Tuesday 20 February 2024

Knowing no boundaries: on Circus Dinograd contemporary & period performers move between styles & genres without embarrassment

Circus Dinograd - Zefir Records

Circus Dinograd; traditional, Jean-Luc Ponty, Purcell, Ravel, Jarmo Ramponen, David Faber, Hilary Summers, Maarten Ornstein, Mike Fentross, Marie-Louise de Jong, Marleen Wester, Judith van Driel, Byrd, John Dowland;  Hilary Summers, Maarten Ornstein, Mike Fentross, Dudok Quartet Amsterdam; Zefir Records
Reviewed 14 February 2024

Sui generis, a disc that moves between genre and style without embarrassment as the ensemble of contemporary and period performers cross from the historical to the contemporary to the improvised

Circus Dinograd on Zefir Records is an intriguing new cross-genre collaboration between contralto Hilary Summers, the bass clarinet and theorbo/vihuela duet of Maarten Ornstein and Mike Fentross, and the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam (Judith van Driel, Marleen Wester, Marie-Louise de Jong, David Faber). The idea behind the disc seems to be that there are no boundaries, so we have reimaginations of Byrd, Purcell, and Dowland alongside folksong, Ravel and pieces by the different members of the ensemble, notably a set of Seven Deadly Sins, one by each member of the ensemble. 

It works because the seven performers bring a focused and serious approach to everything they do, there is no element of 'lets have a bit of fun with this', and with an ensemble of such a mix of performers and instruments, they perceive no boundaries. And the title? This derives from one of the folk songs on the disc, the Welsh song Peis Dinogad (Dinogad's Smock).

In fact, there are four folksongs on the disc, I will give my love an apple (English), Peis Dinogad and Ar Lan y mor (both Welsh), My Lagan Love (Irish) and Ravel's Chanson ecossaise (a version of 'Ye banks and ye braes'). The ensemble treats them with great freedom, sometimes presenting the melody straight before moving into a freer treatment. In each, Summers' strong tones are complemented by some intriguing and seductive instrumental combinations, the players treating ideas with great freedom. It is perhaps no co-incidence that all four folk songs have a certain haunting element to them.

There is a similar approach to the Early Music, treating it seriously but allowing other elements into the mix. Purcell's Music for a while begins quite straight with just Summers and Fentross' theorbo, the others joining in moving it closer to jazz, yet always with a serious approach to Purcell's material. Then Sweeter than Roses moves from the straight to a vigorous dance. Whilst I have used the word straight twice, of course, there is never anything quite straight about Hilary Summers' rich toned and intelligent approach to this music. 

Byrd's Ye Sacred Muses starts with a humming Summers plus the strings, quite direct but intriguingly modern and as the others join the results simply enrichen and develop the harmonies in a lovely way. Dowland's In darkness let me dwell is the last work on the disc and is equally captivating.

The Seven Deadly Sins are each short and scattered across the disc, though I would be intrigued to hear them as a set. All are distinctly contemporary in style David Faber's Gluttony is full of vivid imagery, Hilary Summer's Pride is short and expressionist, whilst her Avarice pits spoken text again strongly characterised instrumental contributions, Maarten Ornstein's Wrath is tiny but amazingly strongly characterised, Marie-Louise de Jong's Lust features wonderful dramatics from Summers, Marleen Wester's Sloth is not surprisingly, deep, dark and slow, whilst Judith van Driel's Envy is vivid and edgy.

There are a number of other short, contemporary pieces on the disc, a vivid, high-energy Jig from Jean-Luc Ponty, and another lively jig in Jarmo Romppanen's Polska nr. 745. 77 Tears by theorbo player Mike Fentross has hints of slow, sustained jazz into which fragments of the Purcell pieces drift in a seductive manner. Bass clarinettist Maarten Ornstein's wonderfully vivid How do I loathe thee seems a refugee from the Seven Deadly Sins and is full of colour and vigour in the instrumental contribution. Violinist Judith van Driel's Hubristic Hornpipe is lively and fun.

This won't be a disc that appeals to everyone, but I loved the way the performers refuse to categorise so that the music flows between, and often the pieces are interesting because of the very way they set between. Throughout the performances are wonderfully vivid and engaging. Summers' tones repeatedly draw you in when she sings solo, yet she is a fine ensemble performer, and that is true for all as different lines come to the fore and recede.

Circus Dinograd - Zefir Records

Circus Dinograd
Hilary Summers (contralto)
Maarten Ornstein (bass clarinet)
Mike Fentross (theorbo, vihuela)
Dudok Quartet Amsterdam (Judith van Driel, Marleen Wester, Marie-Louise de Jong, David Faber)
Recorded at Waalse kerk, Amsterdam, 30 & 31 January, 1 February 2023

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