I was first attracted to classical music by the waltzes of Johann Strauss the Younger, whose music put such vivid scenes from the Austrian countryside in my head that I could close my eyes and see the deep blue of the Danube River, the lush forest around Imperial Vienna and its resident critters, and even the grandeur of its capital city and ruler. I listened to it so much that I could name any of Strauss’ waltzes after hearing any string of 3 notes. So, it was no wonder why I developed such an affinity to the folk-music-inspired orchestral suites from the Romantic period... Composers like Dvorak, Grieg, and Smetana haunted my stereo long before I discovered Wolfgang Mozart and the bel canto opera composers... or even George Handel.
Vocal music, on the other hand, didn’t have an easy entrance into my listening repertoire... I hated opera. Hated it! The first one of those I was exposed to was Richard Strauss’ Salome... a shamelessly morbid work about the young Hebrew sociopath whose erotic dancing so pleases her step-dad Herod that he grants her the wish to be presented with the severed head of John the Baptist on a platter... to which bloody thing she proceeds to (at least musically) make love to. All that before ending the spellbindingly repulsive night at the opera with a bloody finale. It is a work of genius... Unappetizing, to be sure, and decidedly impossible to love for me (it is nearly atonal and musically very uncomfortable by design... And when it is done really well, I’m simply both too afraid and repulsed to love it. How do you praise with straight face something that is so gorgeously grotesque?).
After that, I had only heard snippets of operas... usually coloratura arias done by screechy leggierro soprani whose sole ambition in life seemed to lie in squeezing out as many high notes as inhumanly possible in the limited time frame. So, whenever a clip of opera or classical singing recital would show up while I was parked at the Classic Arts Showcase cable program at night, I’d switch the channel to watch something else (hopefully) a little less acoustically offensive.... That was, until one night in 2005 when I got preoccupied with something when I heard this unmistakably operatic music coming out of the television and looked up in horror to see this ‘drag queen’ sitting in front of a mirror on a revolving stage that just screamed ‘OPERA!’ from its every pixel. I dove for the remote controller - you know, that flighty little electronic gadget with the talent for disappearing just when you need it the most, and couldn’t find it before she -SHE! It WAS a girl!- started singing.
Well, if ever I was well-served by my lack of speed... The lady may have looked like a drag queen on first (or second, or, god forbid, even third!) sight, but the moment she opened her mouth and started singing, she was the earth goddess reincarnated. I was arrested by the deep and dark sound of her voice, and transfixed by what that burnish coppery tone was communicating. The music was Rosina’s entrance aria, Una voce poco fa, to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville... and it was charming. I had heard it many times before without really thinking much more of it than as a showy tune for coloratura soprani to show off their vocal pyrotechnic with. But this rendition was different. All of the sudden every single note coming out of this quirky creature in ill-fitted dress actually meant something. Even when she ran through the tricky coloratura passages while deftly handling the liquid-filled test tubes or scaling up to her high B’s, it wasn’t necessary to understand the Italian lyrics, I knew exactly what her opera character was airing just from the voice itself.
It was an endlessly fascinating experience to be sitting there actually wishing that an opera clip had lasted longer while feeling both silly and amazed at how much I actually bought the spontaneity of the scene that I just saw and heard - knowing full well that every note was rehearsed and every move was choreographed beforehand.
That... was my first encounter with Vesselina Kasarova, the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano who has, since that day, enjoyed a near monopoly of my stereo system. I’ve listened to many other singers and many other operas since, of course, and have also realized just how mistaken I was about her ...er... appearance (definitely NOT a drag queen... Just inexplicably made to look like one every time she had to sing a female role at Zurich Opera in the 90's!). All the same, it was a real delight for a folksy-classical music loving critter like me to look up Kasarova’s recordings at Amazon not long after seeing that video clip to find that she had released a full CD of 14 Bulgarian folk songs arranged by the composer Krassimir Kyurkchiyski for a solo mezzo soprano voice and chorus back in 2003.
Bulgarian Soul is its title, and every track on it carries its own scent and sense of Bulgaria on its notes. Granted, the songs are not performed traditionally here, but their long lasting if ever melancholic spirits remain authentically intact, thanks to Kasarova’s ability to remove the middleman-ness from the communication of the stories. You don’t hear someone singing about someone else’s experiences. She simply becomes the originator of the story herself and lets you in on her many secret yearnings and fears... and on what keeps her going, standing firm in the rushing river of life with the same determination that carried Orpheus through the torments of Hades’ most restless furies in his quest to bring Eurydice back to the land of the living. Her incendiary dark mezzo-soprano is also superbly supported by the Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria female chorus under Vania Moneva, the Sofia Soloists Chamber Orchestra under Tzanko Dimitrov Delibozov, and the spotless piano accompaniment by Ermila Schweizer-Sekulinova. It is really a case of acoustic synergy where great musicians successfully work together to create something that transcends themselves. (Click here for my proper review of the CD)
Recorded in July 2002 at Bulgaria Concert Hall in Sofia, Bulgaria, and released in 2003, Bulgarian Soul won the well deserved 2004 ECHO Award for World Music. I almost wish I was born a Bulgarian listening to this thing... but then I wouldn’t really have wanted to grow up behind the Iron Curtain. Everyone you hear in this recording did; however, and survived... and their spiritual endurance emanates in the sound of their folk music. If there is such a thing as a medicinal melancholy, this musical intonation of the smell the local Bulgarian flowers, the girls in soukman dress, the Bulgarian countryside and the history of its people, is it.
Vesselina Kasarova (mezzo soprano soloist), Ermila Schweizer-Sekulinova (piano)
Vania Moneva & The Cosmic Voices of Bulgaria, Tzanko Dimitrov Delibozov & The Sofia Soloists Chamber Orchestra
1. Dilmano, Dilbero
2. Kalimanku, Denku
3. Day mi, Bozhe, krila lebedovi (Give Me, God, Wings of the Swan)
4. Zablyalo mi e agantse (A Little Lamb Was Bleating)
5. Polegnala e Tudora (Fair Tudora is Sleeping)
6. Rofinka bolna lezhi (Rufinka Lies Ill)
7. Melodiya (Melody)
8. Slantse ogreyalo (The Sun is Shining)
9. Se ma yad, mamo (I’m So Angry, Mother)
10. Malkata tsvetarka (The Flower Maiden)
11. Vokaliza (Vocalize)
12. Mama Rada dumashe (Mama Was Telling Roda)
13. Proshetna se Momchilitsa (Momchil’s Young Wife)
14. Ya kazhi mi, oblache le byalo (Tell Me, Little White Cloud)
1 CD. Booklet contains a fascinating note on the history and tradition of Bulgarian folk music in English, German, and French by Vesselina Kasarova, a note on Bulgarian folk music by Krassimir Kyurkchiyski, short motif on each songs and lyrics in Bulgarian (written in phonetic English alphabet) and English translation.