'This is distinctive, pungent music that demands close attention' Guardian 2005


An Unexpected Light

NMC D125

Journal of the Lithuanian Music Society (July 2008)

This CD is a great gift to the Lithuanian culture. The praises that Sadie Harrison lavishes on the Lithuanian performers should really be addressed to the composer herself. It is quite amazing how well the talented, intellectual and emotionally charged artist manages to capture and re-interpret the character and national identity encoded in our folk songs. These suggestive, dramatic, deeply felt pieces that convey the feeling of immense space, the smoky depths of Lithuanian landscape, picturesque and touching, -- are true revelations indeed. We witness the spiritual connection at the highest level, which transcends all geographical and cultural boundaries. The past -- with its refined and intensely pure musical language -- appears to be in constant struggle with the present and, perhaps, even the future. Not so much a picture of doom but more of a fruitful, if at times fateful, dialog between modernity and tradition. In contrast, the ends of several of the pieces tend to lighten up and often capture an extraordinary light emerging from the depth of the Lithuanian tunes.

There is another lesson in this testament to our culture. Our authentic musical heritage is immensely vital and capable of giving to people of different cultures spectacular spiritual gifts -- to inspire, elevate and present with the whole range of values, -- the values that we ourselves, unfortunately, tend to forget too often.

Musical Pointers (August 2008)

NMC has struck gold - music which combines a personal musical language with international influences. Sadie Harrison's The Light Garden was "a 'cross-over' offering of the highest quality, suffused with a deep knowledge and love for Afghanistan". For this new compilation she turns her attention to the folk music of Lithuania, Georgia, Khojent (now Russian Ferghana) and Armenia, amongst others, countries in which rich and various musical cultures thrived until a hundred years ago.

The new album's title work An Unexpected Light is a concerto which juxtaposes folk musics with aggressive more modernistic writing 'a metaphor for the struggle between cultures'. The disc is dedicated to producer/ sound engineer David Lefeber for his support "against the odds".

The music is all instrumental, but a lot of it song-based, notably Seven Lithuanian Songs for solo violin; the whole features violinist Rusne Mataityte with various instrumental combinations from duo and trio with piano, string quartet and string orchestra with percussion. A wonderful sequence which held us enthralled, playing the programme through with only one brief pause; a marvelous 'concert' which builds on the legacy of Bartok's and Kodaly's pioneering collecting long ago, and gives 'cross-over' a new and enriched meaning; a disc to which we will return.

Arnold Whittal, Gramophone Record Review (August 2007)

‘A close connection to the Baltic produces absorbing music’

‘Traces of the toad cult found alongside Veprynas Lake’ may not be the snappiest titles, especially for a piece that lasts under three minutes.But this third movement of … an angel reads my open book… sums up the attractions of Sadie Harrison’s engagement with the folk art of Lithuania. This is a music of concise forms, subtle textures and very direct expression. All the expertly engineered recordings were made in Vilnius, and such close identification with a culture other than one’s own inevitably raises questions about personal identity. Yet, as with Bartok, Harrison uses ‘alien’ materials the better to focus her own creative world, and there is absolutely no pandering to the exotic, of using colour as a substitute for thought.

These five related compositions all date from 2003-5 and are designed as tributes to performers - especially Rusne Mataityte, whose intimately intense violin-playing features throughout. Each work alludes to (mainly) Lithuanian folk music, the basic polarities of song and dance generating forms which gain character from the juxtaposition of generic extremes. It’s a shame that it wasn’t possible to follow up the precedent of the 2003 Metier disc in which Harrison’s Light Garden Trilogy was interwoven with the traditional Afghan music which inspired it. it might then have been easier to judge the extent to which the composer has distilled harmonic essences from modal folk melodies. As it is, a passage like the third section of The Bride’s Journey, in which a folk tune seems to be clearly audible throughout, is particularly telling in the way it shows Harrison’s personal style gaining strength from the ethnic context. An absorbing and appealing compilation.

Jerry Wigens, New Notes Reviews (September 2007)

My first thought on hearing this collection was that this was music of considerable substance and variety. Bereft of cliché and predictability, these pieces are infused with a rare honesty, and Harrison’s unapologetic welding of contemporary techniques and Caucasian/Lithuanian folk material makes for a challenging but accessible listening experience. The music here is so ineffably itself that it is difficult to do anything other than encourage people to go and discover it for themselves. Certainly, I found NMC’s publicity description of the music as a ‘minimalist and expressive sound world, bridging the gap between Bartók and Arvo Pärt’ particularly puzzling, the only common ground I could discern being the excellence of the string writing.

The piece I found myself listening to over and over was Songs for Rusne: Seven Lithuanian Folk Songs (2005). Here, the wonderful solo playing of Rusně Mataityte, who combines extraordinary technique with native empathy, is thrown into full relief and is a real joy to hear. At certain points, as in Us, birrr, piggies home and Dear Mother Sun, the performer is asked to vocalise certain spoken phrases ensuring that the material’s local colour is not lost. The string quartet piece Geda’s Weavings (2003) is a cool encapsulation of the rest of the material here, drawing as it does on strands and threads of the other five pieces and demonstrating Harrison’s versatility to the full. The poetry of Lithuanian poet Sigitis Geda is the inspiration for this piece and for …an angel reads my open book… (2004) for violin and piano.

This recording demonstrates the rich diversity of Harrison’s writing which is always skillful and well-judged. I should add that the liner notes are exceptional, with the composer giving comprehensive background detail to the pieces, and the texts from which she drew inspiration being reproduced in full. Hopefully this recording will win Sadie Harrison new listeners and an increased critical respect which is long overdue. But it might also serve to inspire those listeners to investigate these regions’ rich cultural heritage about which, one could argue, too little remains known.

Colin Clarke, Music Web Seen & Heard Concert Review: Harrison, Elias, MacMillan, Christina Mairi Lawrie (piano).

Purcell Room, PLG Series, Wednesday, January 7th, 200

Nice to come across more of Sadie Harrison’s music. I waxed lyrical, and at length, on her ‘Light Garden Trilogy’ when it was performed last September. The much shorter, although hardly less impressive, Impresa Amorosa (the correct spelling – ‘Impressa amorosa’ appears erroneously elsewhere in the programme booklet) is a set of seven short piano pieces dating from 1996. The title is from the 15th century practice of love tokens exchanged between knights and their loves, the significance of which were known uniquely to the lovers. Consisting of an image and motto, each made no sense without the other. Later this concept came to symbolise the shortcoming of language as a communicative tool. As Harrison puts it, ‘it is at this point that the relationship between the aesthetic of the impresa and the musical Impresa Amorosa begins’.

And a very fertile relationship it is, too. As a generative concept it clearly fired Harrison’s imagination and in turn, Harrison’s score inspired pianist Christina Mairi Lawrie to great things. Lawrie’s advocacy was never in doubt, her wide tonal range complementing Harrison’s often sensuously beautiful textures perfectly. The opening to ‘Falcon/Semper (Always)’ was beautifully projected by Lawrie: the sparse, open sound brought to mind a much deconstructed, recontextualised Cathédrale engloutie. Lawrie fully realised the contrasts in this work, hardening her tone as appropriate, then (memorably) darkening it (especially for one particular passage that came across with all the disturbing emotive force of late Liszt). Melodies were projected well without being forced on the listener, and the more virtuoso passages gave Lawrie few problems.

Harrison’s sensitivity to harmony and the inherent potentialities of any given simultaneity result in some passages of extreme beauty. Just sometimes, though, there was the impression that the musical material wanted to ‘stretch’ itself, to reveal more to the listener about itself yet did not quite get the chance. Nevertheless, this did not disappoint and it is to be hoped reacquaintance will be swift.