I predict that this CD is going to be the "next big thing" in the classical world. Reminiscent in different ways of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Górecki's Symphony #3 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"), and the works of Giya Kancheli and Arvo Pärt, Mater is a synthesis of the old and the new, and although it speaks softly most of the time, I think it will have a powerful impact on sensitive listeners.
Godár was born in Bratislava, the capital city of present-day Slovakia, in 1956. His background includes studies in both early music (particularly renaissance polyphony) and in cutting-edge music of today: Xenakis, Berio, Ligeti, and the like. Mater is actually a collection of vocal works composed between 1997 and 2005. "Mater" means "mother" in Latin, of course, and its texts are taken from disparate sources. Godár takes us from annunciation (a Slovak setting of the Magnificat) and birth and infancy (three Slovak lullabies, and James Joyce's Ecce Puer), to death (a Slovak setting of the Stabat Mater) and rebirth (Regina Coeli). This cycle of what is essentially a mother's story is framed by Maykomashmalon, the words of a young Yiddish scholar reflecting on mortality.
Godár's juxtapositions are striking but never jarring. The Regina Coeli, for example, sounds like Monteverdi filtered through Slovak folk music. Here and elsewhere on this disc, one is struck by the singing of Iva Bittová, a vocalist who can sound like a little girl, a gypsy folk-singer, or a grown up classical artist from one moment to the next. I think that she and Björk would have a lot to discuss. Bittová was born in 1958 in what today is the Czech Republic, and has achieved fame as a solo artist. (She often plays the violin as she sings.) She herself inspired Godár to composer the Stabat Mater, and perhaps Mater as a whole can be regarded as a collaborative work between the Godár and Bittová.
In some of Mater's individual works, Bittová is accompanied sparely, by only a viola and a cello. She is accompanied by a string quintet in Uspávanky. In the Magnificat and the Regina Coeli, she is joined by the Bratislava Conservatory Choir, and either a small ensemble of strings, including the harp (Magnificat), or a mixed ensemble containing "antique" instruments such as the harpsichord and the chittarone (Regina Coeli). The contrast between old and new is particularly interesting in Ecce Puer, where Bittová's voice (at its most fragile sounding and ethereal), and Joyce's text (sung in English) is underlined by an instrumental group not unlike an English Baroque consort in its composition.
Recordings released under the ECM New Series label usually are recorded "in house." This time, however, the label has licensed this recording from Pavian Records, based in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. I gather that ECM's Manfred Eicher was so impressed with Mater when Milo Valent brought it to his attention that he decided to give it world-wide exposure on his own label. We're the richer for it. The recording was made in Slovakia with an indigenous recording team, and the sound is just as good as one would expect from any ECM New Series release. As one expects from this label, the booklet is attractive, and contains texts, essays, and session photographs.
Moving but not morbid, thought-provoking but not pretentious, challenging but not forbidding, Mater deserves to be one of the success stories of 2007. I think it will be on many "Best of the Year" lists come December. I know it will be on mine!
Copyright © 2007, Steve Schwartz