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Peter EÖTVÖS (b. 1944)
hallelujah - oratorio balbulum [50:06]
alle vittime senza nome [24:28]
Matthias Brandt (narrator)
Iris Vermillion (mezzo-soprano)
Topi Lehtipuu (tenor)
WDR Sinfonieorchester & Rundfunkchor/Peter Eötvös
Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Roma/Antonio Pappano
rec. 2017, Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany; Santa Cecilia Hall, Auditorium of the Parco della Musica
WERGO WER73862 [74:38]

Peter Eötvös was born in 1944 in the Transylvanian town of Székelyudvarhely, which was then in Hungary - now Romania. After studying composition in Budapest and Cologne, he worked with the Stockhausen Ensemble (1968 - 1976), was principal guest conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1985 - 1988), and musical conductor/director of the Ensemble InterContemporain (1979 - 1991). Like all Eötvös’s music, the two works presented here - hallelujah - oratorio balbulum lasting over 50 minutes and alle vittime senza nome (24) - stand out for their clarity, self-confidence, and their bold (at times, perhaps, bald) unambiguous musical atmospheres and statements.

Eötvös writes as though any experimentation, potential departure from the expected, or desire to shock has been wrung out and expunged before a note is played. Yet innovative this music decidedly is. And these performances - by two different sets of appropriately-versed musicians - are clarion, authoritative, almost (justifiably) proud, striking, colourful and accessible.

This music is indubitably of our age; in the way in which the music of, say, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Giya Kancheli and Alfred Schnittke is. You’re always made to think. Perhaps to grab allusions to music from other eras. Perhaps to delight in finding your footing after momentarily losing it. In the end, Eötvös’s music offers great satisfaction and a sense of summation… few loose ends. Puzzles maybe. But not insoluble puzzles.

hallelujah - oratorio balbulum is an active musing on language. Given the composer’s peregrinations throughout Europe, this theme - although he does not say so - might imply displacement: Eötvös has returned to Hungary to be determinedly active politically. But, in the face of incipient Fascism, such an exercise must call on resources outside the conventionally professional. He asks, “Is stammering an impediment, an advantage, inevitable? Or is it the vehicle for a massive array of linguistic sleights?” Balbutire in Latin is to stammer. But there are references to Babel, babbling, and other homonyms, synonyms and homophones in the texts which form the basis of hallelujah - oratorio balbulum.

Taking the Hebrew world of the hallelujah (hillel is to praise) as his trigger or seed, Eötvös ruminates on how language can appear to destabilize understanding - not least because of the multiplicity of languages, dialects, argots and accents to be heard all around us. And because of ambiguities in verbalization - intended as well as unintended. The Swiss Benedictine monk, Notker the Stammerer (c. 840 - 912), is but one of many strands which Eötvös borrows and squeezes, quotes and adapts to form what at first might sound like a collage, a latter day Hymnen (Stockhausen’s landmark audio mélange). But what is in fact rigid with structure and bent on purpose.

Over strident, yet plainly peaceful and unassuming, orchestral bursts and passages (the WDR Sinfonieorchester is in its element here, and obviously enjoying the music) mezzo Iris Vermillion, tenor Topi Lehtipuu and narrator Matthias Brandt with the WDR Rundfunkchor intone, declaim, whisper, sing, shout - and always project with maximum character and expression (excerpts from) a variety of texts, contemporary and ancient. These are principally in German. But they call on other languages to explore language as a function of and a contrast with silence, emotion, stricture (linguistic change, permission even), freedom. By the end of hallelujah - oratorio balbulum some understanding seems to have been reached of the many ways in which music can assist and foster praise. And of the ways in which praise needs music. And most crucially of all, how music becomes praise in and of itself.

This work is not, though, dogmatic, propagandistic; it’s not a tub of slogans dressed as art. Just as this phase in Stockhausen’s life and work still stands because it was valid as music, aside from - perhaps precisely because of - the verbal elements. On repeated listening, you may well be struck by just how whole and unfragmented, how clear in direction and carefully conceived, hallelujah - oratorio balbulum is… just as is usually the case with any more familiar oratorio.

Each performer is fully engaged. Texts are articulated with excitement, exactitude and an implicit wish to communicate, rather than merely to present. An ounce less refinement and hallelujah - oratorio balbulum could quite easily have been a mere statement. This doesn’t happen - in part because Eötvös recognises fallibility and doubt… ‘Es gibt kein Vorwärts’ is repeated and built on during the oratorio’s Part IV. Neither is the music a mere statement: the composer infuses much dignity into the work. He sees off any hint of triteness because of the relevance of the range of references (spoken and oblique) which colour its texts… from Handel to current slang, from Nietzsche to news reports.

alle vittime is divided into three parts as opposed to hallelujah’s four. It’s purely orchestral. Yet has the same impact and sense of measured urgency as hallelujah. Just when you feel the music ‘scatters’ there’s consolidation; and just when it seems as though the path is clear, it splits. This duality amply reflects the skewed functioning of the world on which the piece comments: the rich north and west exploit the ‘nameless’ in the Middle East in this case. They are bombed, tortured and oppressed - so have no choice but to flee. The rich attack the deliberately impoverished; powerfully bully and ruin the lives of the homeless masses. Escape from Syria to Italy is an example. But not the only one.

Eötvös describes seeing the faces of those left with little alternative, and so who are about to flee - perhaps to arrive in a European country which will welcome them, or perhaps will not; or perhaps they will die over the side of a boat en route. As the music moves happily between passages for solo instruments (prominent are violin, viola, alto-sax and trumpet) then broader orchestral sweeps, one is tempted to think of sea and souls. Sinking and salvation. Frontiers and freedom. Tolerance and torture.

alle vittime senza nome is surely a piece more of anger than of acceptance or resignation (the currency of the conventional Requiem). One is reminded of the journey in the piece as strongly as of communication in hallelujah. Instruments (like the violin in the first part of this work) are sent on journeys: this is happening now.

It’s as easy to thread your own way through Eötvös’ thematic progressions as it’s difficult for those whose lives are ruined by capitalist imperial destruction to follow their own longed-for paths. As at times of loss and upheaval (to put mildly what the United States and European wrecking élites are doing to (North) Africa and the Middle East), there are moments of introspection and despair (few of hope).

The dynamism of the music, just like the driven nature of political (and environmental) refugees’ experiences, is never gratuitous. The members of Pappano’s Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia strike a perfect balance between involved indignation and a refusal to content themselves with a fey narrative. This - thankfully - is music to make you think. In places it’s quizzical. Restraint is always matched with conviction. But never unwarranted; never overblown. Just as you can’t look away from the faces of those who ask, like fellow Hungarian Péter Esterházy (to whom the coda of alle vittime is dedicated), “Who are we? Where are we? Why are we here?”

The acoustics (Cologne for hallelujah; Santa Cecilia for alle vittime) are each appropriately rounded and almost ‘heroic’ in the ways they allow the music full rein, each syllable to be audible and the (spoken) words to be forward and full of impact. The booklet with the CD contains a highly illuminating essay on the origins and contexts of these works by Eötvös. Given the specificity of the subject matter which Eötvös is examining and expanding such background is very useful.

If you’re new to the music of Eötvös, give these two searing yet fully integrated pieces a try. If you already know his work, snap this CD up: there is no other recording of either piece.
Mark Sealey

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