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Michaël LÉVINAS (b 1949) La Passion Selon Marc (The Passion according to St Mark) – A Passion after Auschwitz (2017)
Magali Léger, Marion Grange (sopranos), Guilhem Terrail (countertenor), Mathieu Dubroca (baritone), Marie Hamard (mezzo-soprano), Tristan Blanchet (tenor) Simon Savoy (countertenor)
Benjamin Righetti (organ)
Ensemble Vocal de Lausanne
Lausanne Chamber Orchestra/Marc Kissóczy
rec. 2017, L'Église Saint-François, Lausanne, Switzerland
Directed for TV by Jean-Marc Chevillard
HD Video; PCM Stereo; Text subtitled in English, French and German BEL-AIR CLASSIQUES Blu-ray BAC552 [86:54]
A couple of years ago I reviewed a disc released by the Swiss label Claves of Michaël Lévinas’ opera Le Petit Prince, after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s renowned novella. I loved it (review). The present Blu-ray features a filmed performance of a somewhat different work, his St Mark Passion, written to mark the quincentenary of the despatch of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz on 31 October 1517, generally regarded as the de facto starting point of the Reformation. The work represents the first attempt by a Jewish composer to connect the concept of the Christian Passion, a musical form inextricably linked to Bach and the Reformation with the Holocaust and its eternal implications. In a reconfiguration of Adorno’s famous quote “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch…” (effectively “There can be no poetry after Auschwitz”) Lévinas asks “After the Holocaust, is it possible to compose without crying and trembling?” It is a question he is more than qualified to address; his father was the philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas (1906-1995). He was a Lithuanian-born Jew who spent much of the Second World War cooped up in the Fallingbostel POW camp outside Hannover, although his status as a military prisoner ensured he avoided the even more unimaginable privations of the concentration camps. Alhough his wife and daughter found sanctuary in a monastery, Lévinas père’s own father, brothers and mother-in-law perished at the hands of the Nazis. All these experiences reinforced his nascent interest in Jewish philosophy, existentialism and ontology. In the Blu-ray booklet Lévinas’ fils refers to his father’s writings and ideas, which have obviously profoundly impacted on this Passion.
Lévinas has assembled three different textual sources: extracts from St Mark’s Gospel sung in Old French; Jewish prayers for the dead of the Shoah, including the Kaddisch and El maleh rahamim, in Aramaic and Hebrew, and a couple of poems by Paul Celan, Die Schleuse (The Sluice) and Espenbaum (Aspen Tree) in their original German. Lévinas’ deployment of different languages is by no means arbitrary; the very particular sound of each tongue seems inextricably linked to the timbral, colouristic qualities of his music, and inevitably reinforces this Passion’s necessarily universal power.
The music is both absorbing and discomfiting and in the final analysis deeply affecting. Despite the work’s extended duration (around 90 minutes) I think it’s essential for listeners to hear it in full at one sitting in order to fully comprehend its structure and message. At times, the long stretches of dense polyphony intoned, sung or declaimed by the choir present challenges to one’s concentration, but Lévinas’ is extremely skilled in pacing big pieces (Le Petit Prince provided convincing evidence of this); moreover his imaginative application of colour and texture (among individual players, instrumental groups or even the whole orchestra) acts as a kind of punctation, enabling the observer/listener to draw breath. While this device certainly helps in the differentiation of phrases or paragraphs, and in emphasising specific emotional or narrative points, it also provides many moments of delicate, fleeting beauty. In particular, the two pianos (one seemingly prepared, or amplified) and celesta seem to be repeatedly used in this way.
The work begins with the Jewish prayers. The male voices intone a jagged and distorted Kaddish of searing intensity in the rather unfamiliar tongue (to my ears at least) of Old Aramaic, its singular sound seemingly shaped and tailored for the fervency of Lévinas’ music. The fits and starts of brass, timpani and percussive string effects are not designed to console. This is followed by a setting of El maleh Rahamim, the Jewish prayer for the departed (sung in Hebrew), specifically used here to commemorate the dead of the Shoah; both feature the robust, tortured yet utterly musical baritone of Mathieu Dubroca who is carefully pitted against the plaintive, complex lamentations of the fine Lausanne choir. Its members sometimes create a kind of cloaked sound by covering their mouths, as if to evoke whispering, or suggest some form of collective repression.
The Passion text itself is sung in Old French, a language of piquancy and tartness which applies an appropriately lachrymose quality to much of the vocal writing. Lévinas’ instrumental effects are refined and novel, at once providing a haunting, sepulchral backcloth. The music never seems excessively histrionic, and the composer seems at pains to avoid overdramatising thus ensuring that the microtonal dissonance which dominates much of the work often has an unusually calming, even hypnotic effect. At one point, the unmistakeable sound of steel drums peals through the texture. Much of the narrative is carried by the coolly expressive countertenor Guilhem Terrail, who as the Evangelist reinforces the tradition established by Bach of representing other key characters such as Jesus, Judas and Mary Magdelene. He invests what is always a complicated vocal line with complete authority and serene beauty. Another telling section involves a slow lament of grave and aching tenderness delivered by the soprano Magali Léger to a pared-down accompaniment of harp and prepared piano. The episode in which Christ predicts his betrayal shimmers with a disconcerting glow and creates a dramatic contrast with the catastrophe of his imminent crucifixion.
Lévinas’ music simultaneously fascinates and discomfits and in the final analysis is deeply affecting. His choral writing on one level seems astringent and contemporary, whether in its complex layers of polyphony, such as occur in the gripping evocations of the baying turba; or the sonic inventions that emulate weeping. Excerpts abstracted from the whole might superficially resemble Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, but the links and connections Lévinas makes between the diffuse ceremonies and historical events referred to and described here involve subtler musical devices than those that inhabit the Pole’s famous work, and shroud his Passion with a level of humanity that to my ears rather elude Penderecki’s more calculated experiments.
As if to reinforce this I found the conclusion of the St Mark Passion to be unexpectedly bold and profoundly moving in its starkness. After a brief, weirdly accompanied setting of Celan’s Die Schleuse we hear his equally despairing poem Espenbaum. In this intense, spare text the poet reflects on the loss of his mother, murdered by the Nazis when she was rendered incapable of useful work in the concentration camp. It’s a meditation upon loss, and upon the passage of time. Levinas’ innovation is for this to be set for a single unaccompanied voice, in this case that of the magnificent French soprano Marion Grange. Having contributed to the main Passion section to often startling effect, her deliberate, almost obsessive projection of Celan’s bleak words absolutely cuts to the quick. The concentration among the audience (and fellow performers) as she delivers these devastating lines is palpable for the viewer. It provides an overwhelming denouement to a piece which I suspect will yield more on repetition. One certainly hopes it will avoid the single performance cul-de-sac which often seems to be the fate of similar pièces d'occasion. The filmed recording of this premiere will hopefully help in this regard.
Bel-Air’s PCM stereo sound is perfectly good but I was slightly disappointed that the Blu-Ray didn’t feature a surround option especially as the filming regularly puts one at the centre of the event, whether among the players or the singers. Having said that, the stereo the engineers have achieved succeeds in punching above its weight. Given that this was the work’s premiere the playing and singing of the Lausanne forces is remarkably polished and confident, while the solo voices especially seem first-rate. The belief of each of them in Levinas’ score is self-evident, while Marc Kissóczy’s assured direction confirms that this conductor is completely inside this ambitious, exacting and ultimately moving Passion. Richard Hanlon
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