Friday, June 22, 2012

Music Review: Joel Frederiksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich - Requiem for a Pink Moon

From conception through execution, Requiem for a Pink Moon is a nearly flawless recording. Pink Moon (1972) was Nick Drake’s final fully-realized album, and has reached something of a mythic status among his fans. It is indescribably elegant, mainly featuring only Nick and his guitar performing 11 songs. Pink Moon is only 28 minutes long, yet in those 28 minutes he breaks our hearts over and over. There were more sessions in 1974, recorded just prior his death by suicide, but Pink Moon remains his definitive work.

Enter lutenist and Elizabethan music scholar Joel Frederiksen. He came about his interest organically, having started out as a guitar player. While in college he attended a live lutenist performance, and as he puts it in the liner notes, “Realized I had to have a lute!” The idea of Requiem for a Pink Moon took a long time to come to fruition, as his interest in recording and performing Elizabethan-era music became all-encompassing.

What tipped his hand was a Volkswagen ad from 2000, which utilized the song “Pink Moon.” In this serendipitous moment, the thought of uniting English music written some 400 years earlier, with that of Nick Drake, began to form.

The resulting Requiem is the most adventurous album I have heard (and likely will hear) this year. One of the many courageous decisions Fredericksen made in the construction of the record was to not follow any structure other than his own. Thus the 24 song, 65:53 set is as personal a requiem as possible. When I first heard the title, I assumed that Requiem for a Pink Moon would be the Pink Moon album simply played in a classical motif. And frankly, that alone was enough to intrigue me.

But the Requiem is so much more. First of all, not all of the songs from Pink Moon are included, only six. Joel has taken the liberty of adding tracks from Nick’s previous two albums, Five Leaves Left, and Bryter Layter, as well as a couple from those final 1974 sessions which were eventually released as Time of No Reply. Interspersed with these are pieces by John Dowland, Michael Cavendish, and Michael Campion, which date all the way back to at least 1597.

Hearing these songs played side by side is revelatory. Knowing that Nick Drake took an overdose of pills at the tender age of 26, forever casts Pink Moon as a haunting, final missive from a doomed soul. Hearing these baroque pieces, with Gregorian texts next to “Road” or “Which Will” is a testament to the brilliance of Joel Frederiksen, for nobody else would have come up with such a thought, or dared see it through.

The most perfect combination for me comes during something of a medley of John Dowland’s “His Golden Locks” and Drake’s “Place To Be,” especially in the second half of “Place To Be” when the two songs are sung simultaneously, further stressing their lyrical connectedness. It is the first of many transcendent moments.
There is much more to come however, as another Dowland composition, “Time Stands Still,” shows. Published in 1603 in The Third and Last Booke of Songs or Ayres, the text is credited to both Anonymous and Joel Frederiksen. His additional lines again draw explicit lines between Nick Drake and these centuries-old lyrics.

Referring to the liner notes again, Joel says that his inclusion of his own “Ocean” was the ultimate “dare” in realizing the Requiem. The song “comments on Nick’s songs and life, and completes a kind of circle,” Joel writes. “Nick uses the ocean frequently as an image and metaphor in songs like 'Time Has Told Me' and 'Voice From The Mountain.'"

For those (like myself) who have always felt that nobody but Nick Drake could sing his songs, there may be a bit of a shock in hearing Joel Frederiksen sing them. His deep voice is so contrary to the fragile, at times barely there vocals that Nick Drake imbued his music with that it takes some getting used to. Again though, the inclusion of the Elizabethan music works to Joel’s great advantage, as his strong voice is the only way to effectively express the sentiments of those pieces. What was initially somewhat disconcerting becomes perfectly natural as the album progresses.

Another genius conceptualization Joel came up with for the Requiem was in allowing Nick’s blues-based 4/4 beat to be the template for the album. It simply would not have worked if there had not been a uniform tempo, and I again applaud the choice he made.

In my effusive praise for what Joel Frederiksen has accomplished with Requiem for a Pink Moon, I have neglected to mention the excellent performances of his Ensemble Phoenix Munich. The contributions of Timothy Leigh Evans (tenor, drum), Domen Marincic (viola da gamba) and Axel Wolf (theorbo, arch lute) provide a wonderfully sympathetic accompaniment to Joel’s voice and lute.

I seriously doubt that I will hear another recording this year which will come close to matching the power and grace Requiem for a Pink Moon. In my opening sentence I called this a “nearly flawless recording.” I should remove the qualifier, for if there is such a thing as a flawless album, this Requiem is certainly it.
Let us give Joel Frederiksen the final word on the recording, in the form of his dedication:

                                                            This CD is for Nick.
                                                      Thank you for the inspiration.
                                                                      Joel

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