Review: And Death Shall Have Four Dominions

review of Contact! premiere as seen on ConcertoNet.com

Monday, November 29, 2010

CONTACT!
Magnus Lindberg: Souvenir (In memoriam Gérard Grisey)
Gérard Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold) for soprano and ensemble

Barbara Hannigan (Soprano), Magnus Lindberg (Host)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Alan Gilbert (Conductor & Host)

I had never heard of Gérard Grisey and knew nothing about his Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold. Yet I had heard his music a month before it was performed.

In the remote Egyptian Temple to Siti, on the edge of the Western Sahara, my companion had temporarily vanished, and I remained amidt the 30-foot-high columns, in darkness. Only a few glints of light faintly lit the still intact 4,000-year-old wall paintings. Whispering from the darkness was heard the ripples of a river, and the notes of an old woman half-chanting, half-shouting in pre-Arabic Egyptian from the Book of the Dead.

This was my imagination (the Nile was 100 miles away). Yet what is inspiration except imagination, harnessed and written down.

In fact, that was the imagination of Gérard Grisey, the French composer who died twelve years ago. He had written few works, but they were each, apparently, of gigantic qualities, mental, aural and in terms of orchestral forces. And it was to M. Grisey that this performance was dedicated as part of the series called CONTACT!

There are many programs devoted to contemporary music, and some, like the Juilliard groups, are especially primed to play works of our time. But few have the facilities of the New York Philharmonic or their energetic conductor, Alan Gilbert. And for a built-in audience, nothing is quite as effective as CONTACT!.

I was thrilled to hear them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nothing approaches their Egyptian section, amidst which is the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. And that was especially fitting for Gérard Grisey.

M. Grisey was not only a member of the “spectral” school of composition–where “sound is more important than notes”–not only a teacher of Magnus Lindberg, who dedicated the work to his memory, but a devotee of Oriental and apparently mystical works. He would have felt at home in the Egyptian section. And the Egyptian mood was balanced by three other civilizations: Christian, Greek and Mesopotamian.

I was not overwhelmed, but actually went into whatever spiritual parts are within me for the first three poems. They had been chosen deftly. “The End of the Angel” was the death of angels, by Christian Guez Ricord. The Egyptian “Death of Civilization” was taken from fragmentary inscriptions that could have come from the Temple of Siti. The “Death of the Voice” comes from two fragmentary lines of the poet Erinna, where “the voice spreads its shadow.” Finally is the “Death of Humanity” in “The Epic of Gilgamesh”

The Philharmonic orchestras was divided into pairs of unlike instruments, so the sounds were strange to begin with. But the rising crescendos of both the thick timbres with the soprano vocalist were stranger and more entrancing than any I had heard

Soprano Barbara Hannigan took this virtually impossible role. Her genius is not in making an easy time of the most difficult avant-garde music, nor is it in showing us how wonderful a composer may be. Instead, this Canadian gift to the world is above all an artist for whom her voice is the merely the messenger of the inspiration.

In the first poem, she had to di…vide ev…ery sin…gle word, to a different pitch, while the orchestra rolled on. Yet at times she had to soar to the highest range. We didn’t know this though, for her voice would coincide with the high trumpet or woodwind, and suddenly like a phoenix from the flame, it would come out to us with operatic splendor. 

I loved the second song, because it not only brought back Egyptian memories, but was in the Met’s Egyptian section. Harps tolled what sounded at first bells but then was obviously the ripples of a river. She sung (in French) even the omissions from the text, ending in the enigmatic “…formula for being a god.”

For the third, “Death of the Voice”, Ms. Hannigan again sung a fragmented line for this virtually unknown poet. Only in “The End of Humanity” did M. Grisey use the full orchestra, the great parade of snare drums, going from one side of the stage to the other. 

In a way, this was disappointing. Where the first three verses implied, this, with the steady raindrops of drums for the Flood, was too literal, too onomatopoeical for such a unique work. But the final verses were a lullaby, a long lament, and actually a comfort. And when Ms. Hannigan sung “I fell to my knees, immobile…and wept…I looked to the seas’s horizon, the world…” one was left with the sense of the mystical, the magical, the marvelous. 

Just as Mahler’s child died after he wrote Songs on the Death of Children, so M. Grisey died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 54. This work, written in 1997-98, could be one of the most stunning pieces of the century. We are not likely to meet another singer like Ms. Hannigan, but should she come by again, this must be hers alone. 

The evening had two other joys. First were the pre-music introductions by Maestro Gilbert and composer Magnus Lindberg. They were enlightening and rightly canonizing of M. Grisey. 

(A single caveat: Alan Gilbert’s image of cinematic tension in Once Upon A Time In The West was appropriate, but he named Charlton Heston instead of Henry Fonda as the star. One hopes this error was not the product of his Harvard education.)

The first work was Mr. Lindberg’s homage to his teacher, Gérard Grisey. Composed for a smaller orchestra than usual, the three movements were still aurally powerful. In fact, they were three of his soundscapes which are so proficient, yet need several hearings for any reasonable judgment.

M. Grisey’s final work, though, had to stand alone in this CONTACT! Mr. Lindberg recalled how, as a teacher, M. Grisey rarely looked at student works, but merely explained his own. One can’t blame him. His was not a voice of the late 20th Century, but a voice of eternity. Beginning aeons before my imaginary temple encounter, and hopefully, keening and whispering through the future.

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