The Brodsky Album
Hinako Takagi (b. 1989)
A Song (2022)
Pablo Ortiz (b. 1956)
Brodsky, Vivaldi and Stravinsky (2022)
Nativity (2021)
Andreas Pflüger (b. 1941)
Christmas Ballad (2020)
Joan Magrané (b. 1988)
Barcarolle oubliée (2021)
Paul Suits (b. 1955)
The Saints and the Aints (2020)
Laurence Guillod (soprano), Pierre-Yves Pruvot (baritone), Zola Sudnis (narrator), Joel Bardolet (violin), Nathalie Gullung (cor anglais), Orchestre Musique des Lumières/ Facundo Agudin
rec. 2022, Salle de l’Inter, Porrentruy, Switzerland
Texts not included
IBS Classical IBS102023 [55]

The Brodsky who inspired “The Brodsky Album” is not Adolph Brodsky, the Russian violinist who premiered Tchaikovsky’s concerto, died in the unlikely setting of Manchester and inspired the naming of the eponymous (still active) string quartet. This disc instead alludes to the Russian/American writer and poet Joseph Brodsky (1940-1995) and constitutes the third volume of the IBS Classical label’s “Music and Words” project (the two previous volumes were dedicated to the writings of Julio Cortázar and Friedrich Dürrenmatt).  The series features the Swiss ensemble Orchestre Musique des Lumières, its conductor Facundo Agundin and in this case a handful of little known pan-global composers each of whom has been tasked with producing shortish (the longest is 13 minutes) pieces inspired directly or otherwise by Brodsky’s work. So it turns out to be an album of music by Japanese, Argentine, Catalan, Swiss and American composers inspired by a Russian/American writer, featuring a Swiss orchestra under an Argentine conductor on a Spanish label. Niche it may be, but in a troubled world, it certainly sets a high bar in terms of example of fertile international collaboration.

Hinako Takagi’s contribution is her setting of Brodsky’s powerfully nostalgic poem A Song, each of whose four brief stanzas begin with the couplet:
“I wish you were here, dear,/ I wish you were here….”

and whose final verse concludes, unforgettably, with:
“It’s evening, the sun is setting;/boys shout and gulls are crying./What’s the point of forgetting/if it’s followed by dying?”.

Takagi’s setting utilises soprano and a chamber orchestra which includes positive organ and theorbo (whose part is convincingly adapted for a synthesiser) in this recording. The latter provides exotic koto –like sonorities redolent of the composer’s homeland and blends intriguingly with soft pastel harmonies, atmospheric woodwind flurries and string lines which encompass the whole gamut between modernistic gesturing and sentimental rhapsodising. It could be a delightful, stylistically pluralistic little piece but the sonics here do it few favours. The Swiss soprano Laurence Guillod is placed very front and centre whilst the balances are rather strange, at some points favouring the voice and at others concealing it. Nor is Guillod’s English diction particularly convincing; this creates a real problem for the listener as the full text is not provided (although it’s pretty straightforward to find it online).

Pablo Ortiz offers a couple of pieces. The miniature melodrama Brodsky, Vivaldi and Stravinsky incorporates a somewhat mystical episode from the author’s essay on Venice, Watermark. This is narrated (in Russian) by the cellist Zoia Sudnis (who created the concept of this disc) over an orchestral accompaniment led by Nathalie Gullung’s lyrical cor anglais. Whilst Ortiz’s textures convincingly evoke the Venetian murk interpolated with hints of mature Stravinsky, much is once again lost in (the absence of) translation. Later in the programme Ortiz’s setting of Brodsky’s poem Nativity for soprano (Laurence Guillod again) involves a rather jagged and impenetrable string dominated accompaniment, shaded by hazy and heavy organ colours whose intermittent hints of beauty are crowded out by a cavernous production and yet more indistinct diction from the soprano – although to be fair to her Brodsky’s poem on this occasion involves more complex English constructions which hardly suits this type of song setting. Even with the words to hand one struggles to enjoy this stodgy reading.

Brodsky adored Christmas and famously produced a new poem during the festive period each year, resulting in corpus of thirty or so Nativity Poems. An earlier example is the Christmas Ballad of 1962 which features here in a setting by the veteran Swiss composer Andreas Pflüger. The orchestral forces required this time include a zither (again synthesised) plus two voices with the baritone Pierre-Yves Pruvot joining Guillod. The poem here is longer than Nativity and again the language of the English translation is far from straightforward, although both singers make a decent fist of the text, although most listeners will still require a copy of the poem to hand. Pflüger’s instrumental writing projects impressive coherence and provides an atmospheric and lucid counterpoint for Brodsky’s evocative imagery. The leaner arrangement also seems easier to manage from an engineering perspective. The image is less bloated and resonant and ensures that Christmas Ballad is the most successfully realised of the five vocal items on the disc.

It is followed by the one purely instrumental number, Joan Magrané’s Barcarolle oubliée for violin and fourteen solo strings. Watermark again provides inspiration for the composer; in this case Magrané was much taken by a scene in the book which refers to the narrator alighting at Venice’s railway station on a foggy winter morning. The orchestral introduction recreates this rather gloomy awakening, only when Joel Bardolet’s solo violin emerges from this aural haze does the listener become aware that this is indeed a barcarolle of sorts; on this occasion the playing of the Orchestre des Lumières and the recording do full justice to the music.

The American composer Paul Suits is in his late sixties; his attractive cycle The Saints and the Aints concludes the disc and incorporates settings of five of Brodsky’s poems whose binding thread is urban dislocation and loneliness. The title is a line from Cafe Trieste: San Francisco, a poem which encapsulates Brodsky’s eventual mastery of the American vernacular and in so doing reinforces the problems that will inevitably be faced by potential listeners to this disc without access to the texts, not to mention the obstacles faced by Guillod and Pruvot in interpreting them. For the record the other four texts are identified in the booklet but I found it impossible to source them online. I wonder if there are copyright issues which have prevented their reproduction in the booklet? Either way, I’m afraid my appreciation of what appeared at first hearing to be a fine sequence is almost fatally undermined. Guillod’s and Pruvot’s delivery proves only intermittently decipherable, a shame given that Suits’ ear for melody and colour is obvious. His style owes much to Britten but the influence has at least been fully assimilated and his music swings and flows pleasingly. I have been sufficiently impressed by my first exposure to his music to seek out further examples.

Ultimately I have found my encounter with The Brodsky Album to be frustrating in the extreme. Notwithstanding my beefs about the lack of texts, the items by Takagi and Ortiz are undermined by cluttered sonics; this is not so problematic in the other items – although I really cannot say whether that is due to the cleaner arrangements of the composers, more focused engagement from the orchestra or simply tweaks in the recording process. It is a shame though that the only piece that fully convinced me was the single non-vocal item, Joan Magrané’s Barcarolle oubliée. Readers will draw their own conclusions.

Richard Hanlon

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