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Joel Fredericksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich, Requiem for a Pink Moon

06-15-2017 | By John Marks | Issue 92

Good friend John Marks once again shares with PF readers the rich trove of musical discoveries that he shelters at his blog site, The Tannhauser Gate

In this case, we have the delight of hearing the fusion of Elizabethan modalities with...mirabile dictu!...none other than a particular favorite of mine, Nick Drake. As unlikely as it seems, the marriage works, and works well. Drake's deep melancholy, seemingly a warning of his all-too-early end, mates well with the 16th century English sensibilities, so often reflecting unrequited love, loss, tragedy, and the ever-presence of death.

Once again we are deeply in the debt of friend John.

Dr. David W. Robinson, Ye Olde Editor

Photo Thomas Zwillinger, courtesy of Harmonia Mundi.

Joel Fredericksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich, Requiem for a Pink Moon. CD Harmonia Mundi HMC 902111 (recorded 2012). (No high-resolution download available, apparently.) Joel Fredericksen, bass voice and lute; Timothy Leigh Evans, tenor voice and drum; Domen Marincic, viola da gamba; Axel Wolf, theorbo and archlute; producer and engineer not credited.

Back in December, in my coverage of the Wilson Audio/MSB event at Fidelis AV in New Hampshire at The Tannhauser Gate, I mentioned how the late-stayers were moved by the cuts I played from Joel Fredericksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich's Elizabethan Nick Drake tribute Requiem for a Pink Moon. You could have heard a pin drop. If that album is unknown to you, here's a brief précis:

The idea of classical bass singer Joel Frederiksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich's putting together an early-instruments Elizabethan tribute album to Nick Drake might strike you as daft, as it did me. But, it works. It's the real deal. There was a melancholic plaintiveness to Drake's music that is not at all far from the Elizabethan temperament. Frederiksen of course sings both beautifully and un-self-consciously. But what makes this recording one of the most affecting I have heard in years is that the interleaving of Elizabethan laments and parts of a Gregorian Chant Requiem Mass with Drake's songs makes such a powerful connection to the universal human experiences of loss and grief, and not just to one particular artist or album. Buy one for yourself, and buy several to give as gifts.

Once or twice since last December, I have listened to RFAPM all the way through. I remain hugely impressed by Fredericksen's artistic achievement. Thinking back, I compiled a list of albums that had major emotional impacts upon me at the time I first encountered them; but with the proviso that they also (for the most part, at least) had to have withstood the test of time.

Strangely enough, while I have heard a lot of great music since the late 1970s, my personal list of most deeply affecting recordings leaves off before 1980. So there is a gap of about 30 years between Sleeping Gypsy and Requiem for a Pink Moon. But I already had realized that, because in awarding RFAPM a Stereophile R2D4 in 2013 I wrote: "This is the most singular album I have encountered in decades, and, a magnificent recording job, too." On to the list:

My list begins with Phil Ochs' darkly eclectic Pleasures of the Harbor (1967). The cinematic title track enthralled me with the power of its story and how the classical-music elements one usually associated with film soundtracks of the Korngold and Hermann era amped up the emotional impact.

The commercial success of Gordon Lightfoot's Sit Down Young Stranger (1970) was powered by the haunting ballad "If You Could Read My Mind." From today's perspective, of course, I recognize that song as a prime example of passive-aggressive male whining. No, Mr. Lightfoot, she cannot read your mind, which is why it is your job to communicate in an effective (and loving) manner.

But, of course, the song is also a study in Apophasis, a fancy Greek word that means bringing something up while denying that you are doing so: "Far be it from me to mention my opponent's three marriages and eight bankruptcies!" Or, in the case of "If You Could Read My Mind," that would be, "Darling, you obviously cannot read my mind, so let me help you, by telling you what is on it."

Tom Rush's forgotten masterpiece Wrong End of the Rainbow (also from 1970) is perhaps best known for its cover of James Taylor's tax-free annuity "Sweet Baby James," but for me the high points were Rush's covers of Jesse Winchester's atmospheric "Biloxi" and William Hawkins' elegiac "Gnostic Serenade."

The singer-songwriter phenomenon reached a high-water mark in the Sensitive Male Department with Dan Fogelberg's 1972 début album Home Free. Delicately tinkly pianos and a nearly weightless falsetto voice… Home Free will either work for you, or it won't.

I think that there are some very worthwhile tracks—you just have to take them at face value, and trust that it isn't all a big cynical put-on. BTW, my favorite song from Home Free, "Wysteria," seems to have been written about a vampire. (I had assumed that it was about a young lady with major emotional problems… .) You have to give credit to a songwriter who can pen:

Was he just like all the rest
When he got to the sad part
Did he stay a bit too long
To save his heart?

And of course, the unraveling-chamber-orchestra arrangement doesn't hurt one bit. (All the albums and songs I mention can be found on Tidal and doubtless other streaming services.)

Michael Franks' bossa-nova tinged Sleeping Gypsy (1977) I have already covered, HERE. If you do not know it, you are really missing out.

Interesting enough, even though I was a big fan of Van Morrison's, and I loved Moondance, I did not think then (and do not think now) that Moondance plumbed the emotional depths my other favorite albums of that period did. (Early in Dan Fogelberg's career, he opened live shows featuring Van Morrison… small world. Of course, the Gold Standard of opening-act trivia bits is Jimi Hendrix' opening for The Monkees.)

(I should give a semi-honorable mention to Neil Young's Harvest, which does not make the main list because of its overall incoherence, the ragged estate of Young's voice even then, and the tiresome posturing of the song "Southern Man.")

So, there you have the context of my nearly boundless admiration for Requiem for a Pink Moon. Here's a bit of a making-of about it, followed by a few sound samples. Most highly recommended, and let me point out one more time that the quality of the recorded sound is magnificent.

1 "Road" (Nick Drake)

2 "Requiem aeternam" (Chant)

3 "Pink Moon" (Nick Drake)

22 "Come Heavy Sleep" (John Dowland)

23 "From the Morning" (Nick Drake)

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