Born in the UK (Southport) of Russian/Georgian and Greek/Austrian parentage, Lydia Kakabadse (b. 1955) writes music that speaks clearly of her (non-UK) roots. The music is approachable yet atmospheric. Divine Art has previously issued a disc of Kakabadze’s choral music, reviewed in Fanfare 40:1; there is also a mixed disc (including two narrated tales, The Mermaid and The Phantom Listeners, plus the Russian Tableaux for solo piano) on Naxos 8.572524.
Taking Pushkin’s poem “The Devils” as the inspiration, The Coachman’s Terror (2016) for violin, viola, cello, and double-bass paints in Richard Straussian-turned-Russian tones the cold of Winter and the movement of the horsedrawn coach. The coachman and his master are surrounded by evil spirits. Kakabadze provides a detailed program, the music depicting the bolting of the horses, the sounding of bells to indicate danger, the slow swirling of the snow (16th-note sextuplets in the second movement) as well as graphically implying the approach of the Spirits. Certainly spookiness is palpable in the central “Evil Spirits Gather Round,” and the desolation of the fourth movement (representing a “bleak and barren wilderness”) is expertly done, with the players incredibly sensitive to the harmonic tensions created. The performance here is fabulous; the recording is close, but that just enhances how involving the whole thing is. The fifth and final movement, entitled “Straying into the unknown,” links musically very obviously to the first.
Another piece for violin, viola, cello, and double-bass, Dance Sketches of 2013, sets three very different dances side by side. The first is an “Arabian Folk Dance,” its sinewy melodies underpinned by harmonies characteristic of that region. The viola line seems particularly evocative of the region in this performance. It stands in high contrast, then, to the “Stately Court Dance” that follows, slow and dignified, but it is the final “Dance of the Clockwork Toys” that is an utter delight. Staccato dominates the texture; the rhythms imply balletic movement. It is all great fun, and fetchingly performed here. Written in 2014, the Cantus planus for the same scoring zooms in on the Aeolian mode. Three movements depict canonical hours: Mains, Lauds and Vespers. The reflective calm of morning (“Matins”) is followed by “Lauds,” ostensibly more deeply devotional, but as the lines layer on top of each other the mood brightens and the rhythms begin to dance. The final, crepuscular “Vespers” brings a sense of contented repose and reflection.
The Recitativo arioso and Variations (2012, although based on earlier material), as its title implies, takes the idea of the expressive “Recitativo arioso” as its basis. There are only two, relatively extended, variations. The opening is as dramatic as anything on the disc, almost like a reduction from a string orchestra score. The arioso actually comprises two themes, one somewhat like a lullaby (perhaps a Russian one), the other rather more expansive. The first section actually traverses a wide emotional range, the two variations effortlessly exploring the material. The first variation has an easy gait, almost carefree while the second, with its use of canon, seems to want to interiorize the themes. This is a fascinating, intriguing piece.
Scored for only cello and double-bass, the Concertato of 2014 is a meeting of two equal players. While there is a plethora of effects (trills, fast runs, moves between arco and pizzicato), the effect is of a very concentrated argument. The constant movement at the opening of the second movement Andante legato perhaps invokes the shadow of Minimalism; the other Andante, an Andante con brio that follows, is clearly intrinsically related. The finale has energy to spare; moments of quasi-improvisation lighten the texture. Again, the harmonic language is dominated by the harmonic minor scales.
The mezzo-soprano Jess Dandy, a name new to me, has a fabulously rich voice. The first of the Two Chamber Songs presents a 2004 setting of a poem, “Spellbound,” by Emily Brontë. Unsurprisingly the imagery is vivid, and in fact concentrates on a kind of cold perhaps analogous to that of Russian winters. The second is a 2007 setting of Poe’s “Eldorado.” A depiction of the lessening strength and determination of a knight in search of the mythical city of Eldorado, the setting is shot through with sadness.
This is a most enjoyable disc of music, flavored with various folk musics and traditions.