Although this CD came out in 2015, it just came on my radar recently, and I’ve spent much of the weekend listening to it. I have heard live performances of works by both these composers, one Estonian, the other Australian, and been intrigued by the music they created. This album has both composers reacting to the work of Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo.
Brett Dean’s work seems more deeply seated in the Western European tradition, and not just because he uses a chorus and string orchestra to deconstruct one of the most advanced pieces of music written in the 16th century. Brett may be Australian, but his work could have been created by a number of Post-Modern European composers.
Deconstructing Gesualdo, after all, is awfully tempting for 21st century sensibilities. For those who don’t know, Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (1566-1613) was a prince, who on an evening in 1590, killed his wife and her lover after catching the two of them “en flagrante” – which was judged by the courts of the time as “not a crime.” That he also wrote some of the most chromatic music prior to the 19th century makes his expressive idiom seem quite advanced. So, a murderer who wrote dark, complex music – could be a TV series these days; Criminal Minds in the 16th century. Dean’s Carlo feels like an attempt at an interior portrait of Gesualdo, right up to that night in 1590 when things got messy. The quotes of Gesualdo’s famous madrigal “Moro lasso” mingle with string music that could have been used in Psycho.
Erkki-Sven Tüür’s musical responses to Gesualdo are subtler, and feel more personal and lyrical, rather than explorations of Gesualdo’s psyche. Tüür’sL’ombra della croce is based on Gesualdo’s O crux benedicta,the music extended and expanded in ways that do not so much emphasize the original’s chromaticism as to ease that chromaticism in lyrical flights of polychords. The music suggests Tüür’s countryman, Arvo Pärt, at times, though the music is more fluid and lyrical than Pärt often is.
It is not just the ghost of Gesualdo that hovers over the last work on the disc,a piece for chorus and orchestra called Psalmody. Igor Stravinsky was also a fan of Gesualdo, and composed a work based on his music. In listening to Psalmody, I am reminded that Steve Reich, one of the leading American minimalists, often cited Stravinsky as an influence on his music. Reich’s Tehillim, then, might have been influenced by Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. Tüür’s Psalmody sounds like the love child of those two works. Tüür readily admits to the influence of American minimalism on his music, but the lyric woodwind lines, and occasionally sharp punctuating chords, are more reminiscent of Stravinsky than of Reich’s pulsing repetitions. The work has a distinctly “American” sound to it, its sonorities more consistent with mid-century American modernism (ala Copland, Fine, or Dahl), than with the European avant-garde tradition favored by Dean.
I was at a new music concert in Los Angeles some years ago, that featured a work by Tüür, and a friend who was there said to me afterwards, “I think my new favorite composer is Erkki-Sven Tüür.” After listening to this CD several times, I think maybe I agree.