Peter-Anthony TOGNI (b. 1959)
Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae (2007) [55:52]
Jeff Reilly (bass clarinet)
Elmer Iseler Singers/Lydia Adams
rec. October 2008, Cathedral Church of All Saints, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
ECM NEW SERIES 2129 [55:52]

ECM have had a nice little line in choral singing with solo instruments on top, and there are aspect about this piece which reminded me a little of that Officium disc on which Jan Garbarek improvises over the singing of the Hilliard Ensemble. Canadian composer Peter-Anthony Togni wrote the Lamentatio Jeremiae Prophetae as a concerto for bass clarinet for Jeff Reilly. In five movements, the piece covers the story of Jeremiah’s prophesies, with the bass clarinet acting as a kind of vocal narrative - the voice of Jeremiah, the choir creating a variety of atmospheres and backgrounds, and acting as ‘the crowd’.

This is both simple and complicated, both as a concept, and in the way the piece is written. I have heard comments about the bass clarinet using every special effect in the shop, but in fact Togni is fairly restrained in his use of raucous roars and other wobbles. I have worked with bass clarinet players myself for many years, and know its staggering range of organ-pipe like depths, the sometimes almost frighteningly lifelike human voice it can create at certain pitches, and the flexibility generated through the interaction of a reed of chunky dimensions, and an instrument whose corpus contains enough wood to form a small tree. Jeff Reilly is a very fine player indeed, and the balance of this recording with the choir sees it both meeting the choir as a melodic soloist, mixing with some of the choral textures, and standing out with sometimes chilling starkness.

The choral writing is in general quite conventional, usually restrained, and with the kind of resolving dissonances which can be heard in plenty of places elsewhere. You can think of Arvo Pärt and be fairly close. The central movement, Silentio, made me think of the final moments of another choral piece, Sleep by Eric Whitacre, although my first reaction was tamed somewhat on comparing the notes directly. Togni may be eclectic, but the closer one looks the more intriguing are some of his ideas, and the more feeling one senses being generated through what he calls a “direct expression of my Roman Catholic faith.”

There are many fine moments in this piece, and taken at several levels it can and will deliver a stimulating and moving experience. My own personal reaction, which shouldn’t be taken as anything but a purely subjective set of responses based on a listening background which has covered acres of quasi-similar material to this, is one of mild frustration. I’m certainly not unimpressed with the creativity and musicianship in all aspects of this recording, but in the end have the feeling with this piece that I am inside a big inflated bag of genre composition, the boundaries of which are so flexible that I roll around and push was much as I want without really being kicked back or challenged by anything seriously lumpy and powerful. If I’m dealing with the trials of Jeremiah I want to come away with at least a modicum of spiritual bruising. This piece is not essentially ‘comfort food’, but neither does it, for me at least, convey with true force the suffering and desiccation in much of the text. At one point there is a masterstroke where this kind of expression is entirely synergetic with the text: the multiphonics of the bass clarinet 4:00 into the final movement Remember, O Lord, and the improvisatory cries over the almost silent voices later on are devastating, the final high peaks other-worldly. I suppose I just prefer these kinds of remarkable moment and would rather they were stretched and developed more uncompromisingly and compactly, rather than in the rather sumptuous framework which the full extent of this piece delivers.

Given ECM’s usual fine engineering and the excellent performance standard on this disc I would rather give an unequivocal recommendation than leave you in a state of confusion. If you like the ECM aesthetic and revel in the religious expression of others in their stable such as Pärt and the Garbarek/Hilliard axis then you will find much to enjoy and explore here.

Dominy Clements