CSÁNYI-WILLS: 3 Songs–Budapest 1944*. 6 A.E. Housman Songs+. Elegy for Our Time* / *Ilona Domnich, soprano; +Nicky Spence, tenor; +Jacques Imbrailo, baritone; +Chris McKay, hornist; Londamis Ensemble; Mark Eager, conductor / Toccata Classics TOCC0329
This is how musical connections sometimes come my way. I gave a glowing review to the two CDs of Mieczysław Weinberg’s Violin Sonatas by violinist Yuri Kalnits and pianist Michael Csányi-Wills, then I sent a link of the review to the pianist (I couldn’t find an email address for the violinist, and his on-site contact form didn’t work), and voila, Czányi-Wills wrote me back and asked if I knew he was also a composer (I didn’t) and if I had heard his album of songs with orchestra (I hadn’t). So he kindly sent me download links for the album as mp3 files,and here we are.
What drew me to review these songs were the trailer for them on YouTube. There, I heard music that was intriguing: modern, yet tuneful. The vocal line reminded me a bit of Vaughan Williams, but the orchestral context sounded more modern and, dare I say it, unique and personal. The basic language is tonal, but the overall feeling of each song seems to vacillate in key structure, primarily through the highly imaginative orchestration in which colors, and chord positions, shift rapidly like a light switch being turned on and off.
Interestingly, all of these orchestral songs deal with loss. In Three Songs–Budapest 1944 Csányi-Wills uses incidents in his own family history to overlay the fate of Hungarian Jews under the Nazis. Mortality is an omnipresent theme in A.E. Housman’s Shropshire Lad poems, and Elegy for Our Time sets an anguished lament by Jessica d’Este, sparked by the death of her granddaughter in a car crash. Csányi-Wills responds to the stimulus of these dark texts with music that is hauntingly lyrical and elegiac. It is also remarkable in structure and form, borrowing bits of Britten, Vaughan Williams and Knussen yet swathed in his own feeling for melody and structure. Listening to these songs, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I had heard this musical style before but just couldn’t place the composer. That’s how good they are, and how deep an impression they made. Moreover, the style for each separate group of pieces differed from the others, always the mark of a fine composer. There is an almost Mahlerian sense of deep sorrow in these songs; taken as a whole, in one sitting, is almost a bit overwhelming for a sensitive listener.
It also doesn’t hurt that Csányi-Wills was extremely fortunate to find singers who possess outstanding voices as such, generally good diction, and communicative skills. It would be easy for a professional singer, hired for the occasion, to give a good, solid reading of this music without getting into an understanding of the text, but the singers chosen deliver the goods on all of these levels. The first three Housman songs are sung by the baritone, originally written for James Robinson, while the last three for tenor were composed, it seems, individually, one by one, for conductor Mark Wilson and the Dunblane Chamber Orchestra.
One of the salient features of Csányi-Wills’ compositional style is his knack for finding just the right sound-color for each note and phrase, and as one goes through the album one is often surprised by his sheer variety of sound. I was particularly struck, for instance, by one of the tenor songs from the Housman group, On the idle hill of summer. Here, the composer uses a surprisingly lush-sounding body of strings, yet resists the temptation (too easy nowadays, alas) to swath his music in comforting “pretty” sounds. Indeed, as the song progresses and we reach the section with the words, “Far and near and low and louder / On the roads of earth go by, / Dear to friends and food for powder / Soldiers marching, all to die,” the mood suddenly becomes darker and much more tense, the strings playing sweeping yet stabbing figures as the vocal line is intensified not only in volume but by the use of a higher tessitura. This agitation is continued and built upon as the strings move into fast-moving scale figures, rising upward like stabbing shards of lightning, as the tenor sings “None that go return again / Far the calling bugles hollo, / High the screaming fife replies “ This is the mark of a first-rate composer who understands mood and how to create and sustain it. This is immediately followed by White in the Moon, and here Csányi-Wills creates an entirely different soundscape behind the singer, an almost palpable “white” sound as the strings play sparsely scored figures and the vocal line is more ambiguous.
The recital ends with Elegy for Our Time, in which the incessant ticking of woodblocks is heard both by itself and behind the softly-scored low string and wind blend, made to sound edgy despite its quietude, as the soprano enters on a mid-range note that doesn’t quite fit the surrounding harmony. Here again, Csányi-Wills has managed to find just the right expression for the words and the instrumental context in which they are set, and again it is different from what came before. In truth, this album could stand as a primer for new composers on orchestration.
I was mesmerized by this album and think you will be, too. Highly recommended.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley
“English composer Michael Csányi-Wills (b. 1975) is a real find. He’s also a talented pianist, and has recorded two volumes of Weinberg violin sonatas with Yuri Kalnits for Toccata Classics. But it is the sheer depth of his vocal settings that truly impresses. In addition, the impeccable, atmospheric, deep recording presents these remarkable works in the best possible light …powerfully delivered by the excellent Ilona Domnich …The baritone of Jacques Imbrailo is perfectly suited to this music, plangent and expressive …Nicky Spence is the strong, pure-voiced soloist here. His voice shares many traits with Imbrailo’s in terms of suitability for this music …some ravishing horn playing from Chris McKay.
…Diction from all the singers is exemplary, but it is worth noting they are helped throughout by Csányi-Wills’s fine ear for the English language and by his aptitude for transparent scoring. A simply magical disc”
Colin Clarke (An extract from Fanfare Magazine July 2016)
“This fine Toccata issue introduced me to the music of Michael Csányi-Wills for the first time, and I have to admit that it turned out to be no meanexperience. Born in 1975, this Englishcomposer (with deep Hungarianroots) was first given a taste of music by his opera-loving grandmother. Indeed, she took him to see Donizetti’s Don Pasquale when he was just three, and from then on the youngboy never looked back. The real turning point came after he met Nigel Clarke at the Royal Academy of Music, and with whom he studied composition. As Csányi-Wills’ horizons widened, his collaboration with Clarke flourished, and together they went on to produce several feature-filmscores among other projects. At present Csányi-Wills is composer-in-residence of the Welsh Sinfonia, for whom he has written several pieces for chamberorchestra. He is also Head of Composition at the WorldHeart Beat Academy in Wandsworth, which supports young musicians of all backgrounds and cultures who would otherwise not have access to music. This CD is dedicated to some of the orchestralsongs that the composer wrote during the last six years, and all three compositions deal with the subject of loss.
The ‘Three Songs: Budapest1944′ use documentation from his own family history: the last letter that Csányi-Wills’ grandmother wrote to her children before disappearing from her flat in Budapest in October 1944 in which she shadows the fate of Hungary’s Jews under the Nazis.
In the ‘Six A E Housman Songs’ each piece is wholly permeated by the theme of mortality and death, while the Elegy for Our Timesets an anguished lament by Jessica d’Este, inspired by the loss of her grand-daughter, who died tragically in a car crash aged just twenty-three. This is meaty stuff indeed, with anger and grief alternating with many moments of stillness and almost petrified meditation, which are thenatural emotions one is gripped by whenever someone close to your heart passes away.
A stimulating initiation to the sound-world of a composer whose work certainly demands closer scrutiny. Sonics and annotations (by the composer himself) are first-rate”
“…… a very beautiful work, which demonstrated convincingly that the genius of Housman still has the ability to inspire a new generation of composers . . . there was a beautiful impressionist shimmer to the string writing, and the horn echoing the voice produced some truly emotional moments”
Paul Corfield Godfrey
“a harmonically lush and sweeping musical backdrop”
“Lucy Simmonds’s cello solo in ‘The Last Letter’ was mesmerising. Composer in residence, Michael Csanyi-Wills made note of the poignancy behind this piece. Stunning dynamic surges from the orchestra made this a warm, heartfelt performance. And what an ending. Never have I heard the sound of a full bodied chamber orchestra dissolve into complete nothingness. This was the perfect opportunity in which a minute’s silence was held, to remember those lost at War on the eve of Rememberance Sunday. Csanyi-Wills’ ‘L’Annunziata, a Tango Suite’ injected a brilliant energy back into the orchestra. Players flashed a smile here and there, as they lost themselves in the Argentine-Spanish passion. Again, the double bassists were wonderful, the intense rhythm bursting from their fingers tips. “
“Also enjoyable was Michael Csanyi-Wills’ ´Seagull Nebula’. This was a very different approach to descriptive music . More ‘2001- A Space Odyssey’ than the ‘Lord of the Rings ‘ of the earlier piece. Passages showing the influence of Ligeti and Penderecki alternated with expressive sections with soaring brass solos over expressive strings.”
“After the interval we heard the first Cardiff performance of Michael Csanyi-Wills’s Seagull Nebula, which had been given twice before in the orchestra’s ‘Crescendo Tour’ but which the composer – who attended this concert – was hearing for the first time. He had very considerately sent me a copy of the score for advance study, and my initial reading suggested to me a piece in impressionist style, with the strings divided for almost the full duration and decorated with woodwind arabesques in the best Ravel manner. The results on hearing proved to be more pointillist – Seurat rather than Monet – with bare textures which were more suited to the medium of space which the programme, describing a space traveller approaching, passing through and receding from the nebula, described in the composer’s informative programme notes. The ‘tone poem’ (not so described) had some overtones of Holst (particularly Neptune) and Vaughan Williams (third movement of the Sinfonia Antartica) but the style was decidedly Csanyi-Wills’s own, with the jagged sforzandi in the strings picking out a richly discordant series of chords which framed the rest of the music. The composer’s earlier scores had also displayed a commendable willingness to provide richly melodic themes, but here these were reduced to “wisps of melody” which came and went through the contrapuntal lines of the orchestral writing. The result had a properly unearthly feel which was most effective, and the playing was everything that one could wish. Apparently the quiet cymbal roll which rustled in the ear in the last bars – missing from the full score – had arisen during rehearsals as the result of some bizarre copying mistake – but it was a very beautifully atmospheric touch.”
Paul Corfield Godfrey
“The concert continued with Seagull Nebula, by Welsh Sinfonia Composer in Residence Michael Csanyi-Wills – really inspiring, conjuring the randomness and expansiveness, the dark and light of space.”
PATRICK OVENDEN of The Tenby Observer.
All I can say is that Michael Csányi-Wills’ music for The King of Nerac is a surprise, and a highly positive surprise at that, the best possible way to discover a new voice in the field of film music.
….well-written, thoughtful and beautifully performed orchestral music well worth exploring and simultaneously works as a showcase of the obvious talents of this composer, one of whom we will hopefully hear more soon.