Magnus Lindberg: Graffiti; Seht Die Sonneby Sakari Oramo
This Ondine release features superb performances of two major works by Magnus Lindberg, one of the most prominent Finnish composers to emerge in the late 20th century. The half-hour "Graffiti" has a title with contemporary, colloquial associations, but the graffiti that the composer takes for his texts comes from the walls of public places in Pompeii, written soon before the city was destroyed in A.D. 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. While some of the writings are specific to the time and place, such as advertisements for gladiatorial combats, a surprising number of the cranky political diatribes, silly aphorisms, and sexual encounters either documented or solicited, could, with the Roman names changed, be found in modern restrooms. Lindberg is essentially an orchestral composer, and apart from juvenilia and a piece for children's choir, "Graffiti" is his first work using a chorus. The skill with which he handles the voices, though, is evidence of his secure professionalism, as well as an obvious gift for choral writing. (He has expressed a long-held interest in writing an opera, and considers this piece a sort of warm-up.) He assembled the brief texts without an attempt to create a narrative, or even a thematic organization, so the logic that drives the structure of the piece is purely musical, and he is entirely successful in composing an engrossing, coherent large-scale work. The meanings of the individual Latin texts are submerged in the sweep of the larger musical structure, but the program notes describe his intention as being the creation of "a grand choral and orchestral fresco of the life of the town," and that is exactly what he has done. The orchestral work "Seht die Sonne" takes its title from the last section of Schoenberg's "Gurrelieder," and while it makes no explicit musical references to that work, it conveys in its tone some of the ecstatic sweep of the Schoenberg. Its orchestration, like that of "Graffiti," is typical of Lindberg -- brilliant, exotically variegated, full of unexpected but wonderfully effective juxtapositions. It has many gorgeous, immensely appealing moments -- in fact, it is made up of nothing but gorgeous, immensely appealing moments -- but it has something of a strung together feeling of one-thing-after-another, without a clearly discernible structure or coherent sense of direction. Its impact will probably depend on the individual listener's temperament, an appreciation for moment-to-moment impressions, versus the need for a sense of musical structure and integration. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Helsinki Chamber Choir perform with terrific energy, power, flair, and polish under Sakari Oramo. Ondine's sound is clear, spacious, and nicely defined.
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A surprisingly strong new release of music from Lindberg. His music has always had a rugged strength to it, and that's still here, but what's surprising is that those qualities are undiminished even though these pieces seem to mark a move to a more transparent, tonal and generally more accessible idiom. His previous work, uniformly fine, has been uncompromising in its harmonic complexity and challenging sonic quality. These two works are more immediately attractive to the ear and still involving and exciting. Choral music is essentially a new venture, and GRAFFITI is an excellent work. He sets the ancient text with rich music that really supports the expression of the words; by turns grand, dark, raucous, funny, wistful and vulgar. At the end, the piece trails off into a captivating and mysterious sense of the pending doom of Pompeii, the source of the words. The music is full of energy and color, put together with taste, intelligence, imagination and an ear for what sounds good. This is even truer for Seht die Sonne, essentially a symphony in three parts. It has a grand Romatic sweep to it, the music frequently working it's way out of churning depths into resonant, bright textures. There's a sense of drama, of moving from one state to the next, and a satisfying excitement and emotional force. Excellent playing by the Finnish Radio Symphony under Sakari Oramo. Lindberg may be summing up all he's done before and moving into new territory, and the promise of this CD is one of the most exciting things about it.
Few contemporary composers have produced as steady a stream of intellectually engaging and accessible music as Finland's Magnus Lindberg. Lindberg has excelled in so many genres that it's surprising he has never written a choral work until now. Graffiti, a large-scale work for choir and orchestra, premiered in 2009 and won the Finnish Teosto Award. The work is in one long movement and in it the composer sets ancient Latin graffiti inscriptions that were found on the walls of Pompeii. It's a fascinating idea and these little snippets - some are as banal as notice for a missing pot, while others such as "You are dead, you are nothing"- are especially poignant considering Pompeii's grim fate. Lindberg weaves some lean but extremely colorful orchestral writing around a rather eclectic vocal style that has some echoes of Britten and, more obviously, Orff. The comparison to Orff's Carmina Burana is surely going to be made by some, but Lindberg makes a potent statement without any of Orff's vulgar excesses. The balance of the recording is devoted to Lindberg's 2007 Seht die Sonne (Behold the Sun), an orchestral piece that takes its title from the final choral section of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder. This is muscular and ecstatic orchestral music on the grand scale. Lindberg's music is filled with big gestures and whether it's the concerto grosso-like passages for solo instruments (the cello cadenza in the second movement) or the haunting chorale in the final movement, everything works brilliantly. I don't think there has been such a powerful orchestral work in the post-Messiaen era. The performances by the Helsinki Chamber Choir and Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra are miraculous. The choir sings with power, passion and athleticism - this is difficult music! Men's voices are richly sonorous and the women are their match at the upper end of the register. Outstanding in every way, I can't wait until the next Lindberg premiere.