Tuesday 11 May 2021

A vivid and restless talent: music by Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan in the first disc issued after her death last year

Isidora Žebeljan
Isidora Žebeljan

Isidora Žebeljan Three Curious Loves, Psalm 78, When God created Dubrovnik; Daniel Rowland, Stift Festival Orchestra, David Cohen, Netherlands Chamber Choir, Peter Dijkstra; The state51 Conspiracy

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 10 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A live performance of the violin concerto by the late Serbian composer is at the centre of this fascinating disc of her vivid, restless and endlessly inventive talent

The Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan died last year at the age of 53, one of the most internationally acclaimed contemporary-classical Serbian composers [note her website, linked to here, is a valuable source of information but has not been updated since before her death]. Whilst her music is available in the record catalogue, Žebeljan does not seem to be widely known. Last month The state51 Conspiracy in association with Mascom Records released the first disc of Žebeljan's music to be issued after her death, featuring a wide range of her music in a mix of live and studio recordings. Under the title Three Curious Loves the disc features Žebeljan's violin concerto Three Curious Loves, Psalm 78, When God Created Dubrovnik, Dark Velvet, Sarabande, Bačka Melancholy, Hum Away, Strings!, Tears are O. K and Leda: Tango-Foxtrot.

Isidora Žebeljan studied Composition at the Faculty of Music in Belgrade with Vlastimir Trajković (a student of Olivier Messiaen), and she went on to become professor of composition at the same faculty in 2002.  As well as five operas, Zora D, The Marathon, Simon the Chosen, Two Heads and a Girl, and Simon the Foundling she wrote a considerable amount of incidental music for the theatre, including for the National Theatre in Belgrade and Belgrade Dramatic Theatre. 

Her opera Zora D (2002/2003) premiered in Amsterdam in June 2003 (a co-production between Opera studio Nederland and Wiener Kammeroper) directed by David Pountney. It was the first Serbian opera that had a world premiere abroad and the first Serbian opera that has been staged outside Serbia since 1935.

The compilation opens with the violin concerto Three Curious Loves which was written for the violinist Daniel Rowland who performs it here from the Stift Festival in 2017 with the Stift Festival Orchestra conducted by David Cohen. I am not sure what the significance of the title is, but the work itself is vivid and gripping. Lasting a little of 20 minutes, the work starts with an anxious-sounding solo violin over an ominous bass, but from then on we are taken on a roller-coaster of vividly changing textures and emotions.  There are moments of calm, and a fantastic section mid-way for a solo horn with answering orchestra. The final section is notable for its vivid, almost daemonic energy and there are hints of popular dance rhythms. The climax is followed by a short, thoughtful solo violin moment, an orchestral bang, then nothing.

Soloist Daniel Rowland gives a terrific performance, really carrying the work's energy through. This is not a conventionally virtuoso work, but Rowland's performance here (in a live recording) is outstanding and he is well partnered by Cohen and the festival orchestra.

Žebeljan's setting of Psalm 78 was written as part of the Netherlands Chamber Choir's project to perform settings of all 150 psalms [in 2017 for the choir's 80th birthday, see my interview with conductor Peter Dijkstra]. So here we have a live performance of Žebeljan's Psalm 78 performed by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, conductor Peter Djikstra. The work is almost, but not quite, homophonic with close, dense, opaque harmonies setting off the melodic material. As with other works on the disc, you feel the fascinating pull in Žebeljan's work between lyricism, complexity and density of harmonies. The piece does not sound easy (!) and the choir gives a fine performance.

Next comes the intriguingly named When God Created Dubrovnik for mezzo-soprano and string quartet (here a live performance from soprano Katarina Jovanović with a quartet including Mirjana Nešković, Jelena Dimitrijević, and Nataša Petrović). The work was written for the 2013 City of London Festival when it was performed by Lore Lixenberg and the Brodsky Quartet. Žebeljan sets words by Serbian poet Milan Milišić (1941-1991) who was born in Dubrovnik and died there in 1991 at the very beginning of the war, killed by a bomb fired by the Serbian army. He was a poet and translator, and translated Tolkien's The Hobbit, and poems by Robert Frost and Ted Hughes into Serbo-Croat. Žebeljan's setting of his words plunges straight in, with a sense of anger in the way she sets the text. Yet this is offset by the way she writes for the voice and instruments, creating striking polyphonic textures and never simply having the quartet accompanying the voice. Again we sense popular rhythms and towards the end a debt to the tradition of gypsy music.

Dark Velvet, marked 'In memory of Gustav Mahler', is a solo piano piece performed here by the composer herself. It is a gentle almost romantic work, yet the lyrical impulse is balanced by complex harmonies and a spiky edge to the music. Created for a play, Žebeljan described it as "an homage to the musical culture of Central Europe, embodied in the authors of the former Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and their attempt to conquer ‘previously unknown areas of the soul'."

Another work having its origin in theatre music is Sarabande for cor anglais, violin and harp (here performed by Borislav Čičovački, Jelena Dimitrijević and Gorana Ćurgus). Originally composed for Jean Paul Sartre’s drama, Dirty Hands, staged in Belgrade in 2000, it begins with an angular violin solo accompanied by harp chords, then the mellow cor anglais enters and from then on cor anglais and violin entwine melodically accompanied by harp. When I listened I thought it had a Middle Eastern quality, though reading afterwards, Žebeljan was echoing Spanish Renaissance music. Bačka Melancholy, for cor anglais and harp (performed by Borislav Čičovački and Gorana Ćurgus) is a folk-inspired piece using folk melodies from the Bačka region.

Returning the to the Stift Festival and violinist Daniel Rowland, but back to 2014, we encounter Hum Away, Strings! for violin and piano (here Daniel Rowland and Miloš Veljković). Again, a curiously intriguing title for a bravura work which takes Mozart's The Magic Flute as its evident starting point. Afer dense piano chords the violin comes in alone, almost haunted and anxious, thereafter the work alternates between this state and a manic, perky one ending with intense energy. Not for the first time, listening to the disc, I thought of the music of Stravinsky. Despite studying with a Messiaen pupil,  Žebeljan's style seems very linked to the eclectic, magpie nature of Stravinsky's genius along with his assimilation of popular rhythms.

Tears Are O.K is a diptych from incidental music for the play by Mirjana Bobić Mojsilović, for soprano, cor anglais, violin, accordion and double bass (here Aneta Ilić, Borislav Čičovački, Mirjana Nešković, Aleksandar Stefanović, and Boban Stošić). The soprano part comes in the middle and is entirely wordless. The music is rich and vivid, ending with the feeling of late night in a cafe humming a half-remembered tune.

The final work on the disc is Leda here performed by Borislav Čičovački, Mirjana Nešković, Aleksandar Stefanović, Boban Stošić, and Miroslav Karlović. Again with its origins in a play, this time Miroslav Krleža's Leda in a Belgrade production, 2001, there are movements in different popular dance rhythms from the 1930s, notably a foxtrot and a tango, yet throughout we sense the composer looking on, adding something dark and edgy to the music.

This is a fascinating disc, showing a brilliant and restless talent. Some of the smaller works need rather a lot of background before they come into focus, and this is particularly true of the music for the theatre. Yet Žebeljan's talent is always undeniable and everything on the disc is vividly individual, full of texture and variety. But it is the terrific performance by Daniel Rowland, the Stift Festival Orchestra and David Cohen of Žebeljan's striking violin concerto that really stays in the memory.

Isidora Žebeljan (1967-2020) - Three Curious Loves
Isidora Žebeljan - Psalm 78
Isidora Žebeljan - When God created Dubrovnik
Isidora Žebeljan - Dark Velvet
Isidora Žebeljan - Sarabande
Isidora Žebeljan - Tears are OK
Isidora Žebeljan - Bačka Melancholy
Isidora Žebeljan - Hum Away, Strings!
Isidora Žebeljan - Leda
Artists including Daniel Rowland (violin), Stift Festival Orchestra, David Cohen (conductor)
. Netherlands Chamber Choir, Peter Dijkstra (conductor)
The state51 Conspiracy in association with Mascom Records
KREATIVAN4 1CD [52.31]

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