Album review: Fantastic Žibuoklė Martinaitytė orchestral disc conducted by Giedrė Šlekytė from Ondine

In regard to the multitude of orchestral albums released this year, the new Ondine Records Žibuoklė Martinaitytė disc, Saudade, is certainly to be counted among among the very finest. Conducted by the wonderful Giedrė Šlekytė, the spellbinding portrait album features four fascinating works by the New York-based Lithuanian composer, all written between 2013-19.

In Martinaitytė’s music, various branches of European avant-garde, from Ligeti’s micropolyphony to spectral music, and sonic tapestries of American minimalism are joined into highly personal and tremendously powerful instrumental language of dazzling textures. Emerging from the sonic nebulae, Martinaitytė’s works are manifested in luminous arrays of orchestral colour, yielding to thrilling discoveries in harmony and sonority.

According to the composer’s program note, the album’s title piece, Saudade (2019), is embbed with stratum of her multiple yearnings that have started layering with the “blue period”; death of her father and immigration to USA, coloring all experiences with the myriad hues of blue. The sixteen-minute orchestral journey of Saudade begins with overlapping, mist-hued ostinato figures in the winds, joined by slowly pulsating harp chords, alongside long-held lines from the strings and brass. This brief opening gesture is then developed into an extended orchestral statement over several reiterations, coloured by oscillating patterns from tubular bells, ingenious sonic effects from muted and increasingly restless strings tremolos.

Surging into the deepest registers of the orchestra, the music comes to a standstill, with murmuring strings, winds and brass lines joined by bass drum rumor. Out of the dark clouds, threads of light emerge, in the guise of insistent drones, yielding to an impassioned climax halfway into the musical arch of the piece. The opening material returns, paving the way for a gripping series of fragmented, interwoven ostinato lines. Another riveting orchestral build-up ensues, bursting into a terrific tutti, followed by a dream-like coda, where music and sound merge into one evocative nocturnal vista, before Saudade evaporates into nothingness.

A breathtaking performance from Šlekytė and the Lituhanian National Symphony Orchestra, Saudade is given an outing of wondrous sonic hue and tremendous intensity. Beautifully layered and impeccably paced, the musical arch unravels with admirable clarity, with instrumental lines glimmering in fine detail. Well served by the Ondine recording team, Saudade makes a fantastic opening to the album.

The second piece on the disc, Millefleur (2018) is scored for somewhat similar, standard symphonic line-up as Saudade, again augmented with key contributions from the percussion section. The thirteen-minute orchestral trajectory is launched with tremolo string lines, embellished with ornamentation from mallet percussion. The radiant harmonic sphere of Millefleur is derived from various mixtures of fourths, fifts and octaves, woven into intricate polyphony of ravishing colour.

An orchestral hall of mirrors, the sonic dramaturgy of Millefleur is built around a glimmering middle section, out of which the piece’s rhythmically pronounced main subject briefly emerges, bathing in the heat of orchestral sunlight. The captivating musical core surrounded by sonorous cloudscapes of sublime fantasy and spaciousness.

Another splendid performance from the Lithuanian National Symphony under Šlekytė, the disc account of Millefleur shares its many virtues with their outing of Saudade. A score of enthralling beauty, Millefleur is an absolute gem for orchestra.

In Horizons (2013), several musical strands are worked out simultaneously, resulting in parallel universes, reflecting, in the composer’s words, ”fragmented states of consciousness that are so typical in current times and also expressed in various artistic forms.” According to the composer’s note, examples that inspired her the most were the movies Cloud Atlas and The Hours as well as a book by Italo Calvino If on a winter’s night a traveler.

Of the four works included in the album, Horizons is the most complex both in terms of texture and dramaturgy. In the course of the twenty-one-minute score, several abrupt, quasi-cinematic scene changes occur, as the perspective shifts from one musical strand to the next. As the sonic trajectories of Horizons unveil, several repetitive sonic blocks are introduced, sometimes derived from seemingly disjointed core material.

However, there is a sense of continuity in Horizons, not in a linear sense, but maybe in a more cyclical manner, rooted in musical gestures recurring across different narratives, fabulously laid out in sonics by the Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra with Šlekytė, whose fine-tuned, dramatic performance certainly benefits from repeated hearings, as one gradually discovers the full scope of their musical story-telling.

Following the playlist of three one-movement works, the disc closes with the three-movement Chiaroscuro Trilogy (2017) for piano and string orchestra. Performed by pianist Gabrielius Alekna with the Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra under Šlekytė, the seventeen-minute Chiaroscuro Trilogy is a sonic study of darkness and light, with each of the three movements focusing on a particular aspect of this relationship, as implied by their titles.

Tunnel opens with repeated piano chords, gradually joined by hazy, buzzing strings. Out of this juxtaposition, arises a musical narrative of clear-cut effectiveness. As the movement unravels, the string textures gain ever more prominence, eventually colliding with the solo piano, midway through the movement. Following a rumbling, transitory passage, the music grows turbulent and angular, resolving into a sequence of pulsating chords from the keyboard, followed by a brief, hushed string coda.

The second movement, Meteors, ensues attacca. Here, a series of descending string gestures emerge from the orchestral fabric, evoking the celestial drama suggested by the title, while the solo piano wanders through the nocturnal tableau musing on the instrumental events surrounding the keyboard line. After a fleeting closing gesture, another seamless transition ensues, as the music flows into the finale.

In the last movement, titled Darkness of Light, the musical lines of the soloist and the orchestra become intertwined into one sonic substance, where polar opposites merge into a wistful farewell. Music of dawn, perhaps, the textures come off as shadow-like shapes flickering in the first rays of light, with the two elements reflected within one another, before fading from perception into layers of memory.

A captivating performance, with the solo line and the orchestral part ever marvellously aligned, Chiaroscuro Trilogy provides the album with a beautiful closing. The musical narrative is rooted in sublime finesse, yielding to a refined dialogue between the immaculately shaped solo piano part and the detailed orchestral fabric. Enhanced by focused engineering, the piano and string textures are impeccably balanced throughout, resulting in a gorgeous aural experience.

A very special album presentation of a very special composer, Saudade is an album to be wholeheartedly recommended to anyone out there looking for vivid musical fantasies.

Lituhanian National Symphony Orchestra

Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra

Giedrė Šlekytė, conductor

Gabrielius Alekna, piano

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Saudade (2019) for symphony orchestra

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Millefleur (2018) for symphony orchestra

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Horizons (2013) for symphony orchestra

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Chiaroscuro Trilogy (2017) for piano and string orchestra

Recorded at the Grand Hall of the Lituhanian National Philharmonic Society, 28-30 July 2020

Ondine ODE 1386-2 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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