Following their success with the revelatory ‘I Call to You’ (2012), which centred on a single canonical (and vocal) work, Ergodos Musicians present a far more expansive project in this recording. Reflecting their “love of the song, the most constant of musical forms”, the eclectic set-list spans some 800 years, crossing and blending traditions in a way that is both thoughtful and provocative.
Studiously avoiding the classical art-song repertoire of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries (for deconstructions of Schubert lieder, look elsewhere), the musicians are more interested in exploring the way songs inhabit – and open up – cultural traditions, religious or otherwise, as well as the textures of personal memory. Inevitably the focus is on singer Michelle O’Rourke, whose clean, easy technique allows her the flexibility to adapt to a wide range of musical styles. This is, however, very much an ensemble record, and equal honours are shared with the sensitive playing of Seán Mac Erlaine (saxophone & bass clarinet), Kate Ellis (cello) and Benedict Schlepper-Connolly (guitar & voice); the songs have been re-arranged by them for this recording, and included with them are four wordless improvisations, one by Mac Erlaine and three collectively by him, Ellis and O’Rourke. Put together, the pieces present a sequence of meditations on those time-honoured subjects for song: love, separation, and longing.
Musical equality is the order of the day, and not only in instrumentation: the early-music items have each appeared in crossover contexts in releases elsewhere, so here they are as much ‘cover-versions’ from older records as the arrangements of more recent material. Pérotin’s Beata Viscera first appeared in a Hilliard Ensemble release in the mid-’80s (on the German jazz label ECM), for instance, while John Dowland’s Weep You No More, Sad Fountains appears on Sting’s controversial ‘Songs from the Labyrinth’ – sung better here, it has to be said. The cover artwork itself, with its imagery of feathers catching the light, even suggests Gothic Voices’ 1984 release of Hildegard of Bingen’s mystical hymns ‘A feather on the breath of God’. There is a dreamlike intensity to the way songs from different places and times are brought together, bound as much by the instrumental timbres as O’Rourke’s voice.
Placing the Renaissance melancholy of Weep You No More, Sad Fountains in between Richard Thompson’s Beat The Retreat and Steve Earle’s Goodbye – Dowland, Thompson and Earle all strumming singer-songwriters – creates a wonderful effect. These are followed by a piece from the Javanese gamelan tradition, Ladrang Mugirahayu. Its otherworldly spiritualism by this point is anything but out of place. The equal-handedness across styles occasionally threatens to compromise the material, with the Vivaldi (Vedrò Con Mio Diletto – an aria from ‘Il Giustino’) and Dowland given in keys that cause the vocal lines to lie a little low for comfort at times. The overly-close miking (fine for pop singers, not so good for trained voices) makes the singer’s in-breaths rather more audible than one would wish, but these are minor issues.
This is a recording that behaves like a book of poems, bringing together materials and ideas, working with aural textures and timbres, and texts, raising questions and evoking wonder – as good songs should. A fascinating release.