A composer putting out a first recording often throws a sampling of pieces in any number of formats into one compact package — more of a calling card than a unified statement of purpose. So goes The Strange Highway (BIS), the debut recording of works by the Iranian American composer Gity Razaz, 36, who now lives in New York City and has racked up a number of high-visibility commissions from the BBC Symphony, Seattle Symphony, The Kennedy Center, National Sawdust, Ballet Moscow, and other groups.
Like many such albums, this one is best absorbed one piece at a time. And the piece that repays attention the most is Legend of Sigh, a 19-minute tone poem for live cello, prerecorded cello, and electronics that instantly entices the ear and doesn’t let go.
Legend of Sigh is based on an Azerbaijani folktale about a spirit named Sigh, who appears wherever someone emits a said sigh as if calling out to the spirit. Razaz summons up the image of an unhappy widow who sighs; the spirit appears and transforms the woman into the body of another woman who perhaps inevitably goes through the same cycle of discontent (there’s a moral in that).
Legend of Sigh is one of several new pieces that the Israeli American cellist Inbal Segev has commissioned over the last decade, and she lays down her sensuously rich timbre lavishly on both live and canned instruments. How the legend translates into music is not clear, but it doesn’t matter, for we are instantly thrust into a phantasmagoric world from the first notes — Segev’s singing cello surrounded by a glowing halo of digital electronic sound, occasionally joined by prerecorded cello. Later, the parts are complex and busy, diving around each other. Part 2 starts with a rhythmic dance that collapses through a subtle electronic hole out of which a lyrical adagio for both cellos emerges. This is the pick of Razaz’s crop on the album, and it holds up over repeated hearings.
Almost as immediately appealing is Metamorphosis of Narcissus, which, inspired by a Salvador Dalí painting, does illustrate its legend more clearly. A French horn and then solo winds rise over a bed of gauzy electronics and fibrillating strings, building to a mighty crescendo. Then comes a slow segment, one that is quite lyrical and beautiful, gathering steam and lusciousness until self-infatuated Narcissus disappears into the void. Andrew Cyr leads Metropolis Ensemble in this work.
The title track, The Strange Highway, begins with a quiet drone and suddenly leaps into a rugged totentanz for an octet of cellos (the All-American Cello Band), heavy on the insistent rhythm. This is succeeded by a dark, pessimistic song that gradually fills the space with dissonant frenzy before fading into ghostly spareness, after which some of the earlier agitation rises again.
Of lesser interest is a Duo for violin (Francesca dePasquale) and piano (Scott Cuellar) with an opening movement where the violin starts with a melodic idea before going impulsively into a more agitated, ambiguous state of tonality, followed by a serious, Shostakovich-like scherzo. Spellbound is an indulgence for solo viola, as played by Katharina Kang Litton, that wanders through various effects and timbres, some Persian in intent. Spellbound I was not.