There have been a few recordings of poetry and music over the years. However, there are none featuring the poetry of Margaret Atwood and certainly none that capture its angst-ridden power also encapsulating its imagery in the overarching passion of a musical argument. Andrew Rathbun has a clear and unified vision of key poems and has set them in a musical trajectory on these Atwood Suites that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and compels you to follow their relentless path from the opening bars of "Two Islands" onwards. Moreover, in choosing Luciana Souza to voice the lyrics, he has also executed the music with a master-stroke that has a rippling effect throughout the recording.
Much is revealed in the profoundly airy manner in which Mr Rathbun enables the imagery of the poetry to have a new life in the music of "Two Islands". The few silences of Miss Souza's voice as the music continues with the flugelhorn of Tim Hagans intersperses of words and music packed with expectancy, making for the powerful, almost painful physical impact of both words and music, separate and together. The three parts of the "Islands" suite emerge - tentatively at first, then with full force - as a unified force using a carefully constructed process that notches up the tension by several degrees as the music moves forward until a glorious crescendo brings this music to a close in a passage delivered with shattering intensity.
There's a similar strategy to the way the rest of the music unfolds as well. For all of the scurrying musical activity of the opening suite, it is already evident that much more in terms of creativity lurks under the surface in this epic recording by Mr Rathbun. Like a master of drama and suspense, Mr Rathbun reveals this only after creating as much dynamic tension as he can in setting this poetry to music by cleverly melding the lyricism and imagery of poetry, not only with the songful-ness of his compositions, but couching all of it in the form of musical narrative. Once we are trapped in this inevitable mystery of this recording there is no escape from its beauty.
The dramatic poems on disc one only reveals themselves mid-movement as we plunge headlong into the full-scale assault of the musical themes here sounding even more profound because of the music. After the descent into the abyss of "Power Politics", with which Mr Rathbun and this extraordinary ensemble close out disc one, "Fractured" opens disc two. Here Aubrey Johnson's noble and dignified voice (on disc two that is) helps change the accents and impact of the music, moving it on a course different from the poetry of disc one. After the visceral impact of "Fractured", we do come full circle to the darkly scored music that opened the disc.
From the sonorous reeds and the lacerating horns, smoothed over by the voices and the rippling grooves of the piano, the effect of Mr Rathbun's music on the poetry of Miss Atwood is simply breathtaking. Even in the most challenging passages the ensemble is well-nigh perfect with not a glissando or an arpeggio out of joint, and the reeds and brass' articulation in some of Mr Rathbun's characteristically elaborate writing is tremendously vibrant. Overall, this performance is so devastatingly powerful that one needs a break soon after listening to it, in order to proceed forward to listening to anything else.