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Pascal DUSAPIN (b. 1955)
Wenn du dem Wind for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (2014) [19:01]
Aufgang, concerto for violin and orchestra (2011) [32:24]
‘À quia’, concerto for piano and orchestra (2002) [26:29]
Natascha Petrinsky (mezzo soprano), Nicolas Hodges (piano), Carolin Widman (violin), Orchestre National de Pays de la Loire / Pascal Rophé
rec. 2017, La Cité des Congrès, Nantes, France
BIS SACD BIS2262 [78:58]

Pascal Dusapin’s music was very much in the news in late 2018 when the Gramophone Magazine Contemporary music award went to the recording of his String Quartets 6 and 8 by the Arditti Quartet and the orchestral work ‘Hinterland’ conducted by Pascal Rophé, who is the conductor here. However, this disc has been a voyage of discovery for me, as it might be for you; let me guide you this extraordinary music as best I can.

The disc opens with Wenn du dem wind, three scenes from the opera Penthesilea after the play by Henrich von Kleist, a dramatic scena, one might almost say, in three sections. The text is not just extracted from the opera but was especially constructed by his co-librettist Beate Haeckl and attempts to sum up, in what the composer modestly calls a ‘suite’, the story of the opera with the three main protagonists, Penthesilea, her servant Prothoe and the Archpriestess encapsulated by the one voice. Compositionally, this was a fair challenge and the composer says that he wanted to retain the “dramatic substance of the three roles”. Although French by birth Dusapin’s sets the text, like the play, in German.

What makes the piece a little hard to grasp is that Dusapin does not characterise each of the protagonists with any particular motif or orchestral colour. In addition, the text supplied in the booklet, and well translated, does not indicate who is speaking. Natascha Petrinsky is an incredibly dramatic, operatic mezzo but her wide vibrato is such that it is often difficult to hear focused pitches and lines.  It would also be true to say that the orchestral writing is more interesting than the vocal line, including the wonderful ancient early harp, lyre-type sounds (ancient Greek?) which open and close the work.

I played this piece to a student and asked her to suggest an influence, a stupid question really, but she commented - and this might be helpful - that “if Alban Berg had lived another 30 years after Lulu, this might have been the direction he could have gone in”. Well, you might not like that analogy, so we’ll leave it there.

Then comes the Violin Concerto ‘Aufgang’ - meaning “Rising”. This dramatic work totally captivated my imagination. It falls into three movements. The first begins mysteriously and in the depths; its second half is almost jazzy in its rhythmic direction. The middle movement begins like a bombastic scherzo but develops into a vast meditation using material from the composer’s opera Passion. The energised finale is aggressive and brilliantly orchestrated but occasionally moving into the composer’s desired ‘combat between darkness and brightness’ as do other parts of the work. The ending comes suddenly and shockingly. The whole thing is totally masterful in conception and assured in direction. Although Dusapin uses little or no ‘extended’ modern techniques this is virtuoso work and Carolin Widmann is quite stunning in her panache and fire but also her control. This is as fine and as well-constructed a concerto as any and worth regular hearing, rising to a tense and stirring climax after thirty minutes of passionate music-making.

Finally comes a Piano concerto (or as the composer remarks, what is a concerto these days?), which has the curious title ‘A quia’.

I once attended a debate in St. Mary-le Bow in the city of London; the church is famous for having two pulpits astride the nave, placed so that academic and spiritual debates can be conducted in the style of a medieval university degree facing the audience. Two famous politicians of the 70’s argued for some time but suddenly one fell silent, unable to counteract a certain point and one felt that he was losing the argument. This is the background to this concerto. In the Middle Ages this speaker would splutter ‘quia’ meaning ‘because’ and this word has now entered the French language. One is confronted with music of great power, anxiety and argument but also many painfully sad and beautiful moments when the piano is alone, almost aimlessly playing what sounds like random pitches - lost for words, one might say. Then a confrontation arises and leaves the other silent. The musical language is mostly tonally free but tiny moments of tonality and even modality erratically emerge. The experience of hearing this work lives with you for some time afterwards - and Nicholas Hodges is immaculate and sensitive throughout.

The booklet notes are a little too brief and sometimes a little unclear. Irena Kaiserman offers us an overview of the composer who has written about two of his works, whilst Stéphane Friédérich writes about the Violin Concerto.

As usual with SACD BIS CDs, this is a fine, clear, spacious recording, but you might well have to turn up your volume control a little higher than usual - but, believe me, these two concerti are stunning.

As a final comment, I would add something I have mentioned occasionally in other reviews, that there are photographs in the booklet of the orchestra, the three soloists and, on the back, the conductor, but the composer does not feature. I wonder why?

Gary Higginson

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