Yungchen Lhamo and Anton Batagov's 'Tayatha' Brings Unadulterated Aural Pleasure

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This record ought to be kitsch. Seven Tibetan songs by exiled chanteuse Yungchen Lhamo, in arrangements by Russian composer Anton Batagov, "Tayatha" is an album that seems to have been conceived and executed with every resource directed toward a single purpose: aural pleasure.

There are no violent dynamic contrasts, no harsh dissonances, and no racing tempos, just haunting melismas with earnest piano accompaniments.

But "Tayatha" refuses to be dismissed quite so easily. The most obvious reason is the strength of Lhamo's vocals: she has an appealing instrument, and its range of colors is as minutely controlled as a bow in the hand of a virtuoso cellist, her expressive register smoothly shifting from croon to sob. Her voice is a jewel, a dark-hued gem, and Batagov's simple setting shows it off to its greatest advantage.

His harmonies are spare, for the most part, strumming underneath the melody like the black-key piano music of the Belle Epoque, delicate countermelodies only occasionally emerging to comment on Lhamo's vocal lines. Batagov constructs his parts to limn the arc of each song, building and receding, and the arc of the cycle as a whole: after five movements of wide-open, unobtrusive harmonies, the penultimate track's sudden deployment of a warm, firmly established major key is startling.

The recording itself, produced by Batagov, is just as appealing, and for the same reasons: simplicity and clarity. The piano sings and chimes, and Lhamo's voice, while framed with a handsome ambience, requires - and receives - no flattery. Batagov makes it clear in the liner notes that he wants the album to be listened to as a whole, without interruption.

Not a surprising request; what's surprising is that a seventy-minute album of vocalism in a style alien to Western ears, largely accompanied by mellow piano ostinati, could be so satisfying and so enjoyable as to make the listener eager to comply.

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