Ficino Ensemble reinterprets Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs

Ficino Emsemble

Ergodos is proud to announce the release of Folk Songs, the new album from Irish chamber group Ficino Ensemble, and Irish vocalist Michelle O’Rourke. The album presents Luciano Berio’s now classic collection of folk song arrangements from 1964, alongside four brand new works, each engaging with the ethos of folk song, specially commissioned from composers Judd Greenstein (USA), Kevin O’Connell (IRL), Kate Moore (AUS-NL), and Garrett Sholdice (IRL).

Curated by Nathan Sherman, violist and artistic director of Ficino Ensemble, this album presents a richly varied kaleidoscope of human emotions and musical colours; it is a celebration of musical pluralism. The music here is by turns optimistic, imploring, droll, and desolate; the soundworlds range from full and driving, to spare and poignant, to intimate and timeless. Vocalist Michelle O’Rourke and the musicians of Ficino Ensemble offer deeply committed performances, conjuring a unique atmosphere for each song.

“What exactly is a folk song?” asks Sherman. “Is it the tune, or is it the words? Is it a style or a feeling?” Ultimately, for him, folk music feels like “a way of glimpsing into the past and finding our connection with it. This is how we make sense of ourselves and our society”, he continues. “This record is a testament to the most human instincts: to see, to reflect and to be moved.” Sherman quotes the American folklorist George Herzog (1901-1983): “The creative process […] is spread over many individuals and generations, and it never comes to an end as long as the tradition is alive.”

Written during the folk revival of the 1960s where Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie were singing folk music to the masses, Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs is both a celebration of Berio’s love of world music, and a tribute to the “artistry and the vocal intelligence” of the singer Cathy Berberian (1925-1983), to whom Berio was married at the time.

“I have given the songs a new rhythmic and harmonic interpretation: in a way, I have recomposed them”, wrote Berio.  “The instrumental part has an important function: it is meant to underline and comment on the expressive and cultural roots of each song. Such roots signify not only the ethnic origins of the songs but also the history of the authentic uses that have been made of them.”

The first two songs of the set, ‘Black Is The Color’, and ‘I Wonder As I Wander’, originate with Kentucky folk singer and composer John Jacob Niles (1892-1980). The first juxtaposes a kinetic viola part evoking “a country dance fiddler” against the plaintive melody. The second is a simple flowing rendition, with an avian postlude that is pure Berio. ‘Loosin Yelav’, the third, is a traditional Armenian love song to the moon, and a homage to Cathy Berberian’s Armenian heritage.

The ‘Azerbaijan Love Song’ that completes this beautiful collection was apparently discovered by Cathy Berberian on old 78rpm recording of a town band from the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. She transcribed the words phonetically, not knowing their meaning. Berio’s setting is a driving march, full of vigour and musical exuberance. 

Tracks 1-4 were specially commissioned by Ficino Ensemble in 2020, with funds provided by The Arts Council / An Chomhairle Ealaíon.

To mark the album launch, Ficino Ensemble & Michelle O’Rourke will perform in Dublin and Cork on 9 & 10 July 2022.

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