John Zorn continues to debut new music with his Book of Angels series, the second collection of Masada material containing over 300 compositions -- none of which has been recorded before. The first two volumes featured Jamie Saft in an acoustic piano trio (Astaroth: Book of Angels, Vol. 1) and with the Masada String Trio (Azazel: Book of Angels, Vol. 2). Malphas: Book of Angels, Vol. 3 is performed by the veteran duo of Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman, who are intimately familiar with John Zorn's compositional world. They appeared on Masada Anniversary Edition, Vol. 4: Masada Recital and gave a startling performance of material from book one. Given that none of Zorn's compositions in this series equal more than five lines on a single page, there is plenty that the duo can add to any given work. And they do. The longest piece here is a little over six minutes, "Lathariel," with most falling into the three- to four-minute range. The set opens with the rhythmically driven "Azriel." Thematically there are two lines and Sylvie Courvoisier and Mark Feldman play all around one another as Courvoisier holds the anchor as Feldman just goes in flurries and twists. By contrast, the frenetic and knotty theme of "Basus" opens up into wide free improvising -- and is more intense and aggressive than the improvisational disc of Courvoisier's brilliant album (with Feldman) Abaton. This shifts again in "Rigal," which is a tight, intrinsically melodic, classically oriented waltz that is stunning in its beauty. And on it goes. These two musicians bring so much to Zorn's wonderful compositions that they are indeed co-collaborators, and that's as the composer wishes it. The episodic improvisation in "Kafziel" is countered and turned upside down again in the seemingly somber "Labariel." Here the mournful theme is stated by Feldman's violin as Courvoisier colors it and the pair moves together to quote a legendary composer in humor before slipping into a more spacious abstraction that underscores the melancholy in the work. The gorgeously funereal theme in "Paschal" disintegrates into a brief silence before the pianist calls for a response form Feldman. He does in dark gypsy tones and Courvoisier moves to the lower register in a series of three notes to begin an engagement that results in a disappearance of theme, structure, and intensity, allowing silence and the interstitial comments by both instruments seemingly whispering -- albeit somewhat forcefully -- to one another across the void. "Samiel" is just plain wild, full of humor and the sound of a chase between violin and piano and both switch roles. The set ends with "Sretil"; it's a beautiful, song-like piece that deceives the listener for a moment with its playfulness and humorous anarchy. Malphas is a success from start to finish, and perhaps the most exciting of the three volumes in the series thus far. Listeners looking for excellence and adventure would be wise to keep an eye out for this duo, who are perhaps redefining the space for modern composition and performance. ~ Thom Jurek
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