Song of Songs
David LANG (b. 1957)
Just (after Song of Songs) [12:47]
Luciano BERIO (1925-2003)
Naturale [19:03]
Betty OLIVERO (b. 1954)
En la mar hai una torre [13:13]
Trio Mediaeval; with Garth Knox (viola), Agnès Vesterman (cello); Sylvain Lemêtre (percussion), Cliona Doris (harp) (Olivero)/Andrew Synnott (Olivero)
rec. 2014, St. Peter’s Church of Ireland Drogheda.

David Lang’s Just (after Song of Songs) is an admirably simple and restrained work that for some reason drags out an impenetrably complicated booklet note by Paul Griffiths. The ‘Song of Songs’ is also known as the ‘Song of Solomon’ or ‘Canticle of Canticles’, a text from the Hebrew Bible that presents “the voices of two lovers, praising each other, yearning for each other, proffering invitations to enjoy.” So much for Wikipedia. Lang’s take on this text has some subtle adjustments, but the jist of the piece is the litany performed as a sequence of juicy cadences sung to perfection by Trio Medieval, around which the instruments gradually add notes and lines. This all owes a little to Pilip Glass and Arvo Pärt but is none the worse for that.

Luciano Berio’s Naturale is a good deal more theatrical, combining the ‘here and now’ of the performers on stage with the recorded voice of a singer, Peppino Celano. The worlds of Berio and folk music conjoin, collide and cross-fertilise, with Garth Knox’s viola the leading actor in its virtuosity and depth of expression. This is a strange confluence, but one brought into a kind of ‘natural’ unity within Berio’s idiom. If you know this composer’s theatrical and chamber work then the poetry of his writing for these instruments and in this dual context will hold no real shocks. Subtle timbre, the stretching of time through seemingly aimless musical wanderings and moments of surprising beauty and emotional directness are all here. Berio had an impossible “utopian dream… to create a unity between folk music and our music – a real, perceptible, understandable conduit between ancient music-making, which is so close to everyday work, and our music.” With Naturale this ‘utopian dream’ doesn’t seem so very far away after all.

Betty Olivero is one of Berio’s pupils, and the connection between the multiple strings to Berio’s viola and Olivero’s interweaving voices in En la mar hai una torre brings about an extension one to the other in the context of this recording. The title translates as In the Sea there is a Tower, and ancient Sephardic and other melodies layer, fold over and answer each other, together with harp and gently bowed strings combining to create an acute juxtaposition of ancient and modern. Performed with exquisite sensitivity, this is the kind of work that justifies the descriptions ‘magical’ or ‘spellbinding’. As the complications have built up over time so are they dismantled by the end of the piece, in which the voices unite in an enigmatic but highly expressive coda, “A garden locked is my sister…”

This is an unusual but surprisingly desirable trio of works, very nicely recorded and performed to perfection. CD and booklet presentation is also excellent, with plenty of colour and stimulation for your optical nerves. Sung texts are not printed in the booklet, but this is not a big problem as far as I am concerned. David Lang’s vocal parts are clear as crystal, and while it would be nice to have those from En la mar hai una torre the vocal parts are combined into something with an almost instrumental function, and for the most part it would be a challenge to untangle words and notes. Lang and Olivero’s works were both commissioned by the Louth Contemporary Music Society, which is also deserves plaudits for creating this strikingly canorous trinity.

Dominy Clements

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