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Robert GROSLOT (b. 1951)
The Intimacy of Distance, for soprano and orchestra (2019) [28:16]
My Green Shade Forest, for orchestra (2015) [13:01]
Trittico incantevole, for orchestra (2017) [14:22]
Charlotte Wajnberg (soprano)
Brussels Philharmonic/Robert Groslot
rec 2019-2020 at Studio 4, Flagey, Brussels, Belgium
Sung texts and translations included in booklet
NAXOS 8.579100 [55:45]

This is the third instalment of Naxos’s ongoing sequence devoted to the orchestral music of Robert Groslot. It brings together a trilogy of his most recent compositions. First up is the oxymoronically titled song cycle The Intimacy of Distance; in fact Norbert Florian Schuck argues (in a detailed and helpful note) that it’s possibly better characterised as a concerto for voice and orchestra in view of this composer’s enduring fascination with that form. It’s coupled with two briefer (but still substantial) works for orchestra alone; the sylvan tone poem My Green Shade Forest, seemingly inspired by a beauty spot not half a mile from Groslot’s home, and the Peter Paul Rubens homage Trittico incantevole. All three works are rich in the qualities which shone through the first two issues in this series, both warmly welcomed by Rob Barnett (Violin Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra - review) and myself (Concertos for Piano, Cello and Harp – review). As on those discs, the superlative Brussels Philharmonic are again conducted by the composer.

The Intimacy of Distance is a colourful half-hour, five movement work in which Groslot has set poems by the propitiously named young Berliner Elisa Nathalie Heine. The work’s title succinctly chimes with her literary preoccupations, namely the world of paradox and contradiction, the no-(wo)man’s land which demarcates the surreal and the real, and the drift between conscious and unconscious thought. I found these texts intriguing; four are in English and one in German. She has a flexible approach to form which proves agreeably unsettling. Two of the poems incorporate a Cummings-like visual element. For a writer who deals largely with the distinction between lived and endured experience the precision of her language is compelling and often disturbing. One can understand immediately why an orchestral painter like Groslot would be attracted to the dream-like implications of her language. The opening number In ganzer Gestalt und voreinem grossen Himmel (In full form and in front of a big sky) adopts a German title, initially declaimed by the soprano Charlotte Wajnberg before she embarks upon an English text comprising a long list of pithily expressed paradoxes and allusions, both metaphysical and concrete. Groslot fully embraces the concept; he unleashes an exhilarating procession of attractive little motifs and figures which ricochet between solo instruments and instrumental groups. These gestures bind, interlock and disperse, like cells under a microscope, brilliantly mirroring Heine’s syllabic experiments and providing a backcloth of detail for Wajnberg’s lyrical, instrumentally treated voice. Whilst her diction is careful as opposed to tentative, her efforts are occasionally swamped by the rich orchestration; given the general excellence of the sonics in this series, I suspect the singular demands of this work must have presented more than a few balancing challenges to the engineers. Having the texts to hand proved essential for this reviewer. I enjoyed the sense of fragility conveyed by Wajnberg’s voice in the second panel, the centre coils bottomless, a gentle arc of sustained strings and tuned percussion against which the vocal line emerges in a more obviously concertante way. A rapid, virtuosic orchestral prelude initiates Heimkehr (Homecoming); Groslot’s writing is assured and elusive in the sense that he never settles for too long on a single timbre; there’s a still centre at the heart of this setting, whilst Wajnberg seems more comfortable with its German text, which registers with greater acuity. The fourth piece, Blood Moon Kulning is limpid and dream-like and features some magical passages for clarinets, bassoons and harp. This weird text is rich in allusion and Groslot’s timbral gifts at times inadvertently draw one’s attention away from the words. The kulning in the title refers to the Swedish herding calls beloved of composers such as Karin Rehnqvist, although Groslot incorporates a far more romanticised version of the form. The Intimacy of Distance concludes with State of Matter, a poem in which Heine muses on the experience of watching horses in the snow. Groslot’s treatment is in itself a paradox, by turn glacial and rapid, adjacent and distant; of these five pieces this is the one which I feel most aptly entwines the poet’s vivid imagery with orchestral sound. Wajnberg projects this text most powerfully. Listeners will surely be impressed by Groslot’s bold writing and his obvious mastery of big forms, but I would also suggest that this cycle needs a few listens to make its point – the rapidity with which one event succeeds another could easily render the work somewhat unmemorable to impatient ears. Notwithstanding my earlier remarks about the recorded balance, the Brussels Philharmonic play wonderfully, whilst Charlotte Wajnberg’s contribution lacks nothing in commitment.

Groslot embarks on his wander through My Green Shade Forest with an ominous staccato tread in the bass until intricately woven threads of woodwind coalesce colourfully to suggest the increasing density and diversity of this terrain. The first half of the piece seems to depend repeatedly on the interplay and contrasts between these two ideas. The composer inserts brief pauses between sections to enable the listener to distinguish them. The writing for winds and brass is especially effective in this piece; it ultimately constitutes an atmospheric concertino for orchestra which makes its mark as an effective study of texture rather than a melodic tour-de-force. The neo-impressionistic caste of Groslot’s sound world is characteristically lucid and refined, whilst the conclusion, in which strings are flecked with flute suggests a delicious impression of being released from the grip of a mysterious but not malign landscape.

At which point I would respectfully suggest that the serious listener takes a breather. Unfortunately I failed to do so in the first instance; consequently Trittico incantivole, the final offering on this album, sounded just too similar the preceding piece, When I returned to it a couple of hours later it seemed a very different beast. It begins in a manner which simultaneously evokes Sibelius 6 and Frank Bridge’s Summer and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; hopefully informed readers will sympathise with my confusion – this opening actually seems more overtly ‘sylvan’ in mood and texture than anything in My Green Shade Forest. As Trittico incantivole continued, via hints of tarantella, big Brucknerian fanfares and a creepy flute theme over pizzicato basses (which most improbably brought to mind Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme) I’m afraid any connection to Peter Paul Rubens got lost in translation, although what undoubtedly emerged was a thoroughly enjoyable work of classical grace and seamless beauty. Regardless of its inspiration (it shames me to admit I even struggled with the Trittico in the title – any tripartite structure was far from obvious to my ears) this piece proved to be more melodic and memorable than either of the two couplings, notwithstanding their undoubted conceptual and sonic coherence.

It is no bad thing that the people at Naxos have embraced Robert Groslot’s bold and open-hearted music with such enthusiasm. His pieces consistently creep up on one with increased familiarity and earn the listener’s attention by dint of the fastidious craftsmanship which permeates every bar. The players of the Brussels Philharmonic lavish their collective commitment upon Groslot’s music with good reason; as I have stated before the number of living Belgian composers celebrated beyond their borders is surprisingly small. These three pieces together constitute yet another absorbing portrait of a gifted and prolific figure.

Richard Hanlon

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