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5 stars review from Fanfare US

November 24, 2022

Colin Clarke

This piece stems from a book of Chinese poems from the Tang dynasty (618–907) given to the composer, Lars Hannibal, in Shanghai. In looking back at these poems, Hannibal saw a purity in the relationship between humans and Nature in those far away times. Certainly poems such as these have inspired composers such as Carl Loewe and, most famously, Gustav Mahler, in his Das Lied von der Erde.
There is a purity of intent here that goes well with the innocence of the settings, perfectly pitched using the mix of instruments (percussion, voice, guitar, recorder, and erhu), placed in the perfect recording space. That intent is to return us to an earlier time, to give perspective on our currently very troubled times and our relationship with Nature (hence, presumably, the “mirror” element of the title). The choice of instruments is important, in that it is a quartet: The number four is important in Chinese philosophical thought, not least around the seasons. The guitar contribution, performed by the composer, remains a central component.
The recording process is interesting. This is a live performance, but because of Corona, one of the performers (Xu Ziling) could not be physically present, so her input was streamed in. At times, Hannibal uses distancing effects in his music to reflect the ancient Chinese act of lovers from different villages singing across valleys and mountains.
Atmospheric percussion opens “The Bamboo Hut” (Wang Wei), at once Oriental and timeless, before Hannibal’s own guitar, perfectly caught in the recording, teases the ear. But most astonishing is the singing of countertenor Stephen Yeseta, whose voice is completely pure and interacts perfectly with Xu Ziling’s haunting erhu. It’s nice, too, that there is sufficient time left on the track for the music to resonate properly in the silence.
Even after “The Bamboo Hut,” the sheer purity of Yeseta’s countertenor voice in “The Spring Morning” (Meng Haoran) comes as a surprise. The opening is again timeless: Hannibal’s use of percussion is remarkably attuned, with Gert Mortensen the finest of exponents. A gentle song of awakening, “The Spring Morning” murmurs its way through to the voice’s entrance. To my ears, there is almost an Irish folksong lilt to the music, albeit encased in finest jade. The third song, “The Dale of Singing Birds,” (Wang Wei) finds the music itself awakening slowly with birds’ song played on erhu, Hannibal’s gentle guitar sounds against distant chimes. Hearing Michala Petri’s recorder as part of the mix, in dialogue with Xu Ziling’s erhu, is pure magic. The idea of a “conventional” cadence at the end, which then melts (rather like one of Dalí’s clocks), is both unexpected and unexpectedly powerful.
The final movement, “My late departure” (Zhang Yue) is almost timeless, and certainly hypnotic. Ushered in by a gentle gong stroke answered quietly by percussion, as if opening a ceremony, it shifts to quiet chanting and haunting melody above quietly repeated phrases. At one point a “monks’ choir” is heard, which was sung by the entire studio crew (including the video crew).
It is important to notice that while pentatonicism is prevalent, this is not hackneyed in any way, and Hannibal tends deliberately to “ground” the music. This is a beautiful set of songs; Hannibal’s settings do the poignant texts full justice, and he has the finest of musicians and engineers. Colin Clarke 23.11.22 - 5 stars