Thursday 29 February 2024

Music that is vividly alive & vibrant, yet requires concentration & dedication to listen to: Anselm McDonnell's Kraina

Anselm McDonnell: Kraina; oshua Ellicott, tenor, Laura Sinnerton, viola, Dermot Dunne, accordion; Rebecca Murphy, soprano, Cahal Masterson, piano; Elizabeth Hilliard, soprano, Alan Smale, violin, Annette Cleary, cello, Rachel Quinn, piano; Nicole Rourke, spoken word, Dermot Dunne, accordion

Anselm McDonnell: Kraina; Joshua Ellicott, Laura Sinnerton, Dermot Dunne, Rebecca Murphy, Cahal Masterson, Elizabeth Hilliard, Alan Smale,  Annette Cleary, Rachel Quinn, Nicole Rourke, Dermot Dunne;
Reviewed 26 February 2024

New music for voice and instruments tackling the complex and the difficult, creating music that is more than just a song, and pushing performers to emotional and expressive limits.

Kraina is a word in Old Polish meaning edge, borderland, or frontier. Belfast-based composer Anselm McDonnell's latest disc, Kraina, is his second album, released on his own label [see my review of Light of Shore, McDonnell's first disc]. The new disc features four works for voice and instruments (I hesitate to call them songs, some are far more substantial than that), all concerned with the edges and crevices around home: depicting people searching for home, caught between homes, or our destructive relationship with our planetary home. The performers are Joshua Ellicott, tenor, Laura Sinnerton, viola, and Dermot Dunne, accordion; Rebecca Murphy, soprano and Cahal Masterson, piano; Elizabeth Hilliard, soprano, Alan Smale, violin, Annette Cleary, cello and Rachel Quinn, piano; Nicole Rourke, spoken word and Dermot Dunne, accordion.

The opening work sets Anna Friedrich’s poem Her Name is Sorrow, performed by tenor Joshua Ellicott with Laura Sinnerton (viola) and Dermot Dunne (accordion). McDonnell describes it thus, "The earth is depicted as a giantess in conversation with humanity, taking us on a tour of rivers, seas, and coral reefs full of waste and rubbish". So, didactic and political, but McDonnell has created a vivid scena, vibrantly sung by Joshua Ellicott, whilst the accompaniment from Laura Sinnerton (viola) and Dermot Dunne (accordion) is more than just support. The three performers interact and combine to create some vivid and fascinating sound worlds, reflecting the intensity and variety of Friedrich's poem.

The song-cycle Kraina sets texts selected by Belfast-based author Aleksandra Łojek which explore the challenges of displacement in the Polish diaspora, particularly for those who arrived in Northern Ireland during the height of the Troubles. Performed by soprano Rebecca Murphy and pianist Cahal Masterson, the cycle consists of four movements, setting text in both Polish and English. Jeżeli Porcelana is almost a dramatic scene, the voice uncompromising declamation against the imaginative piano sound-world. By contrast the upbeat The House on the Interface, reflects the way optimism can mask confusion, the result is determinedly perky yet somewhat disturbing, whilst the vocal line pushes Murphy's voice to its upper limits. The third song, Kraina looks back on a homeland with somewhat rose-tinted glasses, lifting it into the heights of fantasy, pitting a lyrical almost ecstatic vocal line against opulent piano, though as things develop the music gets more disturbing, the soloist more on edge. The Polish Immigrant returns to English and with its driving beat in the piano creates an atmosphere redolent of restlessness and frustration.

The next item is far more than a song. A setting of Andrew Roycroft’s poem Common Places, it lasts over 12 minutes with soprano Elizabeth Hilliard accompanied by piano trio (Alan Smale, Annette Cleary, Rachel Quinn). We begin with driving, obsessive rhythms on the piano punctuated by jagged moments from the strings, but when Hilliard's soprano comes in time seems suspended. Words are less important here, or rather diction, instead Hilliard uses her voice and the individual syllables to create a series of colours in a way that is almost instrumental. Like the earlier cycle, Common Places sometimes revels in seeing how far it can push Hilliard's voice, and she gives a wonderfully assured performance with highly involved performances from the instrumentalists.

Pollen, Blood, and Seaspray uses Euan Tait’s poetic prose which is a response to a passage from Joyce’s Ulysses where Stephen Dedalus ambles along Sandymount Strand, flitting between elusive philosophical ideas and pondering (among other things) his parentage and creation. Set for speaker, Nicole Rourke, and Dermot Dunne's accordion. Nicole Rourke's narration is wonderfully direct but against this is the vivid sound of Dunne's accordion, often not sounding like that instrument at all (and I presume there is a level of electronics to the piece). The result is a vivid tone-picture that almost solves the challenge of melodrama whereby the spoken word automatically draws the ear away from the music. Here McDonnell has written a sound-track that seems to demand attention.

Finally comes Moving House, setting a text by Donegal poet Leland Bardwell, the piece depicts the weariness and fatigue of constantly moving home, performed by Rebecca Murphy and Cahal Masterson. A restless piano is pitted against a vocal line that is full of coloratura extravagance,

Anselm McDonnell's work on the disc seems to revel in tackling the complex and the difficult, creating music that is more than just song, and pushing his performers to emotional and expressive limits. The result is music that is vividly alive and vibrant, yet at the same time requires concentration and dedication to listen to. This disc is one to dip into rather than listening from beginning to end, or at least I found the experience overwhelmingly intense.

Anselm McDonnell (born 1994) - Her Name is Sorrow - Joshua Ellicott, tenor; Laura Sinnerton, viola; Dermot Dunne, accordion
Anselm McDonnell - Kraina - Rebecca Murphy, soprano; Cahal Masterson, piano
Anselm McDonnell - Common Places - Elizabeth Hilliard, soprano; Alan Smale, violin; Annette Cleary, cello; Rachel Quinn, piano
Anselm McDonnell - Pollen, Blood, and Seaspray - Nicole Rourke, spoken word; Dermot Dunne, accordion
Anselm McDonnell - Moving House - Rebecca Murphy, soprano; Cahal Masterson, piano

Kraina is available from BandCamp.

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