Sarah Leonard soprano
Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded June 1992, Hofkirche Luzern
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Not many record labels would produce, let alone conceive of, an album consisting mainly of works for soprano and organ. I am glad to say that ECM did not back away from such a challenge, and in the process left one of its most indelible musical marks on the classical landscape. Of the four composers represented here Bryars is the only ECM mainstay, but he is in fine company indeed.
Henryk Górecki’s O Domina Nostra (1982-1985/90), conceived as an apostrophe to the Black Madonna of Jasna Góra, emerges from and recedes into a profound stasis. An earthly low pedal D on the organ is paired with triads descending from the cosmos, leaving us caught in the middle. Our only guide is the bare text and the voice that articulates it:
O Domina nostra
Regina nostra Maria
Sancta Maria ora pro nobis
Oh, our Lady
Of the Bright Mount,
Our Queen, Mary
Holy Mary, pray for us
Amid this murky swirl a soprano scours her lowest range, trying to pull herself from the depths of some unnamable crisis. She proclaims her joy in faith, as if each new utterance might touch a hope that its predecessors failed to reach. She returns to the opening invocation, closing on a supplicative “O Domina.”
The epic Messe des Pauvres (1895), or Mass for the Poor, by Erik Satie is, like much of the composer’s paradoxical output, both representative of the eclecticism for which he is known and something of an anomaly. According to Wilfrid Mellers’s liner notes, early on in his compositional career Satie “sought to reintegrate the disintegrated materials of tradition by juxtaposing fragments of melody and chord-sequences without obvious relation to one another or to development.” Thus do we get the Messes des Pauvres, a piece rooted in plainchant, sans the theological overload such a comparison might imply. Normally the organ is accompanied by unison voices, but forgoes them here. The piece rarely lingers, as if the four limbs required of its performance were seeking a point of unity through which to gain access to something far more mystical. Yet the piece also questions the mystical, and with a levity that indulges our skepticism. The music is wrought with such beautiful indecisiveness that moments of resolution seem intrusive. Only when the organ bares its teeth midway through is the power of this indecision fully realized. The heavy feet of an overarching sarcastic glory trample even the fluted reverie that follows.
The diptych of miniatures that is Darius Milhaud’s Prélude I/II (1942) is charmingly rustic and prepares us for the masterpiece that awaits us. The lead melodies are like the ramblings of shepherds, whose carefree desires can only go so far before the flock disperses beyond containment. The rhythms move like a human figure, as graceful as they are imperfect.
Which brings us to this album’s pièce de résistance: Gavin Bryars’s The Black River (1991). The text, culled from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, is told from the viewpoint of Professor Aronnax as he describes the many underwater life forms that escort the mighty Nautilus through a vast underwater current from which the piece gets its name. Bryars successfully makes of this passage a world unto itself, one not subterranean but submerged. A languid introduction from the organ opens our ears to the soprano’s entrance as she propels herself through a subdued tour de force of intonation, melody, and atmosphere. The melody sustains itself through a constantly shifting mosaic of moods, in which recapitulation is found only in the organ at the end.
Sarah Leonard sings with rare beauty, and her rich voice is laced with a nasal quality that burrows into the very marrow of the listener’s bones. Her high note in The Black River sends shivers down the spine (and do keep an ear out for the haunting overtone she unwittingly produces at the 13:18 mark in the same piece). Christopher Bowers-Broadbent is the perfect foil, eliciting from the organ a delicacy I have heard nowhere else. This will always be one of my most beloved New Series recordings.