Isidora ŽEBELJAN (b.1967)
Polomka Quartet [6:56]
Dance of the Wooden Sticks for horn and string quintet [6:57]
New Songs for Lada for soprano and string quintet [11:03]
Sarabande for piano* [3:35]
A Yawl on the Danube: scene for soprano, piano, string quintet and percussion [4:48]
Song for a Traveller in the Night for clarinet and string quartet [6:47]
Pep it up: fantasy for soprano, piano, string quintet and percussion [15:02]
Brodsky Quartet (Daniel Rowland (violin), Ian Belton (violin), Paul Cassidy (viola), Jacqueline Thomas (cello)); Aneta Ilić (soprano), Stefan Dohr (horn), Joan Enric Lluna (clarinet), Isidora Žebeljan (piano), Miroslav Karlović (percussion), Boban Stošić (double bass), Premil Petrović (conductor)
rec. Kolorac Hall, Belgrade, Serbia, 19 and 21 September 2011, all bar Sarabande (live recording*)
CPO 777 994-2 [55:32]

Folk music has always had an influence on composers and for many is a jumping-off point for their creativity. Isidora  Žebeljan spent a great deal of time at her grandparent’s home in the Banat region, an area of southern Central Europe which straddles Hungary, Romania and Serbia, home to ethnic Romanians, Serbs, Hungarians, Romanies, Germans, Krashovani, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Czechs, Croats and Jews. Given this diverse melting-pot in which she spent many of her formative years as a child it is small wonder that she absorbed such a deep and abiding interest in the rich sources of folk music, dance and songs of the region. This helped her establish what many justifiably regard as a unique voice. Listening to her music one is immediately struck also by echoes of the other major composers who came from the same area, Bartók, Kurtág and Ligeti. However, her music is by no means a pastiche of these sources of influence, rather they have given birth to a totally unique musical language which is deeply affecting and wildly exciting (review of orchestral music). Back in March 2014 I reviewed another disc of her music, Balkan Bolero Oboe Classics CC2028 which includes some of the same repertoire as is on this disc and performed by some of the same musicians: Dance of the Wooden Sticks - version for cor anglais, oboe sopile and string orchestra, New Songs for Lada - version for oboe, cor anglais, oboe d’amore and string orchestra and her Sarabande in a version for cor anglais, violin and piano. From this you can see that in a similar way to what Arvo Pärt did with his piece Fratres Žebeljan ‘recycles’ her music by arranging it for different instruments and breathing new life into it.

The first work is her Polomka Quartet which is heavily influenced by the Polomka, a dance from Eastern Serbia which is a “traditional Serbian break-dance” (Polomka derives from the verb polomiti which means to break) and is another example of there being nothing new under the sun. Dance of the Wooden Sticks has its origin in another dance based on a folk legend concerning the formation of the constellation of Orion. It's an intoxicating mix of folk rhythms and with the use of the horn makes an extremely interesting and unusual piece that demands many repeat listenings. New Songs of Lada sets poems by a group of anonymous poets from the autonomous republic of Vojvodina which is bordered by Bosnia Herzegovina and Romania. The songs may be simple and full of the traditional subjects of love and loss and being refused the partner of the subject’s choice but it is what Žebeljan manages to do with the material that makes them so original, so special and so interesting.

Sarabande is a beautiful folksy piano piece that the composer plays herself with a fragile delicacy. A Yawl on the Danube mixes folk rhythms with a jazzy beat and set for soprano, piano, string quartet and percussion makes it something quite unique and fascinating. Song of a Traveller in the Night was composed as a tribute to Bill Viola a video artist whose exhibition at the National Gallery in London in October 2003 occasioned its commission. With sonic images at its heart it will, no doubt, have linked up with the exhibition which must have made for an enthralling experience. If Yawl on the Danube is unique because of its instrumentation plus soprano then the final offering also uses the same musicians. Pep it up, composed in 1989 was one of the first works that showed the composer to have an utterly distinctive and original voice. The concept of ‘music which represents the state of limited consciousness belonging to a fictional humanoid being, an android ... left to a bout of remembrance (and) overwhelmed by chaotic experiences, without a human rhythm’ is proof of that. The work is totally absorbing and the wordless singing elicits sadness and empathy from the listener for the fate of the android, or did with this listener. The title’s significance eludes me but there’s no denying that the music kept me in its thrall.

As I found with the previous disc of Isidora Žebeljan’s chamber music she has an unforgettable voice that is totally compulsive. I can assure would-be listeners that the more you hear it the more it grows on you with the result that I want to hear as much of her output as I possibly can. The musicians are clearly as committed in their performances and it is significant that several of them play on each disc so are almost an Isidora Žebeljan band. I hope this disc gets the exposure it deserves.

Steve Arloff

Support us financially by purchasing this from