Album du jour: A Far Cry, “Dreams & Prayers”

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What a great album.  Then again, anyone who attended either of this year’s Pioneer Valley concerts by the cooperative Boston-based chamber orchestra A Far Cry would have expected no less.  But can’t you recall cases where the magical spell cast by a concert failed to materialize from the “take-home version” of the same music?  I sure can.  Well, not this time.  While no recording can duplicate the real thing, a great recording can be a work of art unto itself.  This is one such case.

A major share of the credit for this goes to producer Jesse Lewis and to the recording venue, Sacred Heart Church, Fall River, Massachusetts.  The sound is warm and enveloping, while also being precise and frighteningly real.  Lo-fi enthusiasts, especially in classical music, please take note:  This is what you’re depriving the listeners and the music of.  Why?

Typically for The Criers (as the orchestra is also known), the intelligent program of selections was curated by one member, then vetted the entire membership.  In this case, violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud has put together a wide-ranging but cohesive selection of works which, in her words, “explores music’s role in religious mysticism as the ultimate passageway between the physical and the spiritual.  In each of the four works on the album, drawing on three faith traditions and 1000 years of history, something very simple — a breath, a word, a turn, a single note is transformed into something transcendent, and even holy.”

In that case, one just has to start with Hildegard von Bingen, the recently-canonized Medieval German abbess, poet, musician and mystic whose visionary hymns have been embraced by both the early music crowd and new music performers in recent decades.  The Criers’ own collective arrangement of Hildegard’s “O ignis spiritis paracliti” (“O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort”), played in awesomely unanimous unison by A Far Cry’s violinists, allows us to savor the simple perfection of an unadorned melody, shaped and inflected in ways almost too subtle to apprehend, but which are crucial to the narrative flow.  The word for this effect is: Musicianship.

Next was my introduction to the music of Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, a 40-year old composer, pianist and scholar on the faculties of Holy Cross and Brown, and with specialties in western classical, jazz, Turkish and “New Ottoman” musics.  His brief, effective “Vecd” (a state of rapture in Sufi mysticism) evokes the practice of the chanting of a mantra over an ostinato (repeated rhythmic pattern), each accelerating in tempo and intensity until a state of ecstasy is achieved.  Commissioned by A Far Cry, “Vecd” would fit nicely in the repertoire of other ensembles looking for a stimulating work with which to diversify their programs.

The mystical tradition moves from Sufism to Kabbalah in the next work.  Named for the 12th/13th-century Provencal Rabbi Yitzhak Saggi Nehor, , Osvaldo Golijov‘s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” has become one of the most-performed works by the 54-year old Argentine-American composer, also on the faculty of Holy Cross.  A spectacular tour-de-force for klezmer clarinet, “Dreams & Prayers” gets an all-stops-out performance here by the amazing David Krakauer, who also made the first recording of the work’s original chamber version with the Kronos Quartet.  Fine as that was, I don’t mind saying that I substantially prefer this new version with larger performing forces, allowing for greater dynamic range while also softening the occasional stridency of the string writing of the original.

To express a similar preference for orchestration over original in the album’s final work would practically be sacrilege, even if I really felt that way.  But many of the legendary conductors, including Wilhelm Furtwängler and Arturo Toscanini, performed string orchestra versions of Ludwig van Beethoven’s late string quartets, so A Far Cry’s expansion of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” from the Op. 132 Quartet continues a distinguished tradition.  That movement, Beethoven’s “Holy Song of Thanks,” composed after recovery from serious illness, alternates between mystical hymn-like passages in a Medieval mode and more vigorous dance-like sections expressing renewed strength.

Kudos to The Criers for their sensitive decisions on when to maintain the intimacy of the original, and when to let the sound bloom with added instruments.  Their performance of the Beethoven no more supplants the original than would any fine cover version of a song off your favorite album.  But right up to the luminous final chord, Beethoven’s sublime, otherwordly song of thanks makes a moving conclusion to an album to reach for repeatedly, especially when in need of the spiritual sustenance great music provides.

For instant gratification, you can purchase and download the album in CD-quality or better (the only quality I permit my readers to purchase — no mp3s allowed!) here and here.  To preview on Spotify:

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