In [the Casos Sonnets] the island is personified, and the eight sonnets constitute a questioning, probing and existential dialogue between the island and Swann. They are, collectively, the key to his whole experience and to the rest of the music on this release. I suggest that you turn first to the last eight tracks, where you can hear Swann himself recite his verses above his own piano accompaniment, captured in less-than-professional but highly serviceable sound. Swann does the same on track 1 (Casos Sonnet 1), but is there far better recorded and performs above a more sophisticated accompaniment provided by saxophonist Bill Skeat.
Donald Swann’s last Greek foray took place in 1993, the year before his death. He made very fine and harmonically adept piano settings of his collection of folk tunes, both found and created. John Jansson later selected and orchestrated this collection of Swann’s music, grouping it under the title The Isles of Greece. His orchestrations are resourceful, appropriately spare or sumptuous where needed.
Donald Swann was a serious composer, but one profoundly out of sync with the prevailing trends of his time. Given the achievements of Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez (let alone Arnold Schoenberg) – I say this as their still unabashed champion – this stuff is decidedly retrograde, tuneful music in an atonal and otherwise ever more complex world. Good music can sound good and still be good. It’s happened before!
Isms come and go. They are created by people for all kinds of reasons. In Swann’s deeply humanistic and utterly disarming music and poetry, he, in his unprepossessing way, tries to get at the reasons they are created in the first place. The result is a wonderful excursion – beautifully conducted, sung, and played – into forthrightly tonal music and poetry that are disarmingly direct and simplistic in the way that Whitman is simplistic.
There are a few minor flaws in this recording [refers to slight occasional indistinct stereophony tracks 1&2] . These are however minor quibbles put forth by an unrepentant audiophile about an otherwise technically impeccable offering. My main criticism of this release is that it has effectively wreaked havoc on my reviewing schedule. Each day I go down to my word processor, hell-bent on achieving my self-imposed quota, and each day I instead cue up this CD to hear just a few tracks, and find myself once again helplessly sitting there, mesmerised, until it’s over.
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