The Serbian composer Isidora Žebeljan (Belgrade 1967) writes music in a modern idiom that is nevertheless rooted in Eastern European folklore.
She won international acclaim with opera’s such as Zora D. and The Marathon, her orchestral piece Horses of St. Mark and Song of a Traveller in the Night for clarinet and string quartet. This exciting work is performed by the Brodsky Quartet and clarinettist Joan Enric Lluna on a recent cd which once more confirms Žebeljan’s status as one of the leading Serbian composers of our time.
Žebeljan has a long standing relationship with the Brodsky Quartet. They performed her entire output for string quartet and are heard in all but one of the seven pieces on this cd.
A solo clarinet takes the lead in Song of a Traveller in the Night with sprightly, dance-like motifs, the strings responding with vigorous screeching and bent tones. The clarinet keeps on dancing, and at one moment even lures the quartet into striking up a flowing waltz together. Sudden halts and softly meowing sounds from the strings create an atmosphere of suspense.
In Pep it up, a fantasy for soprano, string quintet, percussion and piano, Žebeljan plays the piano herself. The singer Aneta Ilič intones wistful calls, while the strings envelop her melodies with delicately spun-out lines. This poignant lament is cut through by loud beats on the percussion, the strings wailing in descending glissandi that underpin the overall feeling of loss. After a loud and accelerated climax, the piece once more subsides into quietude.
Žebeljan’s Slavonic roots are perhaps best heard in Dance of the Wooden Sticks for horn and string quintet. The drone accompaniment and the virtuoso gypsy-like melodies from the soloist seem to catapult us straight into the heart of Transylvania. As in many of her works the composer juxtaposes reflective passages with high-energy rhythmic ones – the inimitable Stefan Dohr, Brodsky and double bass player Premil Petrovič switching with admirable ease from one atmosphere to the next.
The same goes for New Songs of Lada, a haunting cycle in which a soothing cradle song is followed by an intermezzo of fierce rhythms from the strings reminiscent of Schubert’s Erlkönig. In the next song a girl agonizes over a lover that despised her. Another restless intermezzo introduces ‘All the Yawl Men’, in which the soprano laments her fiancé who never returned from battle. In the concluding song ‘Oh, my Sweetheart, oh!’ we hear a girl that’s about to commit suicide because she can’t marry the man of her choice. The low notes of her initial resignation become more and more intense, climaxing in a heartrending melodic clamour.
Žebeljan’s music is both highly exuberant and deeply melancholic. With its plethora of changing motifs, rhythms and atmospheres it’s not only challenging for performers but also for the listener. Those who aren’t versed in contemporary music may need some time to appreciate this highly personal sound world, but their efforts will be rewarded.
CD Isidora Žebeljan: Song of a Traveller in the Night, CPO