Rhodopa-- Hristo Vitchev and Liubomir Krastev

Those followers expecting yet another enjoyable collaboration between guitarist Hristo Vitchev and pianist Weber Iago may be disappointed to learn instead of this series of duets between Vitchev and clarinetist Liubomir Krastev, but rest assured that this music is every bit as rewarding as any from Vitchev's other projects. The emphasis here is on folk songs from Vitchev's native Bulgaria, five of which are interspersed with two of his own highly compatible originals and two short improvisations. Perhaps no other Vitchev CD makes as clear the profound influence that the music of his homeland (and Krastev's) has had on both his playing and composing, and as usual the music features sublime lyricism and passionate improvisations. The title Rhodopa refers to a mountainous region of Bulgaria, the name having been derived from a figure in Greek mythology.

Krastev's richly contoured clarinet plays the enchanting melody of "Devoiko Mari Hubava (Beautiful Young Lady)" as Vitchev supplies a harp-like ostinato framework. The guitarist intensifies his backing of Krastev's lyrical portrayal leading up to his spirited, pleading improv. Krastev responds in kind, varying his intonation and briskly rising and falling impactfully. For "Oblache Le Bialo (Little White Cloud)," Krastev's prelude has a mystical, Indian music quality, but his delivery of the theme itself is more reminiscent of many of the tunes by the group Oregon. Vitchev's solo, over his apparently overdubbed chords, is alluringly thematic, while Kristev's is by turns tremulous and cavernous. Kristev's upper range clarinet sounds at times like a soprano sax on Vitchev's stirring "Silent Prayer," with the composer double-tracked on guitar and piano to provide fixed chordal reinforcement as a lingering synth orchestration streams beneath it all. The clarinetist's solo swerves and flutters with abandon preceding his reprise of the unadorned yet beautiful melody.

"Improvisation #1" contains Krastev's resonant sadness-filled pronouncement, with Vitchev's acoustic guitar responding consolingly. Vitchev's catchy, lilting "Blues for Clever Peter" finds Krastev in a light-hearted, playful mood, and his solo surges with a swinging undercurrent as the guitarist strums out prodding constructs. Vitchev's sparkling statement possesses rhythmic and harmonic luster, and again he appears to have overlaid his own energetic rhythm guitar accompaniment. "Lale Li Si, Zyumbiul Li Si (Are You a Tulip, Are You a Hyacinth)" has an ethereal aura from the start as Krastev's held, sailing tones play off Vitchev's chords and fills. There's a charming romanticism to this lengthy (10:22) piece in its first half, until Krastev's vibrantly expressive solo raises the emotional impression. Vitchev follows in a slightly more restrained but no less committed fashion, and the satisfying recap brings this absorbing track full circle. Even briefer than the first one, "Improvisation #2" is a joyous, folk dance escapade, more of which would have been most welcome.

Vitchev's acoustic guitar blends seamlessly with Krastev's spellbinding clarinet tapestry on the joyful melody of "Polegnala e Todora (Todora Took a Nap)." The guitarist's succinct, lucid perusal precedes Krastev's whirling dervish flight, one of his most uninhibited on the album. "Hubava Si Moia Goro (You Are Beautiful My Forest) has a tenderly fulfilling theme, lovingly presented by Krastev once again with Vitchev's filigreed, graceful backing. Vitchev's solo is fired with passion, but gives way much too soon for Krastev's exultant, lengthier exploration. The reprise defines eloquent lyricism to the maximum degree.

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Scott Albin