structure. Following a more-or-less conventional opening Allegro, we have a mini-suite called "Bits and Pieces," consisting of a "Troika" (balalaika sounds), "Three Sharing" (duet for pipa and string bass but played by tapping on the wood), "Wind and Plum" (a slow movement with the most pronounced Chinese flavor), and a short "Neapolitan" (pizzicato strings, mandolin-like thrumming on the pipa). A longer, "proper" slow movement follows, called "Threnody for Richard Locke" (whom the booklet doesn't identify — perhaps the gay activist and erotic film star who died the year before the premiere?), and a finale called "Estampie," after the medieval European dance form, with plenty of sprightly rhythmic effects. CSO-Resound beautifully balances the delicate pipa with the strings, effectively led by Harth-Badoya.
Prokoviev's Scythian Suite began life as a plan for a ballet for Serge Diaghilev, to be called Ala and Lolly. The title characters may sound like ladies who lunch, but in Scythian legend Ala was a daughter of the sun god and Lolly a hero who rescued her from a kidnapper. Diaghilev rejected Prokofiev's musical sketches, but they were salvaged for a 4-movement suite. Russian audiences were hostile to the music (one critic infamously published a scathing review of a performance that in fact had been cancelled at the last minute), but Chicago loved it when the CSO gave the American premiere in 1918 under the composer's baton. The music is full of what used to be called "barbaric splendor," glittering and kaleidoscopic in the way that its instrumentation constantly shifts through both fast and slow sections. Comparisons to The Rite of Spring are inevitable, though the rhythms are much more foursquare than Stravinsky's. The CSO made a memorable recording with Claudio Abbado in 1978 for DG (originally paired with Lt. Kije, and now available with Alexander Nevsky besides, on a DG Originals disc). Abbado is brisker in the first movement, but Alan Gilbert gives an exciting performance himself. I do find DG's remastered analog sound more appealing, because the instruments are more closely miked and individuated in timbre; but CSO-Resound's more distant perspective offers an impressive panorama too. The blaze of sound that ends the suite is also a dramatic conclusion for the CD itself.
Though alternative recordings of each work exist—with very interesting companion pieces in every case — the program at hand, showcasing the Silk Road Ensemble or certain members in three-quarters of it and the CSO or certain sections in all of it, has its own logic and pleasures.