Concertato (2017) is British composer Lydia Kakabadse’s third CD release. Four of the six works on the CD—The Coachman’s Terror, Dance Sketches, Cantus Planus, and Recitativo Arioso + Variations — are scored for a string quartet that includes a double bass instead of a second violin. Kakabadse is a double bass player, and she believes that the instrument’s distinctive tone quality adds richness and color to the quartet’s sonority. The term concertato refers to the Italian Baroque style characterized by the contrast or interaction between two or more groups of instruments or voices, and this idea permeates the album generally.
Kakabadse draws on her multinational heritage (Russian/Georgian father and Greek/Austrian mother) as well as her love of early music. She has studied and taught Middle Eastern and Greek dancing, both of which influence the melodic scales, ornamentations, and rhythms in her work. Although the CD is primarily instrumental, much of her oeuvre is choral and vocal; her engagement with poetry and language is evident through the programmatic elements that drive the instrumental forms on this album.
The opening quartet, The Coachman’s Terror, is a five-movement programmatic piece based on Alexander Pushkin’s poem Devils (1830), which tells the story of a coachman led off the path by devils during a blizzard; he and his master become stranded and are tormented by evil spirits. The quartet, the longest on the CD, effectively creates the sense of ominous doom through the prominent use of the low register and legato playing, and it clearly depicts the natural elements such as the wind. The first movement, “snow storms gather,” sets up a dark atmosphere with deep, resonant layers of sound. A bass ostinato suggests the horse’s movements, while fast arpeggios and figurations in the higher register suggest the swirling snow. The melodic material throughout is lovely, and Kakabadse incorporates Arabic scales along with traditional Western harmony. The various movements, however, were difficult to differentiate from each other since they share so much of the same scalar and textural material and are not strongly contrasting in tempo or meter. By trying to structure the piece around the narrative of the poem, the composer was forced to craft separate movements, when the work might have been more effective as a continuous tone poem.
The second piece, Dance Sketches, includes three dances. The first, “Arabian Folk Dance,” features an Arabic scale (double-harmonic scale), melodic embellishments, and a bass pizzicato that creates an engaging syncopated pattern. The next, “Stately Court Dance,” appropriately uses a smooth legato motion, and the third, “Dance of the Clockwork Toys,” provides humor when the toys come to life; they stop dancing, however, when the music becomes too fast for them.
Concertato is a four-movement duet with virtuosic writing for both cello and double bass. Kakabadse explains her use of the title in the liner notes: Concertato “comes from the Latin concertare meaning ‘to fight’ or ‘contend with.’ Each instrument competes on equal terms, rather than in a master-servant relationship.” All four movements are andante, though with slight changes of tempo; therefore, while the melodies are beautiful and the sound of the two instruments together is resonant and lovely, the work, like the previous one, does not seem to have enough differentiation between the four movements. The duet, however, has many highlights in addition to the attractive melodies and rich sonorities such as the contrast between pizzicato and arco, the contrapuntal interplay between the two instruments, and the interesting imitative passages within the double-harmonic scale.
Two Chamber Songs, scored for the same string quartet plus mezzo soprano, include “Spellbound” (1837), on a text by Emily Brontë, and “Eldorado” (1849), on a text by Edgar Allan Poe. Both songs set the mood of the poems through use of bass ostinatos and register changes. In “Spellbound,” some of the text in verse three fits awkwardly into the primarily strophic melody, with the voice being obscured frequently by the strings due to their respective registers. “Eldorado” makes fascinating use of Arabic ornamentation and pizzicato textures. In her liner notes, Kakabadse emphasizes the programmatic nature of both settings, in which she uses certain instruments, registers, drones, and sequences for a somewhat literal textual painting. Mezzo soprano Jess Dandy has a rich, dark, well-tuned voice, but it is almost impossible to understand the words. Fortunately, the texts are included in the liner notes.
The three movements of Cantus Planus represent three canonical hours of prayer: “Matins” (the first canonical hour, during the night) is the darkest in tone; “Lauds” (the second canonical hour, at dawn) has a faster surface rhythm and engaging antiphonal play between the instruments; and “Vespers” (the seventh canonical hour, at evening) emphasizes the principal theme as it passes from instrument to instrument. The music is in the Aeolian mode and was inspired by medieval music and Greek orthodox music. Kakabadse composed the beautiful work around the time of her mother’s passing (liner notes).
Kakabadse writes that Recitativo Arioso + Variations was adapted, in part, from an earlier work with different instrumentation. It is primarily in C minor, with a few abrupt switches to the parallel major that sound jarring and out of context. Recitativo Arioso begins with a dramatic recitative with tremolos in the lower strings and proceeds to a statement of the first theme in the low register of the violin, which is followed by the simple folk-like second theme in the cello. The first variation is more energetic with staccato and fast passage work, while the second variation brings in some of the Arabic embellishments that are characteristic of her work.
Throughout the CD, Sound Collective’s performance is superb. The quality of the recording is excellent. Apart from the enunciation problems in the songs, the musical production is exemplary. In addition, the CD booklet is well-written and informative. It includes notes about each piece that help the listener understand the programmatic elements of the music, texts for songs, and information about the composer and the performers. It also includes photos of the composer and performers, plus a photo of the recording session.
The CD demonstrates that Kakabadse has a strong command of writing for string instruments, as she draws on multiple stops, sul ponticello, shifts between arco and pizzicato, and the use of mutes. She also has a well-developed ability to integrate diverse elements such as Arabic and medieval scales, embellishments with tonal harmony, drones, ostinatos, and various textures. Her melodic material is very attractive, and the pieces are rich and resonant; my only criticism, as mentioned above, is that the movements, in two of the compositions, sound too similar.
Journal of the IAWM (International Alliance for Women in Music) – Spring 2018