Reviews by Todd Michel McComb
The latest release from Kereshmeh joins recordings devoted to Faramarz Payvar (on Al Sur 164) and Madjid Kiani (on Harmonia Mundi 190.395) as readily available, top quality releases devoted to the santur in solo performance. The santur is the native Iranian ancestor of what became the hammered dulcimer in Europe, and Parviz Meshkatian is one of its most distinguished exponents. Like Kereshmeh's previous release, this is a remastered version of older recordings. The first section in Dastgah Segah is taken from a studio recording which culminates in the original "Dawn" sequence which lends its title to the CD, while the second section is a live performance in Dastgah Homayoun. Both an influential composer and ensemble leader, Meshkatian brings a highly advanced technique to the solo santur. He is able to maintain perfect rhythm and touch at the fastest tempos, and combines this with a well-controled resonance which evokes the sound of an absent vocalist. It is easy to hear distant echoes in each of these performances, and that is perhaps the surest sign of traditional success. On the more innovative side, Meshkatian is able to produce a dialog with himself, giving the performance an embryonic polyphony. On this point, it is perhaps fruitful to remember that the hammered dulcimer was one of the inspirations for the piano. Beyond this, Dawn is no mere showpiece. It combines glittering technique with a force of expression. The second half of the program provides more lyrical depth, something which is lacking at times during the fast sequences of the first half. Parviz Meshkatian is accompanied by Nasser Farhangfar, one of the most accomplished Iranian tombak players, in the first section of the program. The originality and strength of the rhythmic ideas is enough to make this recording heartily recommendable to anyone interested in percussion. Nasser Farhangfar's technique is compelling for its lyrical quality and subtlety, lending support to Meshkatian without self-consciously dominating the texture. Able accompaniment is provided by Jamshid Mohebi for the second half of the program. There are some small sonic deficiencies to the original tapes, affecting mostly the acoustic space of the recording. However, the remastering has been handled expertly, allowing the sparkling sonorities (especially in the first part) to come through clearly. Altogther, while not a landmark release, this CD provides a welcome opportunity to hear another style of santur playing in quality performance.
Todd M. McComb
The Abu-Ata Concert
Upon being asked to review this recording, my immediate reaction was simply: "How am I supposed to evaluate one of the greatest performances of the 20th century?" Of course, as many readers will know, the Abu-Ata Concert of Shajarian & Lotfi was widely acclaimed in Iran long before Kereshmeh Records gave more people the opportunity to hear it. It was recorded in Teheran in 1981, in the wake of political disturbances which saw Lotfi himself arrested hours before the concert.
Beyond the setting, Shajarian (voice) & Lotfi (tar) are two undisputed masters of Iranian classical music. With their immense influence, they define reviews more than they are subject to them. My high admiration for this performance cannot do more than affirm its stature. In short, there is no better place to start an exploration of Iranian classical music than here.
The technical prowess of Lotfi's instrumental support -- the crisp articulation and perfectly placed slurs, the carefully judged changes in instrumental color, the melodies set in dialog without either losing its identity -- is barely the beginning of his talent as a musician. His ability to play fast virtuoso passages in precise rhythm is buoyed by the emotionally charged emphasis he gives to the pauses and slower passages between. There is never the sense that he is merely waiting to play a more demanding passage, but rather that he is absorbed in the moment and that the most intricate instrumental colors merely flow from his instrument as the performance unfolds. The strength of formal constraints is shown fully in this ability to progress spontaneously yet be invigorated by structural points which flow as if destined.
Yet when Shajarian sings, he dominates one's attention. The power and flexibility of his voice allow the most demanding passages to be executed with ease, leaving only the emotive strength of the poem shining through. He captivates with nuances, imparting subtle sonorities to different words and phrases. Above all, it is the exquisitely balanced phrasing and impeccable timing when rendering these songs which command attention and mark him as the foremost classical vocalist. The articulation is accomplished completely without melodrama or exaggeration, but rather rests firmly on a supreme confidence in the music itself. The Hafez poem featured in this performance becomes charged with meaning, not only from the surrounding events but also through respect honored over centuries.
The performance as a whole is both timely and timeless. The lack of self-conscious presentation allows the music to be absorbed easily and then to explode in the mind. It resonates deeply such that one cannot help but be captivated. I can only imagine what those attending the concert must have felt.
The production by Kereshmeh features informative liner notes, fine graphic design and nice photos. While the sound quality of the original recording can be discerned as a defect, the final result remains above average for world music recordings. Actually, the music itself is so captivating that one must make a conscious effort to notice the recording quality, which is a bit murky. This is easily the most important record of Iranian classical music produced in the United States.
Todd M. McComb
Kereshmeh Records KCD-106
Once again, I am honored to review a new release from Kereshmeh.While I have slowly gained some familiarity with what might be called "classical" Iranian music, the present recording represents a tradition altogether new to me. This is not music backed by institutions or written codifications, nor does it use the familiar dastgah structure. Rather this is an example of one of the numerous traditional styles housed in Iran. Many Western readers may not be familiar with the illustrious history of Khorasan (Northeast Iran, extending into Afghanistan & Turkmenistan), a region which not only has produced one of the world's most significant spiritual & cultural legacies, but continues to be one of the most populous in Iran. This significance extends to antiquity, for it is said that Zoroaster came from Khorasan, and continues unabated into the Medieval era with the lavish Turkish sultanate of Balkh and the medieval poets of Arab-dominated Central Asia. Unfortunately, Khorasan also felt the full force of Tammerlane.
Having been a crossroads for so long, the population of Iranian Khorasan continues to be extremely diverse, including native speakers of Persian, Turkish, Kurdish & Arabic. In fact, although Turkish himself, Haj Ghorban Soleimani sings in each of the first three languages on this recording. Indeed, that is one of the demands of his profession -- that of a bard in Khorasan, someone committed to telling traditional stories in music & poetry. The profession is an ancient one and continues a tenuous existence throughout Central Asia (from Iran into China), with related traditions in Turkey & the Near-East.
The dotar -- a long, pear-shaped, plucked, two-string lute -- is ubiquitous to Central Asia. As opposed to the related classical tradition of Uzbekistan, where silk string are still used, Haj Ghorban Soleimani has switched to steel strings. Perhaps this places us most squarely in Iran, with the sparkling timbres so characteristic of the Iranian classical tradition. The dotar (sometimes in duet with Alireza Soleimani, Haj Ghorban's son) is present throughout the recording; it is also perhaps most easy to appreciate the musical virtuosity in its playing. Soleimani's playing is extremely forceful, yet perfectly precise even in the fastest passages. The insistent rhythms lend a hypnotic quality, accentuated by the small figures and slurs which interrupt them to exquisite effect.
As opposed to the dastgah-s of Iranian classical music, Soleimani's tradition employs melodic figures (called maqam-s, as in so many other places) which are identified with narrative episodes. Even in the purely instrumental performances, they are carefully evocative of epic or religious poetry. This melodic structure, combined with the forceful & sharp-timbred instrumental performance, is perhaps most easily compared to the Kurdish traditional music coming out of Northern Iraq & Western Iran (and here we are blessed with several recorded examples). However, as opposed to the headlong forward momentum of the Kurds, Soleimani employs the backbeat so characteristic of Central Asia, lending the surreal hypnotic tone to his accompaniment.
Despite the strength of the dotar, it is still Soleimani's voice which effectively dominates the performance. It is set sharply in relief, and sparkles with a commanding air. The diction is unusual, with its frequently jagged rhythms contrasting sharply with the steady dotar. The voice often functions as emphatic punctuation or subtle transition within the overall melodic scheme. For someone such as myself, with no knowledge of Turkish and only a small smattering of Persian, it is impossible to fully appreciate what is obviously a strongly narrative tradition. However, these songs -- almost recitations more than melodies -- are so forceful that I find myself deeply affected by them, despite the fact that I have little idea what they mean.
Altogether, the particular combination of dotar & vocals is unique in my experience. Haj Ghorban Soleimani's performance is strongly compelling, in a way that sneaks up on the listener. His music is deeply infused with both passion and introspection, remarkable in their simultaneous coexistence and indeed the strength they draw from each other. It is quickly obvious that Soleimani is one of the world's great traditional musicians, performing with an assurance that comes only from complete immersion and decades of experience. Although this tradition is dwindling fast, he makes no concessions when presenting it in its strongest form. In short, this is a landmark musical experience. Kereshmeh is to be doubly commended, both for giving us a fine musical experience and creating a valuable historical document.
As always, the production & design meet the most demanding standards of excellence. Recorded at Soleimani's home in Khorasan, the sound is clear and intimate. The liner notes are informative (although one could wish for full lyrics, or at least a firm list of which songs are in which language) and well-written. All in all, this is the sort of release which demands comparison with some of productions of the dominant labels in the field: Auvidis Unesco & Ocora, both for its quality and its significance.
Todd Michel McComb
I continue to have the good fortune of being able to review recordings from Kereshmeh Records prior to general release, and so participate indirectly in the introduction of some fine Iranian classical music to the US and elsewhere. As most of you know, Iran has one of the oldest and most distinguished artistic cultures in the world; the roots of ancient Persian music continue to be re-energized by the explorations of the current generation of musicians.
The latest release from Kereshmeh Records is another recording of the great composer & performer, Hossein Alizadeh: Live at the Los Angeles Festival, KCD-105. Questions about how best to obtain this recording should be addressed to Shahrokh Yadegari .
The last two releases from Kereshmeh have featured orchestral compositions of Alizadeh -- one of which adopts Western instruments and forms. This release returns to solo instrumental performance (with percussion accompaniment), in the most serious tradition of Iranian music. Here Alizadeh improvises on the setar, a high-pitched plucked-string instrument (as opposed to the lower-pitched tar); tombak accompaniment is provided by Madjid Khaladj.
Around the beginning of this century, the traditional melodies of Persian music were written down and tabulated by such masters as Ali-Akbar Farahani & Mirza Hossein Gholi into a body called the "radif". This explicit compilation was an attempt to save Iranian traditional music from the corrosive effects of our time, and most improvisations today are closely constrained to follow the melodic sequences of the radif. As opposed to most Iranian improvisatory performances, which proceed through relatively fixed melodic sequences often in specific rhythms, Alizadeh attempts a freer exposition along similar principles. The present performance is an improvisation in Dastgah-e Nava (although it actually ends in Avaz Bayat-e Kord).
By way of a traditional justification, Alizadeh explicitly states that while many melodic patterns were written down, he believes that rhythmic elements were sacrificed to notation in the compilation of the body of the radif. He believes that this has needlessly constrained performers, and indeed that freer choice of melodic sequences and more complicated rhythms is the more classical approach to performance. In this, Alizadeh retains the spirit of the radif, but provides a more varied exposition. The result is highly charged and invigorating.
Of course, the obvious question becomes: How successful is Alizadeh at evoking the classical tradition as well as integrating his own ideas within his chosen format? In my opinion, he is phenomenally successful. As always, his playing is extremely colorful and rich in harmonic detail. The greater rhythmic variety and modulation is a welcome change from some performances which seem almost bound by a rhythmic straight-jacket. This recording would make an excellent introduction to Iranian solo instrumental performance for many readers.
I'd also like to suggest that Indian readers who are curious about the alleged Persian influences on Hindustani music have a listen to this recording, and potentially gain an insight into what the early khayal performers heard in Persian music.
It remains to offer some criticism of Alizadeh's performance. Although one cannot dispute the potency of his forceful presentation, accompanied as it is by such colorful virtuosity, he does comparatively neglect the introspective elements typical of Iranian classical performances -- especially given that the mode is Nava. In this sense, it is easy to say that, in the more straight-forward expositions, the radif generally functions less as a "straight-jacket" and more as a delineated boundary from which to reflect one's own thoughts. In this performance, Alizadeh's position is typical of artists who loosen formal demands -- the greater freedom leaves one standing on one's own. Of course, Alizadeh also claims to be *more* classical than the radif; that statement cannot be appraised.
I certainly look forward to hearing Alizadeh's future endeavors, hopefully addressing other facets of the classical modes. His genuine creativity and classical motivation are indisputable.
Finally, a few words should be said about the production quality. The graphic design continues to impress, while the liner notes are informative. The recording quality is also first-rate, especially given the difficulty of producing a live recording in what is evidently a very large sonic space. However, details remain clear and the charged atmosphere is apparent.
Iranian traditional music is modal and monophonic in form, the strict classical tradition being based on a codified set of related melodies called the Radif. A typical performance would consist of a selection of melodies/sequences (gushe-s) in one mode, linked by improvisation and augmented by compositional sequences or poetry. Traditionally, the most serious expositions were by a single melodic soloist (usually accompanied by percussion), sometimes with a second melody instrument.
In recent decades, orchestral performances (on traditional Iranian instruments) are quite common. However, these ensembles will typically play every melody in unison (or at another pure interval, depending on the characteristics of the instruments). In other words, each instrument will play the same melody at the same time.
In Raz-o-Niaz, Hossein Alizadeh has tackled writing traditional Iranian music for orchestra, incorporating counterpoint (more than one melody at a time) among the different parts. This is no simple task. Indeed, writing fusion music of this sort, while attempting to retain a firm classicism, is an extremely difficult endeavor. However, Alizadeh has convincingly done so.
Raz-o-Niaz is performed by fourteen performers on traditional Iranian instruments, including a vocal soloist. The liner notes of this recording include a description of each instrument (along with pictures). The piece is in two main sections, and different combinations of musicians are used in different passages. There are traditional solo passages, as well as orchestral passages. In some cases, Alizadeh has used the elements of the Radif in their basic form, while in others he has combined or modified them (usually in an orchestral context). The poetry used is by the great masters, Molana Jalaleddin Mohammad Rumi (13th century) and Mohammad Shamseddin Hafez Shirazi (14th century) -- in the West, these two are usually called Mowlana Rumi and Hafez, respectively.
Alizadeh's orchestral ideas are imaginative and compelling. He has used the inherent relationship between intervals of Iranian modes to create a harmonic scheme which is easily recognizable as being in that mode, while still allowing for melodic interplay between the musicians. In short, he has put Western harmonic ideas to the service of Iranian classical melodies. In my experience, this is a notable achievement.
Raz-o-Niaz exhibits a variety of moods, from festivity to deep mysticism. It is a long composition, and contains something for everyone. Stylistically, it contrasts with Alizadeh's earlier-recorded orchestral compositions NeyNava (in which the Iranian ney is given an imaginative concerto role to the accompaniment of a western string orchestra), and Song of Compassion (in which the folk influences are more explicit, and the orchestration is more aggressive). Raz-o-Niaz is thoroughly Iranian classical in inspiration, while adopting a novel and compelling approach to form and orchestration.
The sound and production quality of the recording are first-rate.
Let me conclude with a more frank assessment. I am always extremely skeptical of endeavors of this sort, and usually view them as failures, except as show-pieces or curiosities. The fact that Alizadeh has written contrapuntal orchestral music which stands up to Iranian classical music's own standards is, to me, an unprecedented achievement on a world-wide scale. I still do not feel that this composition is as satisfying as a traditional exposition (this is partly my prejudice for tightly focused music, rather than accomodating so many moods), however I have no doubt that he is making positive steps toward a real unification of a modal monophonic tradition with harmonic ideas. As such, I believe that this recording will interest many people with many different backgrounds.
I was recently presented with the opportunity to review a new recording of music by the modern Iranian composer, Hossein Alizadeh. The label is Kereshmeh Records (of Los Angeles), catalog number KCD-103. The original recordings were made in Iran. The disc consists of two orchestral compositions, NeyNava and Song of Compassion. This music makes use of traditional Persian repertory, Iranian folk themes, and western harmonic ideas.
Hossein Alizadeh (b.1951) is one of the most prominent and adventurous of contemporary Iranian classical musicians. His early training was via traditional means, studying at the University of Teheran and with some of the great masters of the earlier generation of Iranian musicians. Later, he studied composition & musicology in Berlin. He has been associated with some of the most prestigious musical institutions in Iran, including a period teaching at the University of Teheran and the Teheran Music Conservatory. He has contributed to the performance and revitalization of Persian classical music, both on its own terms, and by his efforts in orchestral composition (such as those represented on this disc).
The first thing which confronts any Iranian musician who wishes to attempt a fusion of his own classical music and the harmonic ideas of the West is the elaborate monophony of Persian classical music, and the seeming unsuitability of the subtle and complex melodic patterns to vertical counterpoint. What sets Alizadeh apart is his feeling for color -- this is as apparent in his solo performances as it is in his orchestral compositions. There has long been orchestral performance in Iran: the elements of the classical repertory have been performed in unison by large groups of traditional instruments, rather than in solo performance as was the earlier emphasis. However, these attempts almost invariably result in an opaque uniformity of color. Alizadeh has begun the task of creating works for larger ensembles which actually exploit the potential resources of orchestral sonority, while still retaining a traditional basis.
The first composition on this disc is NeyNava (1983), a concerto for ney and string orchestra. The ney is a reed flute, ubiquitous to Near Eastern traditional music, and especially significant in Iran. The title "NeyNava" can be loosely translated as "the sound of the ney," while it is also something of a pun on the classical mode of the piece, Nava (last 'a' long). Dastgah Nava is one of the primary modal frameworks of Persian classical music (of which there are seven, plus five secondary modes of independent interest), known for its mystically contemplative atmosphere. This is signifcant for the nature of NeyNava, because while it sets out to display the sound of the ney, it never engages in display for its own sake. It takes up the concerto form as a mutually supportive exposition, and not as a confrontational format. This fact is all the more satisfying due to the fully western string orchestra used in accompaniment.
In fact, NeyNava will be immediately appealing to many western classical music lovers. The string orchestra is used in an original way, still entirely in keeping with western practice, and the music is fully diatonic. The microtonal nature of the Dastgah Nava (with its interval of the neutral third) is directly apparent only in the few brief moments in which the solo ney expands long lines, but forms the basis for the harmonic ideas of the piece. This more complicated intervallic relationship results in an extra depth of sonority in the middle of the harmony, yet is easily perceptible due to its strictly motivic development. In short, except for a few of its themes, the composition sounds very western, though the application of western harmony to Persian classical thematic material is never routine. In fact, the elegant mixture of sunny geniality and deep melancholy is highly reminiscent of the modern English school of chamber concertos, notably Malcolm Arnold. Yet, this seeming juxtaposition goes to the heart of the mystical experience, as exemplified by the Dastgah Nava and the ney itself -- an instrument which is both difficult to master and subtle, yet unspectacular, in tone. The concluding movement "Sufi Dance," in strict 10 8 time, is especially compelling for its sonic effects, with two neys usually moving in contrary motion on short phrases. In sum, this composition presents a wonderful introduction to the tone of the ney -- which can be both warm & crisp -- for the western listener. It convinces as fusion, by being unpretentious.
The second piece on this disc, Song of Compassion (1991), was written in response to the terrible earthquake of 1990 and is more thoroughly Iranian in style. The orchestra consists only of Iranian instruments, some associated with the classical repertory and others with various folk musics throughout Iran. The vocal portions are sung mostly in Iranian idiom, though some passages involve homophonic chanting in a vaguely western style. The approach to ensemble in this work is highly engaging, involving a succession of chamber music scorings for the various instruments, with rests in some parts while others continue. The ultimate impression is episodic, and while Alizadeh's approach to musical drama might recall Richard Strauss, he refuses to indulge in the chromatic modulatory cycles which seem potentially appropriate to his thematic material -- rather, episodes recur at the same pitch, thus avoiding the potentially thorny problems of modal enharmonicity altogether. As such, the orchestral texture remains clear and open, yet highly charged. The rhythmic figures tossed back and forth in the percussion at many points in the piece are certainly avante-garde in their rhetorical ambiguity, yet this rhetoric is always quickly abandoned in favor of rhythmic or melodic honesty in the major episodes. The folk themes which arise throughout the work, to lend support to the main sentiments, are an engaging look at Iranian musical life. Aside from Alizadeh's own originality in the main themes, the Persian classical element only becomes the central focus in the final movement. Ultimately, the wonderful color and thematic depth of this work makes it emotionally engaging and effective in its goal -- not only to express the tragedy of and compassion for the event, but to find a new starting point.
Finally, some things should be said regarding the performance quality itself. The Iranian string orchestra does a superlative job at being both tonally expressive and formally articulate. Many western ensembles could take lessons from their handling of the sonic and motivic elements of NeyNava. The soloists do a fine job. In Song of Compassion, the performers are nicely expressive, though there isn't much basis for comparison in this style of music. In some places, the instrumental balance seems a bit contrived, and one wonders what went on in editing to produce a coherent sound from these instruments of widely divergent acoustic strengths. However, the result is ultimately satisfactory. The sound quality of both pieces is quite good -- clear lines and a warm acoustic. The liner notes are also informative. All in all, the production quality at Kereshmeh Records is first rate.