New Album by Iranian Female Composers Association Brings to Light Distinguished Middle Eastern Voices

Compelling and deeply touching, with grace and passion in equal measure, Sirventès is a collection of six works by members of the Iranian Female Composers Association. Curated by cellist Brian Thornton, the album (out April 28 on New Focus Recordings) features performances by members of The Cleveland Orchestra, Callisto Quartet, cellist Amahl Arulanandam, and percussionist Nathan Petitpas.

The album opens with Mahdis Golzar Kashani’s And the Moses Drowned (2017), a lamenting string quartet dedicated to the memory of the children who were killed in the Syrian war. While primarily mournful, the piece also celebrates what the liner notes call these “lighter souls,” seeking not to define them solely by their passing. Beginning with a series of striking chords, each more grief-stricken than the last, the quartet quickly turns to melancholy before gradually developing in rhythmic vigor and building with fervor to a climax. But instead of resolving, the music pauses; we are treated to a long, searching violin melody over a pedal tone in the cello, interrupted by echoes of the earlier rhythmic material. It’s a gripping moment in a piece that is acutely engaging, both in message and musical content.

Nina Barzegar’s exquisite Vulnerable (2018) opens with quiet murmurs, delicate pizzicato chords, fragile harmonics, and marked silences — moments of conspicuous absence that hold both stillness and tension, broken only by sublime intonations from the solo cello. As the title suggests, this is a vulnerable moment for both the cellist (Thornton) and the composer, who must trust each other when the material is so direct and sparse. They succeed breathtakingly here. The pacing of the development is also phenomenal, never letting go of your attention as the material evolves. Barzegar leaves much unsaid in this emotionally complex work, but, in that choice, succeeds in finding expression, connection, and richness beyond words.

Members of the Cleveland Orchestra Katherine Bormann, Eliesha Nelson, Brian Thornton, and Alicia Koelz -- Photo courtesy of the artists

Members of the Cleveland Orchestra Katherine Bormann, Eliesha Nelson, Brian Thornton, and Alicia Koelz — Photo courtesy of the artists

Nasim Khorassani describes Growth (2017) as “a cell constructed by B, C, D, and E-flat, growing and expanding,” in her notes. A teeming, shifting texture full of trills establishes a cloud of sound with little ideas periodically jutting out as the four-note cell develops into elaborate counterpoint, almost reminiscent of Mahler or Shostakovich. Growth eventually contracts back into itself, ending pointedly with a pizzicato chord made of the original cell. Melding process and intuition, the piece imparts a tragic foreboding in its extremely well-paced seven minutes, with enough time to explore its concept without overstaying its welcome.

The three movements of Niloufar Iravani’s The Maze (2017) are all distinct in character, with convincing performances by Callisto Quartet. “Energetic” is a fun, engaging movement, with active rhythms and imitative counterpoint developed from the Phrygian mode. “Lyrical” features more contemplative imitation; set in the octatonic collection, the long melodies are searching, reaching out and questioning their surroundings. “Mysterious,” meanwhile, takes cues from Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, with moments of rhythmic intensity interspersed with calm.

The album’s title piece, Anahita Abbasi’s Sirventès provides a welcome contrast with percussion and an extended acoustic palette for the cello, featuring scratching, harmonic glissandi, and other effects that explore the sonic possibilities of the ensemble. There is a personal and sincere feeling in Sirventès’ closeness; every sound, gesture, and moment is indispensable. The dialogue between cellist and percussionist is treated with ritualistic purpose in the ways they come together and apart, agree and disagree, and ultimately find a sonic, and seemingly physical, closeness. Arulanandam (cello) and Petitpas (percussion) bring Abbasi’s work to life with exemplary care and grace.

Iranian Female Composers Association, "Sirventès" (New Focus Recordings)

Iranian Female Composers Association — “Sirventès” (New Focus Recordings)

The final work, Mina Arissian’s Suite for Cello (2020), takes the long tradition of the cello suite as its seed, but that’s not to imply the work is antiquated or has nothing new to say. While the first movement is slightly drawn out, the phrases left unfinished make the intention unmistakable: a question prompting you to think about what might be. The second movement is beautiful, with interesting melodic turns and a hopeful, yet tentative approach that speaks to the heart. The third movement balances feelings of excitement and worry, which creeps back into the ending, coloring the final moments.

Sirventès is dynamic and cogent, with emotional intensity to spare. The performances and production quality are impeccable, with every detail rendered clearly and precisely. Throughout, the thread of each composer’s identity is felt — but, more powerfully than that, what each of them wants to say is vividly painted with brilliant artistry.


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