CD Review: Chiaroscuro/Sheldon And Kanga


The Sydney Conservatorium of Music was the venue for the concert launch last month of the CD  Chiaroscuro, Modern works for soprano and piano a debut collaboration between soprano Jane Sheldon and pianist Zubin Kanga, two forward-looking Australian musicians with busy international careers. Chiaroscuro is an anthology of works spanning the works of major Australian and international composers from the 20th and 21st centuries, united by the “extremes of light and dark, passion and despair, love and death.”

Some readers may be strongly tempted to flee at the mere mention of contemporary music – but wait! This is an appealing anthology, alluringly performed by Sheldon and  Kanga as they explore the possibilities – and the limits – of their respective instruments.

New York based Sheldon began her singing  in Sydney and continues to return regularly for concerts and recordings. Those who have heard her will know her voice is unique for its incandescent purity, range and her ability to adapt to singing with an absence of vibrato. To this she adds a range of colours and textures to tell her stories.

London-based Zubin Kanga also began his career in Sydney and now travels around the world as a contemporary pianist, returning regularly to Sydney to perform and record. On this CD, Kanga creates novel soundscapes on the piano which complement the songs. He draws on various devices, amongst them harmonics, strumming and plucking, alongside a conventional touch that is based on his classical training, 

Together, they perform this music as equal partners. Sheldon takes control of changes of register, vast leaps in pitch, atonality, microtones, and a sometimes percussive use of the voice. Singing in five languages, she performs rapid arpeggiated passages with pinpoint accuracy, slipping into phrases of great smoothness that are seductive and hypnotic.

George Crumb’s Apparition for soprano and amplified piano (1979)  is an adventurous beginning to the album and makes an indubitable statement of the style and accomplishment of Sheldon and Kanga. This nine song cycle setting of Walt Whitman’s poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d contains songs with and without words. Crumb’s music ventures into new and exciting sonorities which Sheldon and Kanga perform with surety.

In Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s two songs  Il Pleut (text by Guillaume Apollinaire)  and Iltarukous, (text by Eino Leino), Sheldon’s voice hovers phantom – like and ethereal over the piano. Il pleut features a skeletal, formulaic chromatic descending scale, plucked on the piano strings, like dripping raindrops; Iltarukous is much richer in texture although just as spectral in its impact.

Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle Das Buch der hängenden Gärten, Op. 15, (The Book of the Hanging Gardens), written in 1908-1909 is a setting of the poems of Stefan George, containing fifteen songs of which the duo perform six. It is a composition that is considered to be on the cusp of Schoenberg’s transition from the late Romantic style to his espousal of twelve-tone serialism.  The poems are intensely expressive, telling of desire and decay, quite at odds with the musical writing which dispenses with tonality, rhythm, harmony and melody. The text could easily become an abstract recitative devoid of expression, but Sheldon and Kanga create an exotic and languid feel that flows free of the constraints of structure.

Contemporary Australian composer Rosalind Page’s Sonetos del Amor Oscuro (2004/2010) is a  collection of six songs using text by Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. Sheldon sings in Spanish, revealing new textures in the lower registers of her voice. Idiomatic ornamentation and  piano writing which evokes the sounds of the guitar, create an alluring Iberian aesthetic.

The mood segues into Sonata (2010) by Australian composer Daniel Rojas which sets Pablo Neruda’s poem of the same name.  Sonata illustrates the enigmatic world of shamans and rituals whilst also drawing on Rojas’ Latin American heritage. Sonata is the longest single work on the album and  makes substantial demands on the voice as Sheldon moves from ritualistic chants to the rustic and playful singing of young girls, ending the final movement on a high D flat. Rojas himself is a brilliant pianist and a masterful improviser. His writing for the piano is truly beautiful and colours the narrative.

Chiaroscuro is an album that takes art song into the future. No doubt established art song repertoire will endure for centuries to come. However, there are new frontiers to be traversed, and Sheldon and Kanga have thrown down the gauntlet with music that is innovative as well as that which challenges our emotions by gently leading us to our dark side.

Chiaroscuro was recorded at Stuart & Sons in Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, with Kanga performing on an Australian made Stuart & Sons piano. Chiaroscuro, Modern works for soprano and piano is available on the Phosphor Records label (PR 0003).

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundslikeSydney©

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