JAN JIRÁSEK: Parallel Worlds ‒ JITRO Czech Girls Choir / Michal Chrobák, piano / Pavel Plašil, percussion / Jan Jirásek, scissors / Jiřį Skopal ‒ Navona 

JAN JIRÁSEK: Parallel Worlds = Missa Propria; Si, vis amaria, ama; Mondi Paralleli; King Lavra ‒ JITRO Czech Girls Choir / Michal Chrobák, piano / Pavel Plašil, percussion / Jan Jirásek, scissors / Jiřį Skopal ‒ Navona Records NV6101 [distrib. by Naxos]; 60:00 (6/9/17) ***1/2 

Some interesting music that recalls both Ligeti and Pärt, yet with an individual profile. The performances by the girls’ choir are notable.

If you wade through the extensive notes to the current recording, you may be left a bit mystified about composer Jan Jirásek (b. 1955) and his musical idiom. My recommendation is to absorb the comments as best you can (they are a bit opaque in spots) and then listen to the music. Listening will certainly be more informative.

All the music here was written for and features a remarkable group, the JITRO Czech Girls Choir. JITRO, by the way, is not an acronym but a Czech word meaning daybreak. The name may speak to the freshness and spontaneity of the choir’s delivery, but there is nothing jejune about their interpretations. From the get-go Jirásek requires them to address some pretty sophisticated musical challenges, and the choir rises to the challenge with admirable results.

Missa propria, for example, has a cavalier disregard for harmonic homogeneity but freely ranges from the comfortably diatonic to the challengingly chromatic, sometimes recalling the microtonal choral music of György Ligeti. The troubled Kyrie eleison begins with pronounced harmonic clashes, while the succeeding Gloria features a repeated passage with an oddly disruptive descending microtonal scale that seems counter to the traditional celebration of God’s glory. I’m not sure the composer fully explains himself when he writes, “This reflects my relationship with the whole spiritual world. Our way of thinking is closer to that of Protestants, however, the ceremonial nature is also suggestive to us, even if I do not master it.” I guess this means that the bald statements of the text—its affirmation of faith and plea for God’s mercy—are closer to the composer’s heart than the pure liturgical trappings associated with it. Whatever, the collaboration between the composer and his chosen interpreters creates a compelling musical tapestry, sophisticated in harmony yet clearly heart-felt as well.

Si, vis amari, ama is more individual, representing the composer’s own choice of texts, all of which have reference in one way or another to heart matters. The title of the work is taken from a quotation of Seneca: “If you would be love, then love.” In writing about the final section of the work, the composer explains the emotional impetus behind it: “In the fourth part, I put three quotations in contraposition. The first one is by Seneca – Si, vis amari, ama (which I used for the title of the whole cycle), which relates to the love in general. The quotation by Ignatius of Loyola (Ad Maior gloriam Dei) includes an element of political power. Thus the main point of significance becomes the quotation by GB Shaw (Beware of the man whose God is in the skies), which indicates unambiguously that God is and should be felt in the heart of every being.”

I quote the composer’s unwieldy prose in full to indicate the spiritual nature of his music for choir. This spirituality informs his perhaps even more individual Mondi paralleli, a work that combines the Roman Catholic liturgy with texts from the Buddhist and Hebrew traditions. So the Benedictus movement segues into Baruch Haba, and Te Deum laudamus shares space with the Buddhist mantra OM AHHUM. In general, Jirásek’s typical musical language, with its “oscillations” between diatonism and sharp chromaticism, is fully in evidence, though there is a clear nod toward a modal harmonic language in the Avinu malkenu section of the Miserere (No. 5 of the set).

Fittingly, the most dramatic work on the program is the “micro-opera” King Lavra, based on a satirical poem by Karl Havliček Borovskŷ (1821–1856). While the poem tells the tale of a fictitious king who tries to keep secret the fact that he has the ears of a donkey (shades of the King Midas legend and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”), it is actually an indictment of the autocratic Hapsburg emperors. A rather roundabout indictment, as most satires are. Be that as it may, Jirásek’s music manages to overcome the rather repetitious and formulaic elements of the poem.

In typical fairy tale fashion—think of those stories in which the suitor who fails to win the princess loses his head in the process—once a year a barber is called on to shave the king, and he then learns, to his chagrin, the truth about the king’s unusual ears. But the story takes a turn when the mother of one young barber who faces death because he has learned the awful truth manages to excite the king’s sympathy and save her son’s life. After that, the king’s secret is revealed—but his people love him as never before and even celebrate his now-famous ears.

Jirásek underscores the comical elements of the poem by including a pair of scissors (yes, scissors) among the modest instrumental forces that accompany the chorus. Accommodatingly, the composer himself “plays” the scissors in this performance. Here, the accompaniment is more apt than the rather perfunctory one supplied by piano (banging out a few repetitive chords) and tambourine in Si, vis amari, ama. In fact, while I admire Missa propria, I find King Lavra all around the most effective work on the disc and the main reason for returning to it. That, and the highly professional performances of the young Czech singers.

—Lee Passarella

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