, January 2007
Knowing his earlier work, one might expect a certain amount of ironic and subversive wit with any of Mauricio Kagel’s pieces, but this new Naxos issue is full of deadly serious stuff, and all the more welcome for it.
There was always more to Kagel’s art than just jokes, and this set of works show him in the context of broad canvasses, from the Mahlerian orchestral song-cycle form of Duodramen, to the double chorus and full orchestra of Liturgien. Szenario was conceived as a stand-alone concert piece, but has since become associated with the Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dalí silent film Le chien andalou of 1928. The tape part of the score consists of animal noises, with of course a whining, and later a barking dog. These sound samples could have been better, coming over rather distorted and tinny, rather than threatening and aggressive where required. The juxtaposition of sometimes eloquent strings and animal sounds is a little uneasy as well, with the extra noises only cropping up now and again – their relevance not entirely clear without any visual references. Nevertheless, there is an unremitting and pungent weight to the march-like rhythm which is a constant backdrop to some colourful string writing. Kagel can’t resist the occasional Wagner quote, but this work has all of the pregnant atmosphere one should expect from good film music – intentional or not.
Duodramen opens immediately with a post-romantic, operatic sense of drama. Looking at the libretto (available online via a link provided on the CD label) one receives the impression less of a coherent story, more an association of ideas and disparate characters – names such as Casanova, Alma Mahler, Henry Ford and Cosima Wagner inhabiting the score and meeting each other in strange and impossible relationships. The text is in German, but has an English translation on the web-page. There is a great deal of complex detail and dramatic context from beginning to end in this piece, giving it an intensity and resonance which I found quite stimulating. That is not to say that there are no moments of repose, and there are indeed some passages of remarkable orchestral colour – chillingly suggestive or vibrantly picturesque – no doubt helped by the addition of percussion and winds, I found the images conjured in this score in many ways to be far more vivid than the previous Szenario. The brutal intimidation of male over female doesn’t make for easy listening, but then, neither is Wozzeck.
Playing, singing and recordings are all excellent on this disc, and this remains true of the final live performance of Liturgien. Referring once again to the online page, the words are all taken from existing religious texts, the source for each of which also being included in detail. The language used is Latin, which for many will soften the impact of having ‘Alleluia’ standing close to ‘Allah is great!’ There is a ritual nature to the music which suits this intentional levelling of symbolism, and I sense traces of Britten, Martin, Stravinsky, Penderecki, Szymanowski – names whose stamp on religious musical expression, if not necessarily as ambiguous as here, at least invariably bears a strong humanist element.
This piece has an other-worldly, magical quality which is something I have always valued in Kagel, and am delighted to find existing in his larger-scale work. If Duodramen is a drama on a private, intimate scale,Liturgien is very much a public statement. No-one can ignore the significance of religious text, and neither is it possible to ignore the idea of effectively taking religion and mixing its writings in the waste-bin of a shredder. This music has all of the seriousness and weight to carry Kagel’s message of homogeneity. While revelling in this work’s spell it was also nice for me to come across some familiar names to one who works at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague – I shall never forget Wout Oosterkamp’s warm encouragement as a teacher, or some performances and workshops by Romain Bischoff’s amazing Vocal Laboratory.
Originally recordings by Saarbrücken Radio, Naxos has made a sound move in releasing these recordings – conducted by the composer, and unlikely to be repeated or bettered any time soon. 2006 is Kagel’s 75th jubilee, but no mention of this is made in the booklet, neither is there any suggestion that this is to be part of any series or collection. I would say there is room for such an edition – especially on the strength of this release.