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Gavin BRYARS (b. 1943)
The War in Heaven (1993) [41:20]
Epilogue from 'G' (2002) [12:42]
Anja-Nina Bahrmann (soprano); Maarten Engeltjes (alto)
Netherlands Radio Choir
Netherlands Chamber Philharmonic/Brad Lubman (The War in Heaven).
Hans Otto Weiss (bass-baritone)
Staats Philharmonic Mainz/Gernot Sahler (Epilogue)
rec. 23 September 2011, Muziekgebouw aan 't IJ, Amsterdam; 1-2 October 2002, Staats Theater Mainz (Epilogue).
GB RECORDS BCGBCD19 [54:02]

The War in Heaven is described as "a large-scale cantata for 2 solo voices, half chorus, full chorus and orchestra". The texts, printed in full in the booklet are, very simply summed up, a contrast between Old English biblical for the chorus, and a monologue by Sam Shepard for the soloists.

Gavin Bryars writes, "in spite of the apparently apocalyptic tone of the title . the piece is not a religious one but focuses rather on the reflective humanism and ironies of the American text." The title indeed refers to "the fall of the rebellious angels" in the book of Genesis, but the 'angelic fall' is something we can interpret in our own way.

This is music in the grand Romantic manner, with oceans of rich, Richard Strauss-ian lushness painted with a colourful and cinematic brush. The inclusion of tuned percussion over the soundstage heightens these effects, adding sparkle and pointing out climactic rises and falls. This is a highly impressive score and a work into which you can dive and swim, looking both down into the depths and up into the sky with a sense of genuine awe and wonder. Depending on how you listen, this is a mass of expressive moments or one single massive expressive monument. Bryars' music is nothing if not richly textured and satisfyingly tonal, but he spins his fields of music into threads which are cast out in lines which rise and fall, have their moments, but never gel into something you would call a real 'tune'. I am sure I will get into trouble with this. I certainly don't insist that music should of necessity have a juicy melody which we can all hum after the concert, but this is the kind of idiom which keeps us in an opulent waiting-room, our ears longing for the piece to crystallize into something other than plush meandering: a real 'wow' to top all of the other 'wow' moments which have been rolling towards us like ocean waves for forty minutes or so.

So yes, I like The War in Heaven, and the performance and this applause-framed live recording from Amsterdam are both excellent, but I also find it frustrating on numerous levels. This is the kind of piece - studded like jewels with moments of stunning gorgeousness - about which listeners need to make up their own minds. I would urge you to try it, especially if you are already keen on pieces in the nature of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius.

Epilogue from G is from Gavin Bryars' third opera, which is written on the subject of Gutenberg, the 'Master printer, formerly of Strasbourg and Mainz'. In this scene the older Gutenberg reflects on his achievements, his weary tone and desire 'So machen wir ein End' expressed in music with a slow and quasi-Wagnerian atmosphere. A fittingly dour conclusion. The best music is sad music.

Dominy Clements