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Simon Trpčeski - Makedonissimo - Gramophone

Don’t be fooled by the playful title. Simon Trpčeski’s exploration of Macedonian folk music, born at the 2017 Ludwigsburg Festival and recorded here with a dedication ‘to the people of Macedonia’, is a serious affair shaped by input from ethnomusicologists and ultimately chiselled into form by a composer.

Complex compound rhythms are what consistently tweak the ear in Macedonian folk music. Pande Shahov has arranged groups of them in six contrasting ‘plaits’ – medleys uniting related time signatures. We move from 2/4 (Plait 1) to 13/8 (Plait 6) via 12/8 (Plait 2), 7/8 (Plait 3), 9/8 (Plait 4), and 18/8 and 22/8 combined (Plait 5). The arrangements include well-known songs and dances, their provenance detailed in the booklet. Does the result have the feeling of tavern and street dances dried out and placed under glass? A little. The quintet of piano, violin, cello, clarinet/saxophone/kaval and percussion (both rhythmic and brightly tuned) is staffed by Trpčeski and friends from both distinguished orchestral chairs and the folk music tradition.

The sound of the kaval and the smoky, prayerful vocals (the singer isn’t credited) are a tonic but it’s the rhythms – and their harmonic by-products – that get you: the additions, elongations and irregularities that wrong-foot ears trained further west. Often they are born of the characteristics of the Macedonian language; the song ‘Sitna Lisa’ from Plait 3 demonstrates how, before Plait 4 goes on to present more quicksilver-like samples. In almost every division of each plait, the rhythm is consistent but the musical conversation (and emphasis of it) cumulative. It is frequently as delicate as Mozart chamber music. Listen carefully and you hear the light-fingered brilliance of Trpčeski’s playing (try ‘etvarki’ from Plait 4 for his hand separation, little trills and so on). He keeps himself in the background but close listening proves he’s behind many of the most interesting events, whether through Shahov’s volition or his own. He finally takes the spotlight in the last number, ‘Postupano’, a vigorous dance from Skopje in which he could almost be the soloist in a forgotten Bernstein concerto.

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Gramophone
01 October 2020