Isidora Žebeljan Chamber Music – simple yet complex

This was a difficult release to review. It was easy to form an option (I really enjoyed it). But trying to describe Serbian composer Isadora Žebeljan’s music to someone who’s not familiar with it is something of a challenge.

The liner notes gave it a try: “Isidora Žebeljan grew up listening to Serbian, Romanian, Hungarian and Gypsy music. This music, with its melancholic and passionate melodies, rich with ornaments, and its complex and elusive rhythms… defined the basic outlines of her musical thinking.” True, but that’s only part of the story.

Žebeljan’s music also incorporates elements of jazz, pop and older classical traditions in her music — and fuses all those disparate parts into an organic whole. While the external characteristics change, there’s something underpinning each of these works that are consistent. I think it’s the emotional honesty of the music. Kudos to the Brodsky Quartet and their associates for recording this program of truly inventive chamber music.

The disc opens with the Polomka Quartet, short 2009 serial work with outbursts of lyricism.The Dance of the Wooden Sticks for horn and string quartet has a more tonal and Slavic feel to it. This is a technical showpiece for the horn, beginning with a slow introduction then moving to a rhythmic “dance.” New Songs of Lada for soprano and string quartet (2006) is a cycle of poems by anonymous 18th and 19th-century Serbian poets. I found soprano Anete Illié’s voice particularly warm and full, giving these old poems a rich patina.

Žebeljan’s Sarabande for piano had neither the serialism of the Polomka Quartet nor the folk elements of the New Songs. Rather, it was music that just seemed suspended in air, quiet and ethereal. By contrast, A Yawl on the Danube for soprano, piano, string quartet and percussion had an earthy quality to it. I loved the way the honkytonk-sounding piano and the string quartet would go off in different directions at times.

The Song of a Traveller in the Night for clarinet and string quartet showed yet another side of Zebeljan’s character. This angular, loose-limbed composition sounded straight-up post-tonal. (I told you hŽebeljan’s music is hard to describe.) The Pep It Up Fantasy for soprano, piano, string quintet, and percussion ends the program. It’s a wonderfully complex work full of intricate rhythms. The soprano seems to float serenely above all the bustle, which nevertheless sounds connected rather than detached from the voice (at least to me).

If you’re familiar with Isadora Žebeljan’s music, then there’s nothing I need to say, save that the performances are all top-notch. If you’re not familiar with her work, then I encourage you to listen to some sound samples before downloading (or purchasing the CD). This is music that I just don’t have the words to describe adequately.

Isidora Žebeljan: Chamber Music 
Polomka Quartet; Dance of the Wooden Sticks for horn and string quintet; new Songs of Lada for soprano and string quartet; Sarabande for piano; A Yawl on the Danube, scene for soprano, piano, string quartet and percussion; Song of a Traveller in the Night for clarinet and string quartet; Pep It Up, fantasy for soprano, piano, string quintet and percussion 
Brodsky Quartet; Anete Illié, soprano; Stefan Dohr, horn; Joan Enric Lluna, clarinet; Isadora Žebeljan, piano; Miroslav Karlovič, percussion; Boban Stošič, double bass; Premil Petrocič, conductor 
CPO 777 994

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