Uģis Praulinš (b. 1957)
L'homme armé (2020)
Jānis Pelše (organ)
Pēteris Vaickovskis (conductor, voice)
Ars Antiqua Riga
rec. 2020, St. John’s Church, Riga, Latvia
SKANI LMIC142 
Latvian composer Uģis Prauliņš is one of those eclectic postmodern voices who are happy to ignore boundaries of musical genre and historical period, exploring and combining styles ranging from Renaissance polyphony to contemporary rock music. In this regard he was a perfect choice for conductor Pēteris Vaickovskis, whose original invitation was for musical interludes to go with Johannes Ockeghem’s Mass L’homme armé. This sort of thing has been done before, for instance with Paul Hillier and Bengt Sørensen with Ockeghem's Missa pro defunctis (review), but Prauliņš has taken the process a few steps further in the present production, expanding his interludes to create a new Mass in its own right.
The Mass and Interludes L’homme armé were written for five-voice vocal ensemble Ars Antiqua Riga, alongside organ and sackbuts to enhance the ‘period’ feel, and also involving electronic instruments to create atmospheric soundscapes at certain points in the work.
I'm normally a big sucker for this kind of blend of ancient and modern, and the ASMR-stimulating beauty of the electronics that underly the Introit filled me with hope and interest, despite a rather 1970s keyboard sound. In short, there are good things in L'homme armé, but these good things are too thin to sustain a rather ragged set of 23 tracks over 70 minutes. The familiar ‘l'homme armé’ tune pops up from time as you would expect, and the Kyrie is an encouraging variation on period style. The shorter movements that sound as if they are part of the original collection of interludes work nicely, and the touch of Arvo Pärt in the Absolution embellished with electronics is harmless. Heavy-footed textures plague the music elsewhere however, with the recording sounding as if it has been set at too high a level in places. Some sections have an elemental Carl Orff feel but without his rhythmic bounce, others set up nice ideas that undercut themselves out of duty to the Mass concept, and some just emerge and lie there without much to say at all. Much of the singing is of necessity or design rather shouty and unappealing, the attempt at times to put the voices on the same level as organ and sackbuts not recommendable.
Having lost patience before even reaching halfway with this recording, I had to ask myself why this is the case. There is an element of the theatrical with a good Mass setting, and this work goes some way towards attempting this quality. Without a sense of inevitable flow between moments and of dramatic or emotional climax there is, however, a permanent pall of frustration over the whole project. Harmonic development over the whole is lacking. This is probably another side effect of duty towards period but a missed opportunity to my ears, but you come away with a Scelsi-like impression of a grand work based around a single note. Points of sensitive reflection such as the Beati pauperes are isolated and a bit bland, here again the moment vanishing in medieval meandering and a Swingle Singers 'dum dummm’ conclusion that just has me thinking ‘come on, surely we can do better than this...’
There are some beautiful moments to be found. Pater sanctificetur opens well, but as with most of this music, kicks itself in the heel and falls over all too soon with its ‘oom pah’ organ. The best of the music here is relatively unexplored, being all too keen to grow swiftly into something grand and overly baggy. The Agnus Dei has some true expressive value but doesn't quite hit the spot, and by now we're too worn out by what has gone before - it's too little too late.
The message for this work is laudable: “The Mass and Interludes L’homme armé are about each individual struggles, which often grow into common struggles for all, with victories and defeats, moments of strength and weakness, yet always with an endless desire for peace.” At about 30 minutes shorter and only developing its best ideas this might have been magnificent. As it is, this is an edifice that is unwieldy and annoying, ending up spoiling its vistas rather than enhancing them.
Published: November 28, 2022