Smooth blending of styles on `Chants'

Artists play pieces from their new CD at An die Musik

MusicReview

October 21, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Vastly different countries and cultures often can't play well together, but vastly different musical styles can be amazingly accommodating and welcoming.

Cross-pollination of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic idioms goes on all the time, from folk music forays by Brahms and Dvorak to jazzy explorations by Copland and Bernstein, not to mention stabs at musical classicism by the likes of Billy Joel and Elvis Costello.

A gradual breakdown in the once-formidable divides between Western and Eastern styles has been particularly fruitful over the years. Composers, performers and listeners on each side have found themselves pulled toward the other, usually landing in some fascinating no man's land in between, a land full of unexpected aural turns.

A case in point is Chants, Hymns and Dances, an irresistible new recording on the ECM label featuring German cellist Anja Lechner and Greek pianist/composer Vassilis Tsabropoulos, who played excerpts from the disc Tuesday night at An die Musik LIVE, the concert room of the downtown Baltimore record store.

The disc opens up a window into an ancient world of Armenian folk songs and Byzantine liturgical tunes, all gently bathed in the more contemporary light of New Age-like rumination and understated improvisation. Not quite "world music," but not exactly classical or jazz, either, the result has a welcome, even compelling distinctiveness.

Like the CD, Tuesday's concert included works composed and/or arranged by Tsabropoulos. The first of his Trois Morceaux, based on Byzantine hymns still used in Greek Orthodox services, achieves some remarkably hypnotic effects through delicate minimalistic reiteration; the second of these pieces glides unselfconsciously through pop-song chord formations, forming a lyrical ode.

The pianist has also written atmospheric arrangements of 1920s works by philosopher/composer George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who collected sacred and secular music from central and western Asia. The exotic elements here are intensified by Tsabropoulos, whose arrangements assert dance rhythms with subtle propulsion and let the cello and keyboard share equally in haunting melodies.

An die Musik's upper-floor, high-ceilinged salon, with its soothing walls and cushy chairs, proved an ideal spot to sample this mostly meditative music.

Lechner, who is just as at home with Haydn or Shostakovich, sounded deeply connected to the material and used her beautifully controlled tone to telling effect. Tsabropoulos was deep in the groove; like the cellist, he maintained expressive intensity even at the softest volume or slowest speed.

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