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Lera AUERBACH (b. 1973)
72 Angels (In Splendore Lucis), for mixed choir and saxophone quartet (2016)
Netherlands Chamber Choir/Peter Dijkstra
Raschèr Saxophone Quartet
rec. 2019, Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam
Sung text included
ALPHA 593 [83:59]

What’s in a name? In 72 Angels, Lera Auerbach has deployed her maverick skills in an ambitious attempt to address that oft-posed question musically. During an interview with the Dutch music journalist Thea Derks at the time of its premiere in 2016 (some of the composer’s thoughts are re-configured in Auerbach’s own note for this disc) she described this extraordinary, concert-length creation as “…a long, intense prayer, full of passion and hope. It is structured in the form of 72 prelude-evocations and an epilogue: ‘Amen’. There is no text other than the names of the angels, which I derived through an arcane interpretation of Exodus 14:19-21. Each prelude is a meditation on one name. Every angel is different and has his own personality both spiritually and musically.” In this way although the 72 names are each allotted a discrete musical ‘portrait’ these ‘prelude-evocations’ should be heard as details which only make coherent sense in the context of the entirety of the piece. Another unusual structural feature is the simultaneous division of the work into two parts of 36 angels (representing duality) and three parts of 24 (trinity). After each of these three divisions (after 24, 35 and 48 names) the names of all the angels presented by those points are sung as a list; prior to the final panel all 72 are sung in reverse order. The emotional essence of the whole is distilled in the luminous, concluding Amen. Alluding to her description I can certainly confirm her work is “full of passion”. But it is self-evidently not A ‘Passion’.

Auerbach is a remarkable artist. She is well shy of 50 years old (at time of writing) and yet her oeuvre is already prodigious; three symphonies, several concertos, three requiems, eight string quartets, and multiple works in virtually every other form, including opera and ballet. (FOUR piano trios? THREE requiems? Are there precedents for such profusion in these forms in the last 150 years? Any suggestions will be cheerfully accepted.) As well as this she is a celebrated visual artist and admired poet. She epitomises the concept of polymathy. Given her prodigious output it would not be unreasonable as a listener to expect the odd dud – but I’ve heard a fair bit of her work, and I’ve yet to encounter one. Auerbach produces huge works and designs grand, unusual schemes. 72 Angels is a simultaneously typical, yet singular example – it occupies a span of 83 minutes and is written for mixed choir and saxophone quartet. It must require prodigious levels of concentration, commitment and physical stamina on the part of the performers, but it also imposes considerable demands upon the sympathetic listener. There is little of the ‘New Simplicity’ here. There is astringency, ominousness, dissonance, repetition; there is also light, and colour and dance. 72 Angels changes gear and direction with such dizzying rapidity that at odd moments during its first exposure I found it a little unsettling and disorienting; after a few listens I hope I’m now beginning to ‘get’ it.

Auerbach’s material seems determined by the interaction of her imagination with the literal ‘sound’ of these 72 names, which are reproduced with great clarity in the booklet alongside their Russian and Hebrew equivalents, together with a note about language and phonology. For sampling purposes, a particularly good example which encapsulates Auerbach’s approach occurs soon after the beginning of track 12, with the 68th angel Habahiyah – from an objective sonic angle the music for these four syllables sounds inevitable in terms of pulse, flow, style and attack. It only lasts a few seconds but it seems to demonstrate Auerbach’s starting point for each tiny element of this colossal undertaking rather well.

The musicians on this recording, be they the 24 singers of the legendary Netherlands Chamber Choir or the four members of the equally renowned Raschèr Saxophone Quartet are tested in every conceivable way. Peter Dijkstra maintains absolute control of these strange yet not entirely disparate elements. The colouristic effects Auerbach draws from her weird ensemble are extraordinarily varied but at no stage do they seem tokenistic. We hear percussive tickings, crowd scenes, whispering, shouting, plangency, prayer, choral and instrumental ‘swooping’, declamation and drones. And far more besides. The music is by turns consolatory, abrupt, dance-like and hectoring. There are occasional hints of Messiaen (his Trois Petites Liturgies especially), and even Brahms and Bach. But these are tiny flavours- Auerbach is steadfastly her own person, her voice is spectacularly unique by any measure.

Some highlights? The shofar-like allusions that abound in the opening sequence, in the saxophones and voices at its very outset, and in the number devoted to the 5th angel Mahashiyah which features a fruity instrumental solo. Many of the little episodes are marked by extreme fervency – Ahaiyah (No 7, track 2) is almost shouted; Hariel (No15, track 3) emerges from a figure which hints at klezmer. During track 4 the urgent Pahaliyah (No 20) marks an abrupt change of pace, soon afterwards Melahel (no 23) features bold and assertive singing from the men. The concentrated writing for No 63 (track 11) Anayuel is especially febrile and rhythmically thrilling; after more than an hour one is astonished that the musicians show no sign of flagging. In contrast, Auerbach’s music can equally be fairy-light and ethereal; the high voices in No 4 Elemiyah (track 1) provide a good illustration- later examples include (inevitably) Ariel (No 46- track 8) which is almost pop-catchy and builds up towards the cumulative summary of angels after No 48 Mihael, a whispered yet pitched unaccompanied breeze of choral flutterings, vowels and consonants.

72 Angels is compelling and addictive though I suspect few audiences are likely to suspect as much after hearing it straight through in one sitting. While it is easy to admire the remarkable playing of the Rascher Quartet and the virtuosic vocalisations of the singers, Auerbach’s ideas turn on a sixpence and proceed at such dizzying speed that there is little or no time for the humble listener to take stock. An exception is the final Amen. In the lead up to this the last angel’s name Mevamyah is intoned gravely by a bass cantor to which the rest of the choir respond in unison. At this point all 72 names are delivered in reverse, with cantors and choir alternating in a kind of call and response sequence. In a live performance this must be very challenging for singers and players, a final test of their stamina and control. In due course a deep bass austerely delivers the first name on the list, Vehevyah which dissolves into the saxophones’ final cadence. This lays the foundations for the Amen. Herein lies the true lux of this work; this epilogue is serious, ominous, fragile and exhausted, quietly ravishing, increasingly intricate and chromatic. It climbs and descends rather effortfully and incorporates some exquisite harmonies. By now it is increasingly difficult for the listener to distinguish between voices and instruments. The former fade out on a final chord before the saxes gently flutter above it into a gradually realised nothingness. It’s a discomfiting yet profoundly affecting conclusion to a unique work. The performances ooze commitment and Alpha’s sound is outstanding, encompassing as it does a wealth of natural detail, not least in the quietest music.

I say a ‘unique’ work; Auerbach has since composed Goetia 72 – In umbra lucis (72 Demons) – a sequel of shadows (as the title implies) to follow the light. It’s of similar duration, but the mixed choir is now paired with a string quartet. It was premiered to considerable acclaim in Berlin last May, and one certainly hopes that Alpha will consider recording it, perhaps with this superb Dutch choir. 72 Angels itself is a work of formidable ambition and exceptional technical accomplishment. It is perhaps easier to admire its qualities on first hearing than to love them, but familiarity in this case yields ever increasing rewards.

Richard Hanlon

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