“European Folkscapes” [TrackList follows] – Apollo Chamber Players – Navona NV5941, 63:00 (1/28/14) [Distr. by Naxos] *****:

Here is another fun trip; this time thru a wide trek of Europe with the Apollo Ensemble giving us a taste of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Greece, Russia, Spain the Basque region Italy and a bonus stop in Germany.

Some of the tunes Malaguena, and Fandangoa will be very familiar to the general audience while the Hofbrauhaus Polka and Korobushka may not be as well-known melodies to some, but they will exhibit a very familiar style that is easily recognizable. Moving on to the other tracks is where we start, excuse the pun, to go off the beaten track for general listeners.

One of the first things noticed are that these, sometimes considered, simple folk tunes can be surprisingly rhythmically complicated; far more complicated that the early notation systems could express. They remained that way until the like of Bartok and others started to seriously study this genre.

With the exception of track 5, these are arrangements of the folk tunes. They cover the range of music, from a somber and moving Zortziko and Aurresku from the Basque region to the multiple examples of up-tempo dance pieces. One tune I found very well presented was the ballad from Italy “‘O Sole Mio,” a brave choice for a song which has such a heavy work load in a myriad of Italian-themed restaurants and cafes, however the Apollo Chamber Players walk that fine line and give us a very enjoyable rendition.

The longest selection, and by far one of the more complex and modern sounding is Track 5. Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms is a newly commissioned work; it is the product of Karim Al-Zand, Professor of Music at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. The Fantasy was written with the idea of showcasing the “idiosyncratic meters (and) gypsy-like” character of the Balkan region. It is a work with a dense texture and a shifting and restless feel. Of all the tunes on the disk this is the one that sounds more at home in a concert hall, rather than out on the street, or in the dance hall, or in the local pub and eatery.

This is fabulous and fun disk. The ensemble’s playing is top notch and the arrangements are very well done and a joy to listen to. The playing is brisk and energetic with a firm grasp and display of the different regional’s terroir (to use a wine term).

I’ve said it before, but if you didn’t know; I love Navona’s CDs. They really put a CD together right. I wish every CD that was made followed their concept. For those who have not explored one of Navona’ CDs there are digital versions of the booklet, the scores, photos, videos and bonus media.

  1. Wallachian Lament (Czech Republic)
  2. Seremoj es Romanca (Hungary)
  3. I Xenitia (Greece)
  4. Nychtose Xoris Feggari (Greece)
  5. Fantasy on Bulgarian Rhythms
  6. Korobushka (Russia)
  7. Malaguena (Spain)
  8. Zortziko and Aurresku, for violin solo (Basque)
  9. Fandangoa, for violin duo (Basque)
  10. Jota/Arin-Arin (Basque)
  11. ‘O Sole Mio (Italy)
  12. Salento Pizzica (Italy)
  13. Hofbrauhaus Polka (Germany)

—Darren Robinson