This charming album is already one of our favourites — a close second to Ensemble Villancico's Tambalagumba , in fact, but where Tambalagumba is merry South American early music with percussion, Concertato is the sight of sad man weeping softly into his mug of beer as he surveys the world. Both are equally approachable, despite one being Christmas music from 16th century Peruvians and the other gloomy string quartets (a classical version of Kate Rusby, come to think).
Kakabadse is British but has roots in Greece, Austria, Russia and Georgia, and it's the mixture of cultures that gives this its charm. We're currently reading a book on the Holocaust and the opener is the kind of sad music with a Jewish/Russian feel that would accompany a documentary on the camp, with long shots of black of white photos of sad people. It's actually called The Coachman's Terror , scored for violin, viola, cello and double bass and inspired by Alexandr Pushkin's poem Devils . It's set in a Russian winter and tells of a coachman driving a horsedrawn carriage through blizzard conditions amid swirling howling snows, “where heaven and night are blurred into one and evil spirits gather round the hapless stranded pair,” according to the sleeve notes. Obviously, it doesn't instil either the fear of a death camp or evil spirits in the listener, it's just pleasingly sad music with exotic overtones, and this sad exotica is the flavour of much of the album.
Dance Sketches , scored for violin, viola, cello and double bass, is made up of three diverse dances, Arabian Folk Dance (harmonic bareness, syncopated rhythms); Stately Court Dance (dignified, 4/4 meter) and Dance Of The Clockwork Toys (staccato). There's also a slight edginess about it all: the notes for the title track say Concertato originates from the Latin ‘concertator' meaning ‘rival' so while it's no dueling banjos, it sees instruments playing against each other, as well as challenging the players.
There is some variation: Spellbound is a setting of the poem of that name by Emily Bronte while Cantus Planus (plainsong) is inspired by medieval style music and in part, Greek Orthodox Church music. We mentioned soundtracks above and much of this has the instant appeal of film music; Matins from Cantus Planus would be ideal for the scenes after a medieval battle, for example.
The music comes from Sound Collective, a group of musicians that works with composers,writers and educators to build new ways of appreciating and promoting chamber music. They've certainly succeeded with this.
These instantly accessible, genteel and well crafted works are inflected throughout by the composer's diverse ethnic origins, especially Greece, Georgia and Russia. Most of the works make extensive use of the middle-Eastern sounding double harmonic scale - i.e. the one containing two augmented intervals. The string quartet lineup, while used conventionally, is afforded additional depth of timbre by the substitution of contrabass for second violin. The five movement suite after Pushkin is a good deal less action-packed than the original poem; more melancholy winter landscape studies than depictions of pursuing nightmares in a blizzard, though the pieces are very atmospheric.
This air of sombre reflection, expressed in a melodic, neo-romantic vocabulary, pervades most of the works on the disc. Two works depart somewhat from this formula; the plainchant-evoking piece owes more to Greek Orthodox church music than the middle-eastern 'arabic scale', and the delightful Variations
[sic – in fact Recitativo Arioso] sound like a transcription of a recitative and aria from a Mozart opera, with two ingeniously constructed variations. Minimalism puts in a brief appearance in one movement of Coachman, and Jazz in one of Concertato, but these are fleeting.