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Hubert Culot
MusicWeb International, September 2008

The pieces here were composed between 1998 and 2004 so that one may now have a fair idea of what his recent output sounds like.

Albanian-born Thomas Simaku graduated from the Tirana Conservatory and gained a doctorate in composition at the University of York where he studied with David Blake. Later he was the 1996 Leonard Bernstein Fellow in Composition at Tanglewood studying with Bernard Rands and a fellow at the Composers’ Workshop at California State University with Brian Ferneyhough. He is now a lecturer in composition at the University of York. In his insert notes the composer mentions that after his studies in Tirana, he worked for three years as Music Director in a remote town in Southern Albania where he has some working association with folk musicians. He believes that this has had a lasting influence on his music-making. This does not mean that his music is folk-inflected in a direct and superficial way neither that it might be compared to, say, Bartók’s imaginary folklore. It nevertheless retains some characteristic features of Albanian folk music such as microtone inflections, drones and quasi-improvisational elements, which can be heard in all the pieces recorded here.

Two recent string quartets open and close this release entirely devoted to chamber works for string instruments, of which Soliloquy I for solo violin is the earliest. This was followed by Soliloquy II for solo cello and Soliloquy III for solo viola. Although written at intervals these three independent works make an instrumental cycle of interlinked pieces. The real interconnection between the pieces might appear clearly through some close analysis, which is not the point here. Neither am I equipped to carry out such analysis. Suffice to say that these works explore the technical and expressive range of their respective instruments in much the same way as Bartók’s Sonata for Solo Violin, Jolivet’s Suite Rhapsodique, Berio’s Sequenza VIII and many other such works. The music is extremely demanding in terms of playing technique, but never gratuitously so. Technical virtuosity is just part of the composer’s means to achieve his expressive aims. Melody, too, is rarely absent and the central sections of all the works here remain essentially melodic. The pieces comprising the Soliloquy Cycle and the Duo Sotto-Voci (also for solo violin) are best described, I think, as free fantasies exploring a wide range of moods and expressions in a remarkably imaginative manner.

Although obviously from the same pen and sharing a number of common characteristics, the two string quartets recorded here are nevertheless different. Radius – String Quartet No.2 was completed in 2003 and, like its successor, Voci Celesti – String Quartet No.3 composed in 2004, is in a single movement albeit falling into various contrasting sections played without a break. In much the same way as in the pieces for solo stringed instruments, the music explores varied moods and emotions while exploiting the full expressive potential of the medium. Radius is the finest work here and the most readily accessible, probably because emphasis is more on melody than on anything else, although the music has its more animated sections. On the other hand, the music of Voci Celesti displays a wider palette including some spectral harmonies, although these are never overdone. The constant characteristic in these and the other works is that the music never rambles but unfolds according to some ineluctable inner logic. This results in tightly knit structures so that the works rarely outstay their welcome.

The works recorded here confirm my early impressions when I first heard some of Simaku’s music. Here is a composer who obviously has things to say and who knows how to say them best. His music may be complex and demanding, particularly so on the players’ part, but it is ultimately rewarding, which this generously filled release confirms. The only reservation that I may have concerning this otherwise excellent disc is that the Second String Quartet should have been placed first, were it only because it is the most accessible work here. So, if you have never heard any of Simaku’s music and are interested in giving it a try, I suggest that you start with the Second String Quartet.

This is a very fine release that is well worth investigating. I hope now that Naxos will soon record some of Simaku’s orchestral and ensemble music.



James H. North
Fanfare, September 2008

I find the sounds eminently listenable, right from first hearing, and the music deeply satisfying. More conservative listeners are warned of Simaku's aggressive harmonic palette, which occasionally slides into micro-tonality.

Written from 1998 (Soliloquy I) to 2004 (Voci celesti), each of these single-movement but multi-faceted works lasts from 10 to 13 minutes. Simaku employs a wide dynamic range, often pared down to mere overtones and very occasionally screaming with everything strings can produce. His instrumental resources are conventional: strings are bowed or plucked; never is the box rapped or banged. In the Soliloquies he displays an uncanny ability to produce color and variety with a single instrument, yet it is never "hear what a viola can do" but rather "this is what I have to say, what I must express." Multiplying that by four creates lustrous passages reminiscent of Bartók's quartets. I am most moved by the Third Quartet and by Due sotto-voci for violin solo, which fully explores the contradictions of its title.

The Kreutzer Quartet (filled out by second violinist Mihailo Trandafilovski) has extensive experience with new music; the booklet makes the unlikely claim that "They are the dedicatees of well over two hundred works for string quartet." It has recorded many contemporary works (although a Kreutzer Quartet that recorded Rochberg's Quartet No, 3 for Naxos features four other players). These four obviously have a deep understanding and feeling for Simaku's music, as well as the considerable chops needed to bring it off. Naxos's recorded sound is pristine and is close enough to pick up those string harmonics. Simaku writes fascinating program notes, although some of his explanations and rationales for the pieces do not mesh with my early impressions. I'm eager to learn more, and to hear more of his work.

I have been put off by most new music of the past two decades; so much of it sounds phony to me, artificially aimed at one audience or another, motivated by or for political, economic, even pedagogical reasons. There is no sign of that here, nothing that suggests adapting to, or being limited by, any standards or conventions. Nor is there any virtuoso display, although this music must be difficult to play. I get the sense of pure music in a serious vein, its composer driven only by an internal need to express himself. This is what I have always wanted from music, and it's rewarding I, find another composer for the new century who satisfies my musical yearnings. I haven't heard enough Simaku yet to position him with Golijov (as if that mattered); I'm just delighted to be enthralled by new music again. Instant Want List material!



Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International, August 2008

Thomas Simaku is an Albanian-born composer who graduated from Tirana Conservatoire and gained a doctorate in composition from York University, where he studied with David Blake, in 1995. He says that his exposure to folk musicians and listening to ancient songs, whilst working in a remote part of southern Albania, had a lasting effect on his music, and the resonances of that sound-world are now subconsciously becoming part of his own music. I have no problems with any of this. Indeed the use of folk material, or folk-inflected material - Simaku says that he does not use real folk material in any of the works recorded here - has been with us for over a century. The range and variety of those myriad compositions is well known to all of us. One of the most exciting things about the use of this folk material is the variety of music it has inspired and helped to create.

Surely it’s this great variety of works which is most exciting and satisfying to a listener. It’s this great variety of music which can be created from folk-derived material which is exactly what is lacking in these works.

The two Quartets, Simaku tells us, “… in different ways, explore the static quality of the drone-based type of linearity …” yet the Third Quartet is full of action, plus lots of sul ponticello, glissandi, Bartók pizzicato and the like. What the music doesn’t have is any logical progression. What Simaku has done is to build a work based almost entirely on tried and true sonorities – old sonorities but not necessarily newly minted, perhaps – with the occasional passage of single notes or chords sustained for a time to depict drones. The Second Quartet begins quite beautifully, slow and quiet, full of expectation - a real melody! - but all too soon we’re off on rapid passagework, dissonant chords, long-held solo notes (the drone revisited?), quiet tremolando which becomes sul ponticello and so on. By the mid-point we’re back in the usual four instrument scramble where the sound is scratchy and ugly. It’s as if the players were trying to get the ensemble back together after becoming hopelessly lost. At one point the music did seem to be going somewhere with some kind of development but it was stopped before anything could be fully realized.

The solo pieces go over the same ground in the same way – ponticello, Bartók pizzicato and so on. These pieces are a handbook of what was happening in the 1960s with nothing new added. I have no problem with the 1960s for that decade fascinates me – especially as I was too young to really understand what was going on at the time. However I am also fascinated by progression, growth and the seeking out of new things in music, not just sonorities but language and expression. What we have here is ideas we’ve heard many times before, and from more experienced hands. Simaku fails to convince me that he has anything of relevance to say and as the music lacks any real individual personality there is little to which one can relate.

There are many followers of contemporary music who will want this disk, but, for me, music without any logical development, where the music fails to progress towards a goal, is not music. It’s sound for its own sake with nothing to back it up, and that is vacuous music.

The booklet is excellent and the sound is very clear so you can hear every detail.



David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2008

Thomas Simaku was born in Albania in 1958, but, having studied as a mature student at York University, has decided to make his home in the UK.

Working in atonal terms, yet with a backdrop of salient musical ideas derived from the sounds of folk idioms heard in the Balkans, both quartets are in the mainstream of today’s modernity, and those already attuned to that language will find both works readily accessible. They date from 2003 and 2004, are of modest length and in one continuous movement divided into a number of independent ideas. Between these two works the disc includes works for solo instruments - violin, viola and cello. Simaku’s aim in the Due Sotto-Voci is to have the violin singing in two voices with an ‘orchestral body’ that accompanies itself. And if you think that is impossible on one instrument, then suspend belief and listen. It was dedicated to Peter Sheppard Skaerved, the leader of the Kreutzer Quartet - the ensemble who give riveting performances of the quartets - and he is brilliantly responsive to the technical feats demanded. The three Soliloquy each use one member of the quartet, and while I find them interesting, with Neil Heyde giving an strikingly display of virtuosity in the cello piece, they have not gripped my attention. Recorded in York University, where Simaku now lectures in composition, the sound quality is exceptionally realistic.






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7:11:41 PM, 29 July 2014
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