CD review: Irene Kurka: beten . prayer (Wandelweiser)

beten . prayer

Antoine Beuger: Vater unser
James Weeks: The world in tune
Dante Boon: And/or (2)
Sidney Corbett: Gebet
Dante Boon: Mirte
Nikolaus Brass: Benediktionen
Eva-Maria Houben: a-men

Irene Kurka, soprano

ewr1504

This really is a special one. Solo voice carries so many connotations, of speech, of song, of chant, of prayer. It’s the most directly human, personal, unmediated instrument of all. It’s the way we speak to each other, comfort each other, entertain ourselves, reassure ourselves, talk to our gods.

There are elements of all on this CD; remarkably so, because on first listen at least all seven pieces inhabit similarly restrained, private and reticent soundworlds. There is a general trajectory through the disc towards melody – the natural mode of the singing voice. But, smartly programmed, it moves in tiny steps, from Beuger’s descending, chantlike steps, through Weeks’s subtly inflected swinging intervals and increasingly stretching scales, to the tune fragments of Boon’s And or (2). With the pieces by Corbett, Boon and Brass that make up the heart of the recording the voice’s instinct for song is let loose, but already there are twists. Houben’s a-men returns us to the realm of chant, but this time in music whose open, wide-breathed intervals seem more outdoor and secular than stone-encased sacred.

In Corbett’s Gebet melody begins to twist around atonal distortions. These are pushed still further in the five short movements of Brass’s Benediktionen, in which as soon as pitch is freed from its tight procedural constraints, it just as quickly turns to noise and the percussive clicks of tongue and lips. In Boon’s Mirte – perhaps my favourite piece on the disc, along with Weeks’s The world in tune, about whose cleverly minimalistic play with devices of framing and context I could happily write another 400 words – the voice is joined by a malevolent, unreliable shadow piano, sometimes doubling the voice’s simple melody, sometimes counterpointing it, and sometimes knocking it quite off balance. If the other works on the disc capture the outward intentions of the voice – towards prayer, song, or lullaby – this is the inward psychological turn of a voice trying to sing to itself.

It almost goes without saying, but can’t be said strongly enough, that Kurka’s singing throughout is quite extraordinary: so refined, balanced, unadorned and controlled. Absolutely nothing is wasted or unnecessary. Just one quibble: the CD sleeve promises texts at the Wandelweiser website, but I can’t find them there.

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