"It would be an easy job," read the notes, "to construct a musical family tree with branches linking each of the composers on this disc." And, as if to prove how easy, five pages of track-by-track annotation follow. For worshippers seeking music to quench their adoration-thirsty souls, however, the background information can wait. Whether a cappella or accompanied by organ, the Sixteen convey with selections both familiar (Parry-Blake's "Jerusalem," two settings of Psalm 23) and less familiar the depths with (and to) which still waters proverbially run.
If the quatrains from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám that inspired Arthur Foote's Op. 41 have people wondering why this album is called An American Mirage, the subtitle-Exotic Piano Images by Beach, Copland, Foote, Griffes, MacDowell, and Nevin-provides a partial answer. The juxtaposition of these solo-piano works, composed between 1892 and 1930 and ably rendered by Dr. Schempf, evoke a fantasy dreamed by Americans rather than the American dream and therefore seem less of a piece as music than as a 71-minute emotional travelogue.
If the term didn't imply imprecision, one might call these 10 lute-showcasing exemplars of the Italian Renaissance "loose." Indeed, Lislevand's arrangements even contain room for his supporting musicians to explore the 16th-century melodies with that loosest of performance techniques: improvisation. Some of the songs have words and feature the astringently dulcet singing of one of two female vocalists. Some of the songs don't have words and feature their singing too. What does it all sound like? Old World Christmas music, to name just one of many wonder-evoking things.
While Kashkashian's viola gets (and deserves) top billing, the first sound to arrest the attention is An Raskin's organ, which turns out to be an accordion, that least ceremonial of lowbrow instruments, enlisted here for the deeply ceremonial "Neharót Neharót," a 2006 Betty Olivero composition meant to convey the river of tears shed "by mourning women" over Israeli-Palestinian warfare. Other subjects ennobled by Kashkashian's weeping instrument: "holy Mount Ararat" (Tigran Manchurian's "Three Arias"), the third meal of the Sabbath (Eitan Steinberg's "Rava Deravin"), and sleep (Komitas' "Oror").
Albums like Starry Night Project: Music Based on Visual Art (MSR Classics) by the Boston quintet Montage Music Society are more or less win-win propositions. Even if the music or the visual masterpieces that inspired it fall short of doing each other justice, the time their respective audiences spend concluding as much will result in a heightened appreciation for not only both media but also the exclusivity of their respective domains.
Comprising 19 paintings-based compositions by four contemporary composers, Starry Night attempts to capture in sound (specifically, the sound of violin, cello, viola, clarinet, and piano) the experience of viewing paintings (each of which the booklet reproduces) by Van Gogh, Rousseau, Picasso, Ensor, Matisse, Dali, Mondrian, Breughel, Degas, Seurat, Rivers, O'Keefe, and Gauguin-to translate, in other words, vision into sound. The project succeeds almost too well: Rather than merely paying aural tribute to the paintings, the music actually stands on its own, thereby rendering the paintings all but superfluous.