Jörg Widmann: ARCHE (ECM New Series 2605/06)


Jörg Widmann

Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
Marlis Petersen soprano
Thomas E. Bauer baritone
Gabriel Böer boy soprano
Jonna Plathe child narrator
Baris Özden child narrator
Iveta Apkalna organ
Chor der Hamburgischen Staatsoper
Audi Jugendchorakadamie
Hamburger Alsterspatzen
Kent Nagano 
Concert recording by NDR from the opening of the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie on January 13, 2017
Tonmeister: Hans-Michael Kissing
Engineer: Dominik Blech
Editing, mix, and mastering: Carl Talbot and Anne-Marie Sylvestre (engineer)
A NDR Production
Release date: October 5, 2018

Let our book of debts be cancell’d!
Reconcile the total world!
E’en the dead shall live in heaven!
Brothers, drink and all agree,
Every sin shall be forgiven,
Hell forever cease to be.
–Friedrich Schiller

Written to inaugurate Hamburg’s new Elbphilharmonie concert hall in January of 2017, Jörg Widmann’s massive oratorio for soloists, choirs, organ and orchestra was inspired by the architecture of the hall itself. The composer recalls his reaction upon seeing the unfinished building for the first time: “From the outside the building resembles a ship… To me the interior looked like the hold of a ship, an Ark. It breathes the spirit of democracy!” From that initial epiphany followed a work that seeks to encapsulate the thrust of Continental history while parrying its trajectory via politically savvy retrospection.

Sadly enough, despite the obvious amount of heartfelt effort that went into this performance, there’s a certain emptiness to its presentation, not least of all in the fact that no English translations of the libretto are included in the CD booklet. This is an unfortunate omission. We know that Widmann has sewn together writings by Claudius, Klabund, Heine, Sloterdijk, Andersen, Brentano, Schiller, Francis of Assisi, Nietzsche, Schmmelpfennig, Thomas of Celano, and Michelangelo, as well as the German folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Latin Mass for the Dead, and the Bible itself. Without the otherwise excellent liner notes by Dieter Rexroth, the grander scope of what Widmann is doing textually would likely be lost on non-German speakers.

To be sure, however, some fascinating musical dramaturgy awaits the adventurous listener willing to surmount the linguistic barrier, and what few clues we are given are just enough to let the finer nuances get swept away in the experience. The warped blasts of organ and choral surges in “Sintflut” (The Flood) are especially thrilling, and provide strange respite from the text-heavy surroundings. Inclusive of the opening section, “Fiat Lux” (Let there be light), two child narrators link the even broader brushstrokes of creation leading to the repainted canvas of the Flood. Between respirations, voices shift in tectonic frictions of flesh and spirit. Whether spoken or sung, whispered or shouted, each utterance is an open doorway into the fractured nature of time. In this milieu, words seem to act as buoys and anchors alike, while baritone soloist Thomas E. Bauer embodies the oratorio’s titular vessel struggling against raging waves.

Emerging from these troubled waters is the volcano of “Die Liebe” (Love), wherein bubbles the molten sentiments of the Song of Songs, even as a poem by Michelangelo asserts its three-dimensional dominance. The lovers—of which soprano Marlis Petersen’s renderings are alive with virtue and desire—find synchronicity only toward the end of their respective journeys, as if mocking the destination of a tested faith. For as soon as those travelers lock step, the ground falls from beneath their feet in the apocalyptic “Dies irae.” Beneath those voices, whose incongruence bursts through Schiller’s unused “Ode to Joy” verses like water from a broken dam, a visceral percussive landscape splits Hell wide open.

“Dona nobis pacem” pushes the Catholic liturgy against a litany of technological obsessions, chanted by children’s choir as if in defiance of the modern world’s rituals, both sacred and profane, so that when boy soprano Gabriel Böer cuts through the din like a shooting star of reason, it’s with a sharpness more effective than any blade, honed as it is on a metaphysical stone of hope in a higher power.

“Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty; open thine eyes, and thou shalt be satisfied with bread.”
–Proverbs 20:13

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