Jay Vilnai’s Shakespeare Songs: Dark Otherworldly Intensity
Jay Vilnai may be best known as an eclectic, intense guitarist and connoisseur of gypsy music. He’s also a formidable composer, most recently reaffirmed by his new collection, Shakespeare Songs, a setting of six Shakespeare texts sung with counterintuitive relish by soprano Gelsey Bell over the often downright creepy strings of the Mivos String Trio. Much of this is sort of a missing link between Rasputina and Bernard Herrmann.
The Mourning Song from Cymbeline matches an austerely aching string melody to soulfully apprehensive vocals. Set to a stately, insistent rhythm, it’s a brooding reflection on mortality, with just enough bracing atonality to give the dirge a genuinely creepy otherworldliness. The second cut, To Dream Again is a vignette anchored by stark lo/hi contrast between cello and violin. Sigh No More (from Much Ado About Nothing, Act II, Scene 2), a slow waltz fueled by pizzicato cello, has Bell adding a strikingly melismatic, soul-inflected quality: she gets the max out of her occasional flights as it builds with understated counterpoint and hints at vaudeville. Rather than “converting all your sounds of woe,” as the Bard suggests, the song plays up the pain of the past, with a deliciously creepy outro.
There’s also a wry humor here, particularly in Behind the Door (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene 1), its clever mimicry, ghostly ambience and ethereal overtones making a marvelously nocturnal backdrop for the ghoulish lyric:
Now it is the time of night
That the graves all gaping wide
Every one lets forth his sprite
In the church-way paths to glide
It it grows to a march with clever counterpoint and a deadpan horror-movie conclusion. Likewise, I Have Drunk and Seen the Spider, from The Winter’s Tale, Act II, Scene 1 – a Melora Creager-esque spoken-word piece – playfully looks at the power of suggestion. The final track is an operatic take on the old folk song Hey Ho the Wind and the Rain, its shifting astringencies making a marvelously menacing contrast with the blitheness of the melody. The musicianship is understated, with nuanced dynamics by the entire ensemble: Joshua Modney on violin, Victor Lowrie on viola and Isabel Castellvi (also of exhilirating worldbeat string band Copal) on cello. Throughout the songs, Vilnai’s arrangements are strikingly terse and economical, not to mention memorable – indie classical doesn’t get any better than this.
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