Recording of April 2021: Saudade

Žibuoklė Martinaitytė: Saudade
Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra, Lithuanian Chamber Orchestra, Giedrė Slekytė, cond.; Gabrielius Alekna, piano.
Ondine ODE1386 (24/96 download). 2021. Aleksandra Kerienė. Vilius Keras, prods.; Evelina Staniulytė, Aleksandra Kerienė, Vilius Keras, engs.
Performance *****
Sonics ****½

Might this recording be too "out there" for some? I spent hours mulling alternative recommendations, my favorites being accordionist Ksenija Sidorova's captivating Piazzolla Reflections and cellist Nicole Peña Comas and pianist Hugo Llanos Campos's beautiful new recording of Latin American music, El Canto del Cisne Negro. Either would have been accessible in more obvious ways than Saudade, a collection of four recent orchestral and chamber works by Lithuanian composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė.

Yet, over time, as I returned again and again to this marvelously spacious and detailed album, recorded in the Grand Hall of the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society in Vilnius during the first surge of the pandemic, I became convinced that music lovers of all stripes will enjoy exploring its haunting mystery.

Before you listen, check out the first part of a 57-minute audio interview with Martinaitytė, who is based in New York, if only to learn how she pronounces her name. You can gain further insight into this album by reading the excellent liner commentary, written by my friend Frank J. Oteri of NewMusicBox, and viewing the recording's promotional YouTube video. You'll learn that the St. Petersburg–born composer was raised during Lithuania's occupation by the USSR (1940–1991) and entered adulthood just as her country emerged as an independent nation. This cultural grounding, which she shares with a number of other contemporary composers from the Baltic states, may help explain what she describes as a " existential longing which comprises all the possible longings," from which the album's title track derives. Another longing—to explore the unfettered limits of human consciousness—also surfaces throughout the album.

Some might describe this recording as "space music" in that it seems to explore cold, empty, unknown, even forbidden realms. Unusually for music of this sort, it is played solely by acoustic instruments rather than by computer or theremin.

In Chiaroscuro Trilogy (2017) for piano and string orchestra, Martinaitytė creates an otherworldly sonic collage as she explores chiaroscuro, the term derived from Renaissance painting which to her "encompasses both darkness and light...[and] profoundly reflects the very essence of our existence....There's always some proportion of darkness and light [in our lives], and we really have very little control over it." Yet, her control of orchestral expression of chiaroscuro seems absolute.

Martinaitytė divides Chiaroscuro Trilogy into three parts. The opening, "Tunnel," moves between pianist Gabrielius Alekna's low rumbles and the high, birdlike twitters generated by bows stroking their violins on or near the bridge. Listening to this music, I couldn't help wonder if I was hearing the sounds of a seeker tunneling as much through realms of consciousness like traveling through space. The next movement, "Meteors," evokes objects plummeting with a primordial sense of foreboding. The almost 19-minute piece ends with "Darkness of Light," whose paradoxical title barely hints at the melding of funereal, post-cataclysmic sounds with a hypnotic repetition, propelling attentive listeners on a journey beyond words.

In the title work, Saudade (2019), a veil of soft sadness occasionally parts to reveal churning drama. If your audio system emphasizes pleasant smoothness over detail, you may miss the gradations of pitch and timbre created by instruments emerging with slender subtlety from the orchestral fabric. Can you hear the brass players creating two distinct pitches as they sing while buzzing their mouthpieces? What about the shimmering sound of cymbals placed on the drumheads of timpani as the player presses a foot pedal, stretching the drumhead? Or the harpist's palm creating gonglike sounds? I could hear those things only after reading Oteri's notes. Rarely has melancholy been so mesmerizing.

Martinaitytė describes Millefleur (2018), the third work in the album, as "acoustic hedonism, a search for acoustic pleasures, as though walking through a beautiful sonic garden and taking delight in it." What could be more ideal for Stereophile's audience? Inspired by the thousands of flowers in the background of some 15th century European tapestries among other art objects, Millefleur abounds with subtle sonic gestures that, to the composer, evoke "thousands of shimmerings" woven into one image.

I imagined hearing a strange wind blowing through Horizons (2013), the album's final work and its earliest, as I visualized a universe stretching beyond limits. Your consciousness may stretch, too, if you give this marvelous music the time and concentration it deserves.—Jason Victor Serinus

funambulistic's picture

Thank you for the lovely recommendation!

Glotz's picture

If one loves Kompakt Records releases or Brian Eno, one would be right at home. It's much more intense but 'acoustic hedonism' is very apt.

It kind of reminds me of Yorke's 'Suspiria' from 2018.

mrmikegc5's picture

I listened to this gorgeous, brilliant record on Qobuz (hirez) after reading your review. Melted the stress and pain away better than an indica. When music does this, you know you are being rewarded by the gods.

I didn't find it as "challenging" a listen as your review suggests, but that doesn't mean I found it less beautiful. I do listen to a lot of avant garde music. Unlike many other works in that genre, there is a not so harsh space that this music takes you to. Intricate enough to challenge your intellect, but not a purposeful attack that will harsh the buzz of the moment.

I probably would not have been aware of this very fine work without your review; I would like to thank you for turning me on.

ikymagoo's picture

just simply amazing! My wife is Lithuanian and this music has brightened her day, we've listened to it on YouTube, now we must own it!! thank you for sharing this!

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I'm so happy that you've discovered the beauties in this music. Ain't it grand?

Thank you all for letting me know.