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Gonzalo GRAU (b. 1972)
Aqua - oratorio (2011) [68:45]
Carlos Sánchez Torrealba (speaker); Gioconda Cabrera Colon and Ivan Garcia; Benedikt Hoppe (boy soprano)
Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart; Bundesjugendorchester/María Guinand
rec. September 2011, Beethovensaal, Stuttgart Liederhalle
Libretto included but without English translation
CARUS 83.343 [68:45]

The oratorio Aqua was commissioned by the Bachaskademie Stuttgart for a premiere performance in September 2011, the occasion of which was ‘Musikfest Stuttgart’. The theme of the work is water, and its life-giving and life-taking properties. The oratorio’s geographical reach is wide, taking in Indian and African cultures and the use of special sound effects turns it in to a kind of mild multimedia work that bears its environmental theme strongly. This CD faithfully presents the world premiere performance.
Gonzalo Grau is a Venezuelan born composer who studied at the Berklee College of Music, completing piano studies there in 1998. He leads his own band, called La Clave Secreta and is an active multi-instrumentalist, who has collaborated with Osvaldo Golijov in the latter’s Grammy nominated work Pasión Según San Marcos, which was also premiered in Stuttgart back in 2000. The oratorio’s choral settings were composed by Alberto Grau, born in 1937, who I assume is Gonzalo’s father or near relative. There are soloists, choirs and a youth orchestra conducted by María Guinand. Unfortunately the notes say nothing about the work, but some in-concert photographs preserve the atmosphere of certain moments: the soloists make a remarkably contrasting group: the German boy soloist, Benedikt Hoppe, dressed in angelic white, and the three adult Venezuelans wearing loose outfits, scarves, and robes. At one point the chorus, in flowing gowns, can be seen raising their arms, palms open, in some kind of ecstatic welcome.
The work is in five parts, but if you’re monolingual and your Spanish and German are not up to snuff I’m afraid you’ll be in a bit of a pickle, as the libretto is in Spanish, written by María Fernanda Palacios, and is translated only into German. Still, the electronically soothing sound of lapping water is a lingua franca and you can enjoy its deployment as the work opens, as well as the use of a Gregorian antiphon (Vidi aquam, naturally). This moves seamlessly via speech into music that sounds close to a Spiritual. The second movement Invocation of the Rivers brings the narrator whose teaky voice introduces the rivers by name, in turn. The use of quotations later on from the choir from such as TS Eliot, Hölderlin and Mandelstam is a useful universalising of experience (Thames, Rhein, Volga) as well as serving the invocatory experience well.
Cries and moans of pain, and evocations of thirst, are part of the oratorio’s vocal armoury, and the commentaries amplify the message. A Brazilian rain song with shimmering percussion is nicely sung by Gioconda Cabrera Colon though this moves on to ominous death-bringing section, musically partly inspired, I should think, by Orff. The Rover as Deity leads onto to lusty vocals and rhythmically ingratiating songfulness.
I suspect quite a lot of the impact of the work is lost when deprived of some visual elements. But the music itself is a quilt of native song, religious, Western plainsong (limited in its application), some modish percussion, spirited Orff and strident, personalised narrative devices. The use of a narrator may hint at a Passion, but to his credit Grau doesn’t steer in that impossible direction. The recording is extremely lifelike and impressive.
Jonathan Woolf