Fanfare reviews Louis Andriessen: La Passione

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Fanfare
James H. North
November 1, 2009

The music of Louis Andriessen (b. 1939) becomes ever more fascinating as he grows older. A contemporary of Glass and Reich, he hit the big time in 1976 with De Staat, a wild, aggressive choral-instrumental minimalist masterpiece. Always an original ("I like the impossible, to put myself in a difficult situation. I see composing as an experiment."), he produced a few noisy loudnesses along the way. I remember a large-ensemble piece at Tanglewood with, I think, eight double-bass clarinets growling and clattering away. Although always searching for the new, Andriessen hoards the best of what he has found, held at the ready when needed. Nor does he reject the past: Stravinsky has often been a strong influence, harmonically as well as rhythmically. In the 1999 opera Writing to Vermeer, the (intentional) raucousness gives way to calm, intimate radiance.

Bells for Haarlem (2002) is a uniquely sonorous piece. At first, you think you are hearing church bells ringing out a stately melody, but you immediately realize that no bells are this beautiful or have this brilliant range of sonorities. This is glockenspiel, vibraphone, celeste, and piano—with a synthesizer thrown in. I would swear there are tubular orchestral bells as well, but the notes do not admit to them. After three mesmerizing minutes—just as you think this is all that is going to happen—the bells begin to acquire echoes, and the instruments soon break into a brief, wild minimalist dance. When the "bells" return, they are never quite as sober as the first time around. When you buy the disc, you can read about the circumstances of the composition.

The three vocal pieces were written for Zavalloni; when Andriessen first heard her sing, he recognized the same "vocal versatility" that he once found while working with Cathy Berberian. A Trolley Ride to America and Back is a long poem, in Italian, scored for solo voice, amplified violin, flute, seven brass, and double bass. The introduction rounds up the usual suspects: minimalism, Stravinskian harmony, and blaring, glaring massed brass. The solo voice is employed in an instrumental manner, especially in duets with amplified violin, flute, seven brass, and double bass. The introduction rounds up the usual suspects: minimalism, Stravinskian harmony, and blaring, glaring massed brass. The solo voice is employed in an instrumental manner, especially in duets with the amplified violin; the music alternates from aggressive (De Staat) to melting (Vermeer). As usual, Andriessen stirs unlikely ingredients into a delectable pot-au-feu.

Letter from Cathy is just what its title implies: a complete letter, in English, from Cathy Berberian to Andriessen, which discusses, among other things, a dinner with Stravinsky. Zavalloni's accented English is intriguing; the accompaniment—by percussion, piano, harp, violin, and double bass—ranges from the Haarlem bells to jazz and movie music.

La Passione is the major piece on the disc (and its title, if you are searching for it). Also referred to as a double concerto for voice and violin, it requires a large ensemble: winds, brass, percussion, piano, cimbalom, electric guitars, and violins. An instrumental introduction, referencing Stravinsky's Agon, is followed by six songs, again to poems from Dino Campana’s 1914 Canti orfici (Orphic Songs). Andriessen "tried to create a sense of instability to match the (volatile and anguished) subject matter." The 35-minute works exploits every aspect of Andriessen's brilliant accumulated hoard. Its final song, "Il russo," is an eerie, intimate report from a prisoner about the torturing and eventual death of another; it is sung against keening winds, which finally give way to the solo violin and to the entire ensemble.

Zavalloni's singing is glorious, although Andriessen does not challenge her quite as much as Berio did Berberian. The playing is equally marvelous, and the recording pristine; it does shout and shriek at times, but that’s the nature of the music. Texts appear in the sung languages (respectively Italian, English, Italian) and in English translation. La Passione is another triumph for its composer, whose music is always recognizable yet ever new. For anyone unacquainted with Andriessen, I recommend this stunning disc as a starting point. For the rest of us, it is a necessity.

— James H. North

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