Jan Jirásek: Parallel Worlds
Navona Records

On Parallel Worlds, the alliance formed between composer and performer benefits both parties to the greatest imaginable degree: the music by Czech composer Jan Jirásek (b. 1955) is enhanced by the authoritative performances of the Czech children's choir JITRO (‘daybreak' in Czech), while the choir likewise benefits in being handed such wonderful material to sing. With the presentation largely restricted to vocals (two of the four pieces include piano and percussion), the music assumes a somewhat timeless quality; shorn of instruments that could tie it to a specific era, Jirásek's material sounds as if it might have been written centuries ago as much as last year. Some ‘modern' touches do identify it as material of recent vintage, specifically things such as vocal glissandos, the use of scissors on one setting, and subtle deviations from conventional tonality, but the material just as easily aligns itself to works associated with the Renaissance and Medieval traditions; certainly, the presence of chant-like melodies in Missa Propria and Si, Vis, Amari, Ama draws a connecting line from his music to Gregorian chant and liturgical music. Similarly, while the pieces on Parallel Worlds, all four of which were recorded at the Municipal Music Hall in the Czech Republic between 2010 and 2015, would sound fine performed in a concert hall, their more natural home would be a church, particularly one distinguished by rich acoustics where the majestic quality of the choir's vocalizing would be allowed to blossom.

Also a teacher, who's taught composition at universities in Europe and the USA, and an award-winning film composer, Jirásek has seen his works performed throughout the world since 1989. Though Parallel Worlds is almost a purely vocal-based recording, he's also written instrumental material, including the string quartet Fragile Balance/Letter to Heaven and Bread and Circuses, a ‘recomposition' for six percussionists that draws upon Bach and Carl Orff. Led by conductor Jirí Skopal since 1977 and accompanied by pianist Michael Chrobák, JITRO features thirty choir members hailing from the Czech Republic and selected from over 350 children (ranging in age from five to nineteen) in six preparatory ensembles. Internationally celebrated, the vocal group has toured the USA, Japan, China, and Europe, released more than thirty recordings, and received thirty-two first prizes in international competitions between 1988 and 2015. The ties between Jirásek and JITRO run deep: the composer first met Prof. Skopal in 1975 as his student and today is regarded by JITRO as its resident composer.

The first of two a cappella works, Missa Propria provides a powerful early showcase for the choir's pure, silvery textures. As the vocals overlap during the work's eerily haunting “Kyrie eleison,” the dramatic music alternates between diatonic and chromatic tonalities as it ascends heavenward, growing ever more glorious and supplicating with each pass. Downturning glissandos imbue “Gloria. Miserere. Gloria.” with a modern air, the setting otherwise a remarkable instance of the group's polyphonic artistry, while the dynamic “Credo. Agnus Dei.” presents the work's most high-powered singing.

The choral cycle Si, Vis, Amari, Ama sees the choir, now accompanied by Chrobák's piano and Jan Míšek's tambourine, singing Latin quotations drawn from various writers, among them Cicero (“They condemn what they do not understand”), Seneca (“The long road is by precept; brief and efficient by example”), and Shaw (“Beware of the man whose God is in the skies”); markedly concise, the four parts total seven-and-a-half minutes, with “Omnia vincit amor” (“Love conquers all things”), “Quod me nutrit me destruit” (“What nourishes me destroys me”), “Audentes fortuna iuvat” (“Fortune favors the bold”) and “Si, vis amari, ama” (“If you wish to be loved, love”) each making its exuberant case with dispatch. Jirásek's forward-thinking spiritual sensibility permeates Mondi Paralleli in the way it unites ideas from Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam into a seven-part work that stresses the need for cultural tolerance; again many parts are short, which helps make the elaborate vocal inventions of the longer movements “Sanctus” and “Te Deum laudamus. OM AH HUM” stand out.

Described as a micro-opera, 2013's King Lávra could also be called an oratorio, with orchestral resources in this case represented by Chrobák's piano, Pavel Plašil's percussion, and the composer himself on scissors. Timely in its content, the seventeen-minute work's text is drawn from an 1854 satirical poem by Karel Havlícek Borovský about an authoritarian ruler and subjects who long to, in Jirásek's words, “know the truth about their political leaders. Such a story never goes out of date.” Executed with conviction by all concerned, the singers' emphatic delivery is accentuated by the aggressiveness of Plašil's drum rolls and, more than any of the other three works, suggests kinship in its dramatic design with late Shostakovich. King Lávra is also arguably the richest of the vocal works in the way it expands on the range of vocal effects to include spoken passages and the enunciation of individual isolated consonants, and of course the idea of using scissors as a punctuating percussive element is certainly imaginative. Graced by four sterling examples of Jirásek's sacred and secular choral music, Parallel Worlds clearly offers an excellent introduction to anyone coming to his work for the first time.

July 2017