The first CD in this double album of Cilia Petridou’s music is given over to vocal music, most of it for two sopranos and piano—a highly effective combination that more composers ought to explore. The flirtatious opening song, The Grocer , is sung by Alison Smart and Lesley-Jane Rogers with evident enjoyment, almost like a latter-day version of the “Cat Duet” misattributed to Rossini. Sirens is something I don’t think I’ve heard before—a free-standing vocalise-duet (there are some in opera, sure, but I don’t know of one conceived as such from the start); though the title may suggest allure, in effect it’s a wordless lament. Petridou’s own text makes the next lament—for her lost homeland—specific in intent, with the two overlapping voices suggesting some kind of intensely felt funeral ceremony. What Love Is , the first solo song here, is bluesy and teasing; Mirrors likewise has a jazzy, smoky quality. The dark tone of Optimism belies its title, though it is briefly relieved as the music proceeds.
The Siege is an extended scena, 24 minutes in length, two extended panels hinged on a brief central section, the voices keening movingly in their sense of loss; the music takes on a hieratic quality in its closing pages, and the coda is a representation of bells. The piano parts in some of these compositions are sparse, oddly from a pianist-composer (perhaps because of the working conditions she explained to me); in The Siege it sounds almost like the reduction of an orchestral texture—and, indeed, The Siege might respond very well to orchestration, at least for string, and perhaps for full orchestra, not least since it comes close to stalling at times, and long lines in the accompaniment would maintain the momentum. Evtho , another extended setting, 20 minutes in duration, adds a baritone to the two soprano voices and a violin, cello, and clarinet to the piano, though the hesitancy of the other pieces endures; The Grocer apart, not one of these works develops its own momentum, which is part of what gives The Siege and Evtho their ritual quality—it’s as if you are waiting for some ceremony to unfold. She did say that she was unfamiliar with classical harmonic procedures until late in her adolescence; perhaps this formal, deliberate manner is an echo of the music she heard around her in her younger days.
Turning to the CD of Petridou’s chamber music, I realize with hindsight what she meant when she said it “will probably appeal more to Western audiences” than the songs—although Petridou’s oddly diffident writing style takes some getting used to. There is a degree of amateurishness to it, for reasons that her interview makes clear, but once you settle down to its rather stop-and-start way of unfolding, its essential honesty begins to make its mark—and the very want of fluency gives it an innocent charm, not least since it is often very lovely.
The piano quartet Memories dates from 1979 and, as the title suggests, evokes the Cyprus of Petridou’s childhood. It opens with a bashful exchange of phrases between the participants that grows slightly more confident but never quite settles into its stride; the second movement is another lament, the more effective for its understatement; and an attractive folk tune launches the finale Attacca and provides the material for its gently evolving development. Like Memories , the single-movement string quartet The Collar (the composer’s booklet note explains the point of the title but doesn’t date the piece) feels its way forward through a moving haze of folk-flavored recollections. The piano trio Black July 1974 (1979) makes its intentions clear in its title: It is a three-movement elegy for the life in northern Cyprus that the Turkish invasion was to rob from its Greek inhabitants. Perhaps anger serves Petridou well, since the first movement at last generates a degree of momentum—initially, indeed, the music occasionally recalls Beethoven—but the impulse is soon dissipated. The second movement is a haunting “Lament for Famagusta” and the third supposedly “recalls happy times during the first months of Independence” (in 1960)—but it is hardly less sorrow-laden than the rest of the music here; the same applies to the finale, which opens in bright-eyed innocence and soon turns to sadness.
The remaining four works on the CD are character-pieces for violin and piano (none of them dated in Petridou’s booklet notes), two either side of two minutes, the other two flanking five; the mood is the one already firmly established.
The performances on both CDs are sensitive and thoughtful; I wondered whether a more assertive approach might have got the chamber works out of second gear—but it might also have bullied these tender plants beyond their carrying capacity. Anyway, the uniformity of the idiom doesn’t serve the music well when you line it all up in a row; in a concert, coming between two other composers, Petridou’s atmospheric and thoughtful idiom would offer an attractive contrast. The recorded sound is entirely natural, and the booklet offers the full Greek text of the songs and English translations.