, June 2011
Onutė Narbutaitė is probably one of the foremost composers of her generation in Lithuania. Her music is reasonably well known thanks to a handful of discs released by Finlandia some years ago. These may still be available. Her music also received national and international awards. There were also commissions including from the Brandenburg State Orchestra for her substantial Tres Dei Matris Symphoniae for chorus and orchestra.
This imposing work is in fact a large-scale choral-orchestral triptych framed by two short movements for a cappella chorus: Introitus using fragments from The Song of Songs and Oratio setting words by Hildegarde von Bingen. The main movements (or symphonies) deal with three important episodes from the New Testament involving Christ and Mary: the Revelation, the Birth of Jesus and the Crucifixion.
The first symphony, Angelus Domini sets parts of the Ave Maria and words from the Revelation. This movement—the longest of the entire work—opens with a long orchestral introduction. The music is dark, ominous at times and troubled, albeit allowing for calmer episodes. The prevailing mood is one of menace and tension. This is emphasised and reinforced by the scoring in which brass and string glissandi and piercing woodwind as well as heavy brass ostinati predominate. The music unfolds in waves reaching some massive, though short-lived climaxes. The chorus enters tentatively at first with a slow-keyed Ave Maria (at about 9:45), but bright fanfares spur the chorus into more assertiveness. This does not last long and the music momentarily dissolves into a short percussion-led section leading into a new choral section (“Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae”). This ushers in a new setting of words from the Ave Maria followed by an orchestral episode at the words “Ecce ancilla Domini”. The final words (“Et verbum caro factum est. Et habitavit in nobis”) are recited on one note by the chorus. A final massive crescendo brings the first symphony to its close.
The second symphony, Bethleem sets just the very first lines of the Gloria near its end. It thus opens with a long orchestral introduction, sometimes with wordless chorus. At first calm and mysterious the music becomes more animated with much contrapuntal writing although textures tend to thin-out chamber-like. However, halfway into the movement, the music darkens again until new rays of light dispel the sombre mood. After a big crescendo, bright fanfares—bringing those of the Sanctus in Britten’s War Requiem to mind—introduce the final choral section. This ends in utter peacefulness with a final blessing from a solo cello.
The third symphony, Mater Dolorosa opens hesitantly with bowed percussion, plodding strings with short brass punctuation. More angular material follows introducing the setting of the Stabat Mater. Compared to the preceding symphonies the third is fairly straightforward in that it mirrors the different moods suggested by the words. It ends with a beautiful, appeased coda.
This is a really imposing and accessible work that needs, but generously rewards repeated hearings, not because the music is ‘difficult’ but because the work as a whole is rather complex in its conception. The music is superbly crafted and the scoring is remarkably inventive throughout this long triptych. In her concise liner-notes the composer states that “it was a personal experience, not a ritualistic reiteration of well known truths, which induced the composer to approach issues that have been the subject of contemplation for centuries”. What this personal experience was, we do not know; neither do we know in what way it left its mark on the music. Anyway it may be better like that so that each listener may make up his or her own mind about the music and the work as a whole.
To me this substantial piece is the work of an honest and sincere composer whose music deserves to be better known.
Performance and recording are really very fine. One would hardly guess that this is a live recording.
In short, this is a most welcome release that will, I hope, bring Narbutaitė’s music to a much broader audience.