Heard from the next room it might be possible to confuse Sadie Harrison’s eloquently crafted compositions with the interleaved traditional Afghani music. Both styles are elegantly played and wonderfully recorded. Metier releases always sound excellent. David Lefeber has curated a catalog of consistently impressive discs. In such lofty company, this one still stands out.
The four-person Ensemble Bakhtar gets things rolling with Naghma-ye kashâl Bairami, a traditional Afghani piece intended to be played at a concert’s start. The lute-like rubâb and violin-like Pontic lyra float iridescently over harmonium and tabla. Harrison’s The Light Garden, for clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano, follows. Modeled on the Naghma-ye kashâl form (“bairami” in the preceding tune’s title signifies its mode), two contrasting styles engagingly occupy the quarter-hour. Distinctly non-European in its mode and with the occasional spoken Persian syllables, Harrison’s silvery The Light Garden forges something new and convincing from disparate cultures. The Tate Ensemble plays devotedly; this is a labor of love.
Played by Pontic lyra and tabla, a traditional Herati lovesong, Bibi Gol Afruz (“Shining Flower Lady”), relaxes the pace before Harrison’s The Fourteenth Terrace for solo clarinet and ensemble. Here, too, Harrison has concocted something special. Through several contrasting sections, the clarinet’s liquid solos propel the supporting ensemble (two violins, viola, cello, bass, piano and percussion) into a frenzy which finally finds release in a well-earned eerie conclusion. No notes are out of place. Clarinetist Andrew Sparling plays magnificently. This piece, along with Harrison’s other two, was inspired by the gardens of Afghanistan’s 16th-century warrior-poet Zahiru’d-din Muhammad Babur.
Veronica Doubleday sings the poignant lullaby Allâh Hu before solo violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved concludes Harrison’s trilogy with the fiery Bavad Khair Baqi! Bakhtar’s musicians are British, Greek and Afghani. Doubleday is a British ethnomusicologist who trained in Heart and sings in Farsi with incredible passion and expression. A desperate piece, Bavad Khair Baqi! summarizes and resolves themes and images from the trilogy’s preceding parts. Skaerved plays intensely. The music ends much too soon.
Ensemble Bahktar has the last word in luminescent Herati folksong Siah Chesm-e Khumari (“Your Captivating Black Eyes”), voice and instruments finally combining. Hit the repeat button on your CD player and let the whole disc spin two or three times. Metier has accomplished something quite remarkable with Harrison’s amazing music and the Bakhtar’s vibrant playing. Indisputably one of this year’s best.
The disc also contains a wealth of multimedia material. There are musicians’ bios with photos taken during the recording sessions. Harrison also discusses the music’s background. Included are writings and links to material about the decimated Afghani music and the surrounding political issues.