Alicia Terzian: Off the Edge
Navona Records

By Argentine composer Alicia Terzian's (b. 1934) own estimation, her creative output divides into four periods: the earliest (1954-1968) centers on microtonal explorations; the second (1969-1984) expands on the first with sound clouds and sonic clusters; her so-called “Spatial Era” (1985-2003) adds real-time transformations to the mix; and the “Mystical Period” weaves interpretations of Armenian religious music of the fourth and tenth centuries into the music. Three of those periods are represented on this fifty-one-minute, career-spanning portrait: Carmen Criaturalis (1969) and Canto a Mi Misma (1985) fall squarely within her “Cosmic Time” period, whereas Tres Piezas para Orquestra de Cuerdas (1954) and Off the Edge (1992) reflect respective engagements with microtonality and mysticism. That she is held in the highest regard in her home country is indicated by the fact that in 2013 she was officially designated “the most important musician in the country” by the Chamber of Deputies of Argentina.

When asked to name Argentine composers, one might first think of Astor Piazzolla and Alberto Ginastera, but the quality of the material on Off the Edge suggests that Terzian warrants inclusion in such august company. Interestingly, though, neither Piazzolla nor Ginastera come to mind as the recording plays; instead, the impression forms that Terzian's polystylistic music has more in common with figures like Bartók, Schnittke, and Shostakovich. In that regard, it's fitting that all four works were recorded in September 2016 at Krasnoyarsk Philharmonic Hall in Siberia, Russia, with Vladimir Lande conducting the Siberian State Symphony Orchestra. Par for the twentieth-century classical course, orchestral textures are a central concern in these evocative works, regardless of whether they're purely instrumental or feature vocals, as two of them do in this case, and it's not uncommon for Terzian to subtly colour her harmonic material with dissonance.

In the opening Carmen Criaturalis, a ten-minute concerto for horn, string orchestra, and percussion, texture plays an especially central part when strings shudder and tremble alongside the anguished bellow of Fedor Kukovyakin's horn; percussive elements figure heavily, too, with an introductory cymbal roll giving way to vibraphone flourishes in a piece that, initially agitated, grows progressively more controlled, restful even, as it develops. Making full use of Vox Futura's vocal resources and again instantiating Terzian's “Cosmic Time” style, Canto a mi misma juxtaposes eerie, vibrato-laden string clusters and electronically manipulated text readings to memorable effect; twenty poems by Pablo Neruda, Samuel Beckett, Walt Whitman, and others are intoned by the chorus during the seventeen-minute setting's central section, with overlapping individual voices spatially dispersed to create the impression of high-intensity babble. Along with an ancient religious Armenian song, Whitman is called upon again for the titular work, specifically in fragments taken from “Song of Myself” that, augmented by the Choir of the Art College of Krasnoyarsk, are sung by baritone Alexander Mikhalev with great solemnity and in the deepest of registers; in keeping with the composer's “Mystical” style, Off the Edge accents its tremulous strings and vocal dramatics with Chinese cymbals and Eastern melodic flavour.

Echoes of Bartók (his 1936 Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and 1939 Divertimento for Strings in particular) and Shostakovich emerge during the concluding Tres Piezas, specifically in its “Cancion del atardecer” and “Danza rustica” movements. That Bartók connection is bolstered by the work's strings-only arrangement and the material's at times ominous character, whereas the imagination and verve of “Danza rustica” identify Tres Piezas as the work of a young composer. Tres Piezas is sequenced last, but this commendable album nevertheless enables the listener to effectively trace transformations in Terzian's composing style from one piece to the next. It's both an excellent career overview and artist portrait, regardless of the order in which the compositions appear.

May 2017