Cygnus Ensemble’s Ab Nou Cor Crosses All Boundaries
Indie classical outfit Cygnus Ensemble has a fascinatingly eclectic collection of Frank Brickle chamber works titled Ab Nou Cor out recently on Innova. They call it “neo-medieval psychedelia.” That’s actually not a bad way to describe at least some of this. The best way to start is not with the original compositions but with the new arrangements of a couple of fairly well known pieces from the 13th and 18th centuries. Perotin’s famous early medieval choral work Sederunt Principes has never sounded more modern. Utilizing the whole ensemble – guitarists William Anderson and Oren Fader (who also employ period stringed instruments here), cellist Susannah Chapman, oboeist Robert Ingliss, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, violinist Calvin Wiersma and pianist Joan Forsyth – they highlight portions of the old madrigal to bring out a seemingly global range of influences, from a stately Spanish court theme (shades of Miles Davis) to a jaunty, practically Celtic dance. They also reinvent Ferrucio Busoni’s Berceuse Elegiaque as a warped Pavane for a Dead Infant with thoughtful handoffs between voices and some memorably rumbling and then eerily starlit (and probably extemporaneous) piano from Forsyth.
In addition to composition, Brickle is also an inventor whose pioneering work in software-based radio won him a government contract. Not that you need to be aware of that to see how disparate his interests are. The opening track is the first of a handful of partitas: a syncopated cello/theorbo dance, a dramatic third-stream jazz interlude with soprano Haleh Abghari soaring overhead, a return to the theme with the guitar dancing over a cello pedal note, a briefly somber interlude setting up a waltz theme with considerably more restrained vocals. Could this or some of the other works here have been composed for the theatre?
They certainly sound that way, especially The Creation, a Towneley Mystery Play. This number clocks in at around thirteen minutes of tension between dramatic consonance and airy atonality featuring high-voltage flourishes from Abghari, a couple of brief, brooding piano/strings interludes and a deliciously creepy, music box-style crescendo that leads to a concluding rondo. They explore jazz on Midnight Round, its hypnotic, elegantly fingerpicked interplay between the guitarists echoing Redhooker’s adventures in that field. Merlin I evokes Roy Wood’s explorations of moody medieval fretwork and then sees the ambience shattered by Abghari’s piercing, unnervingly atonal leaps and bounds.
As much as Brickle likes to explore multiple genres within a lengthy suite, he also likes vignettes. The title track is a rather insistent, brief work for theorbo and voice; the stately, pleasantly steady, rather skeletal Teutonic concluding cut featuring the same instrumentation. There’s also the murky piano miniature In Media Res with its striking low/high contasts, and Genius Loci, a delicately interwoven thicket of twin acoustic guitars.
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