GOLIJOV:  Last Round.  Lullaby and Doina. Yiddishbbuk.  The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind.
St. Lawrence String Quartet
EMI CLASSICS  57356  (F) (DDD) TT:  69:33

A gaucho in Krakow. Born in Argentina into an eastern-European Jewish family, Osvaldo Golijov studied there, in Israel, and in the United States as well (with George Crumb). Having just nicked 40, he has enjoyed a hot career -- as far as these things go among classical composers -- thoroughly deserved. His super-Latino Pasion Segun San Marcos has made a bid to become the next big classical choral hit since Britten's War Requiem. And to think he has decades in his career to go.

I also find his music uneven. The incredible stands side-by-side with the nothing much. I'd classify him as a musical omnivore. He has taken from all kinds of sources. One hears Piazzolla, klezmer, Yiddish folk music, Reichian minimalism, definitely Crumb, perhaps a bit of Prokofiev, but, at the music's best, these sources all come together in fresh and surprising ways. Golijov, I feel, has found something both new and powerfully familiar -- something, in the words of Vaughan Williams, that "I've known all my life, but I didn't know it."

My favorite work on the CD, Last Round, a string nonet in written homage to Piazzolla, begins with a roar. I write "nonet," but Golijov conceives it really for two opposing string quartets. He arranges the quartets so that they face off against each other, around the focal point of the double bass. This brings a visual element into the piece (lost, of course, on CD) of brandished bows -- a meta-musical metaphor for the "combat" of the tango. Last Round consists of two movements: a violent one, which, after the rhythmic energy of a work like Bartók's fourth string quartet, slides without pause into an elegiac second movement. Throughout both movements, one hears tango-ish backbeats. I have no idea what Piazzolla was really like, but this piece portrays the flamboyant excess (both the high dudgeon and the low sentimentality) of a man drowning in his own testosterone. Based on the impressions of this piece, you probably wouldn't want to have eaten dinner with Piazzolla, any more than you would want to have dined with a tiger. Both the tiger and the nonet display a "fearful symmetry."

The Lullaby and Doina come from movie music for Sally Potter's Man Who Cried. Golijov adds flute, clarinet, and double bass to the string quartet to produce an intimate, dream-like sound. Despite the title, the piece consists of three short movements, with a "Gallop" finale. The music evokes Eastern-European folk song and dance in a fairly conventional way, similar to Williams's music for Schindler's List, but more economical. Last Round commands your attention. Lullaby and Doina asks only to be loved.

The earliest work on the CD, Yiddishbbuk, for string quartet, is a kind of compression of the twentieth-century Jewish experience, from Europe to the modern diaspora. Golijov dedicates the first movement to three children who died at Terezin, the second to the Yiddish-American writer I. B. Singer, and the third to Leonard Bernstein. The title is unusual, even to Jews, and refers to a cabalistic text of apocryphal psalms that perished in the Holocaust. We know of it only from Kafka's notebooks and from his letters to Milena. The title comes across as a pun: the Yiddish book, the Yiddish dybbuk, a ghost of a culture moving through the world. The first movement begins, in Kafka's words, "as a broken song played on a shattered cymbalon," leads to a Crumb-like stasis, and finishes up with a Hungarian rondo. The second movement explores more fully the stasis as a lament. Musically, the third movement has more to do with Crumb's Black Angels than with anything by Bernstein. It is an intensely dramatic series of fragments, sounding like several cantors chanting different psalms simultaneously. Often without anything like a conventional tune, it nevertheless sings. It ends in, as it were, mid-sentence.

The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind moves away from Crumb toward something both more characteristic and more conventional, but in a good way. Conventions, after all, are there to be rediscovered and reinvigorated. Golijov weaves through Dreams and Prayers both traditional High Holy Day prayers and klezmer music. By far the longest work on the program, I really can't describe its effect. It must be experienced. Golijov resorts to several techniques, including a minimalist kind of ostinato for the fast sections and the string quartet, while the clarinet coos and wails in its own time above this. The second movement sounds as if it tries to bring into blossom the tune "The Old Klezmer Band" (according to the composer). The tune finally breaks out in full klezmer glory, only to dissolve into fragments from both clarinet and quartet that seem to search for some transcendent melody. The fragments suddenly coalesce again into the klezmer music, dissolve, and coalesce briefly and distantly yet again at the very end. The third movement takes up the prayer mode again, this time singing beautifully and calmly, in a manner that seems to stop time -- a bit like a Yiddish Lark Ascending. It proceeds as two long crescendos. Dreams and Prayers ends with a quiet postlude which peters out. As I say, I can find musical gadgets traceable to other composers, but they mean something different here. The ostinati may derive from minimalism, but they sound like Bartók abstracted. The klezmer music may remind one of Shostakovich or Prokofiev in spots, but again its meaning differs. The klezmer melts into the prayers which melt into the klezmer -- as if we look at two sides of the same mystical search. This is not merely a matter of exotic color, but a portrait of some fundamental, sacred space. Again, I can't really begin to describe the effect -- in many ways, an unfamiliar effect or, rather, an unfamiliar poetry. All this points to a powerful individual voice which you have to hear to begin to understand.

The performances are tremendous. I've heard of absolutely none of the performers before, but you can bet I'll be looking for them from now on. The St. Lawrence delivers its loud and fast sections with an almost physical wallop. Tara Helen O'Connor and especially Todd Palmer play with the intensity of exploration, as if they've made it all up at that moment. The extremes of dynamics (both loud and soft) and the extreme speeds of transitions (both fast and slow) come across not as something rehearsed (although they've all probably rehearsed the bejeezus out of these pieces), but as something alive.

I find the "sound picture" too forward to be ideal, but that's absolutely secondary to the works and the performances.

S.G.S. (Aug. 2002)