Lydia KAKABADSE (b 1955)
Odyssey (2018) [36:12]
The House where I was Born [2:30]
As I Sat at the Café [3:01]
Haunted Houses [4:05]
Courage [1:58]
Recitativo Arioso [5:15]
I Remember (2016) [3:01]
The Ruined Maid [3:25]
A Vision [2:29]
The Way through the Woods [1:48]
Sancte Joseph [4:01]
Cecily Beer (harp); Sara Trickey (violin)
Clare McCaldin (mezzo-soprano); Paul Turner (piano)
The Choir of Royal Holloway/Rupert Gough
rec. 2019, All Hallows’, Gospel Oak & St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, London.
Texts included
DIVINE ART DDA25188 [67:56]

I’m not familiar with the music of Lydia Kakabadse but I recall that previous discs of her music have attracted very favourable comments from my colleague Michael Wilkinson (review ~ review) so I was keen to sample her music for myself.

The main offering is the seven-movement Odyssey. Lydia Kakabadse is an alumna of Royal Holloway University of London. In 2018 the Hellenic Institute at Royal Holloway commissioned her to compose a choral work, as she explains, “to portray a musical journey through centuries of Greek history, literature and culture. The lyrics are a synthesis of Greek poetry…. representing the successive eras from Homer through to modern Hellenism.” Odyssey is not a cycle: there is no narrative thread, nor, so far as I can discern, are there any thematic links between the first six movements; rather, each movement is an individual piece though they do constitute a satisfying whole. Most of the texts are sung in English translation, though some are in the original language. Kakabadse’s music is attractive and varied. Mostly, it fits the texts well though I had difficulty with the third movement, ‘Hellenistic’. This sets lines by the Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) which depicts the reactions of the citizens of Alexandria to the news that ‘The barbarians are due here today’. Apparently, the poem is all about revelations of civic hypocrisy. I was surprised, however, that the music appears to convey no sense of anxiety about the approach of the barbarians; indeed, the music is quite cheerful. I suspect the musical tone is all to do with the pay-off at the end of the poem. The barbarians have not, in fact, come, nor will they: ‘They were, those people, a kind of solution.’ I’m sure it’s my fault that I’m missing something but there seems, on the face of it, to be something of a disconnect between words and music.

That’s emphatically not the case, however, in the following two movements. Firstly, ‘Roman’ is a setting of the text ‘Kyrie eleison’. Here the music displays links to Greek Orthodox liturgical music. It’s a compelling movement and the quality of the Royal Holloway choir is especially demonstrated at the movement’s radiant close. ‘Byzantine’ sets two hymns for a cappella choir. The music is slow, reverent and beautiful.

At the start of the final movement, ‘Modern’, Lydia Kakabadse first sets the Greek National Anthem. She then turns again to Constantine Cavafy and his poem ‘Ithaka’. I said earlier that Odyssey is not a cycle, but in her setting of Cavafy’s words Kakabadse draws the work together, partly through the device of referring to material from earlier movements but also through her textural choice. She explains that in Cavafy’s poem, Ithaka “represents the destination of a person’s journey through life [and] suggests that it is the enjoyment of the journey, rather than the destination, which is important.” So, this last movement is a summation of what has gone before and it brings Odyssey to a joyful conclusion.

Odyssey is a very appealing work and it’s extremely well served here by Rupert Gough and his excellent choir. The singing is fresh, eager and full of vitality. There are a number of important solos taken by members of the choir. All are excellent. So far as I can see, these soloists aren’t named in the booklet; they should have been. The addition of a harp is an inspired decision by the composer. The instrument is not omnipresent but whenever it is involved it adds wonderful colour to the score and always in a highly appropriate way. Cecily Beer plays expertly.

In addition to Odyssey there’s one other choral work, I Remember. Originally composed for children’s choir, we hear it now sung by the female voices of the Royal Holloway choir. They are accompanied by harp and violin and the short piece has a pleasing flow to it. It’s an attractive work. I’m sure its original young performers enjoyed the challenge of singing it.

The rest of the disc contains nine solo songs with piano accompaniment, all composed between 2018 and 2019. These are sung by the mezzo, Clare McCaldin with pianist Paul Turner in support. The songs set a wide variety of texts, authored by the likes of Charlotte Brontë (an unusual source for a song text in my experience) Henry Longfellow, Thomas Hardy and the composer herself. I can’t recall hearing Ms McCaldin before but she makes a good impression here. Her voice has a rich, warm tint to it but the richness of her timbre does not inhibit good diction. Furthermore, she sings with feeling. Unfortunately, despite her artistry, I can’t say that the songs enthused me greatly. I struggled to think why this should be so and, in the end, after quite a bit of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion that the chief problem lies in the piano accompaniment. This is absolutely no reflection on Paul Turner; the problem for me lies in the nature of the piano parts. These are pretty plain in nature and I don’t think they add any significant thematic, still less harmonic interest. That’s fitting in the last song, Sancte Joseph, where the music is deliberately spare and quasi-liturgical but, elsewhere, I longed for the piano to take a more active role in the music-making. On this evidence, Lydia Kakabadse is more effective as a composer for choirs than for solo voice.

Odyssey is well worth hearing and since my reaction to the songs is a purely subjective one, I suspect that other listeners will discover more in them than I did. The recordings have been well engineered and the booklet is comprehensive.

John Quinn (July 2020)

Previous review: Rob Barnett


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