This is an important album – to the uninitiated, it may seem strange, but stay with it, there’s a payoff at the end. Louis Andriessen is no stranger to adventurous listeners: he’s been a fixture of the avant garde for over forty years. This album begins with a carillonesque instrumental and then a series of art songs, all but one based on poems by legendary, mad Italian poet Dino Campana. Campana spent much of his life institutionalized, including his final years: his surreal, twisted, horrific imagery and sense of anguish compare with Baudelaire at his most crazed. Taking an approach which is severe yet atmospheric, the subtlety of Andriessen’s interpretation underscores its often extreme intensity. The Boston Modern Orchestra Project under the direction of Gil Rose vigorously emphasizes the compositions’ otherworldy ambience, enhanced by the incisive violin of Monica Germino (selected specifically by Andriessen for this project) and vocals of Cristina Zavalloni. Throughout the songs, her voice serves as an key ensemble instrument rather than a narrator, sometimes leading, sometimes taking a complementary role.
The first piece, Bells for Haarlem layers several keyboards including a macabre synthesizer patch to mimic churchbells, starting out minimalistically before its permutations set in: with its unsettling overtones, there’s a considerable resemblance to Phil Kline’s work. The first of the Campana pieces is a seven-minute song that marks the beginning of an ongoing collaboration between Andriessen and Zavalloni, a singer he credits as being as versatile as another longtime performer of his works, the legendary Cathy Berberian. Utilizing more strangely ringing keyboards in the beginning, Zavalloni follows with her own call-and-response over starkly acidic ambience from the orchestra. As they will later on, restless atonalities illustrate images of madness, in this case an understated depiction of a train ride to hell – or from hell perhaps.
The following piece, Letter from Cathy cleverly illuminates the complete text of a letter from avant garde vocal legend Berberian to Andriessen relating how Stravinsky almost didn’t choose her to sing his Elegy for JFK. The composition is a portrait – Andriessen’s melody matches Berberian’s exact wording, capturing his favorite singer in all her many moods: capricious, exacting, divaesque, irrepressible, with a childlike, rapt creativity and similar response to same. Minute passages of jarring dissonance, dreamy ambience, echoes of disappointment and a big, catchy pop ballad all make their entry and depart just as quickly. Those familiar with Berberian’s work will find it picture-perfect.
The cd’s title track is a suite, a remarkably tense, suspenseful work especially considering the madness and of its subject matter: there’s limitless potential for grand guignol here, but Andriessen doesn’t go there. It begins with a vividly wary fanfare, then Zavalloni comes in, gleefully eerie over bustling, Mingus-esque strings. The third poem is about abandonment and despair, an interesting place for Andriessen to have the electric keyboards do an echoey, surreal clog dance.
Satan enters, to a vigorous violin solo: this is where Andriessen most closely evokes his big influence, Stravinsky. He follows it with a severe, understated prayer to Satan, a supremely satisfying, fullscale horror movie segment that stalks along to the first of only two big crescendos. Only during the execution scene that concludes the suite is the orchestra allowed to unleash scream at full, roaring volume and the effect is visceral. And then it ends as quietly and atmospherically as it began. Who is the audience for this? Bang on a Can and more adventurous NPR fans, certainly, as well as more open-minded opera devotees – Zavalloni’s unadorned, crystalline voice is not mined for its beauty here, but she comes across as someone who could sing pretty much anything. Play this back to back with the Rites of Spring and enjoy both the similarities and the innovations of this strange and often riveting album.