Album review: An Andriessen masterstroke with Nora Fischer, LA Phil and Esa-Pekka Salonen

From the early 1970s on, Louis Andriessen, the dean of contemporary Dutch composers, has been developing his own, distinctive sound-world, defying categorization, and, for the most part, the venerable musical establishment of the symphonic kind.

After a period of writing music for his own ensembles, Andriessen has been closely associated with many of the leading new music groups, including the Amsterdam-based Asko|Schönberg. However, with the wake of a new millennium, symphony orchestras took a renewed interest in the composer’s music, paving the way for Andriessen’s slow return to writing for orchestras.

The composer’s ties to the Los Angeles Philharmonic began to take shape fifteen years ago, when the orchestra performed his rock-hewn classic De Staat (1972-76) and the newly-finished Dante setting, Racconto dall’inferno (2004), as apart of the orchestra’s Minimalist Jukebox festival.

Over the years to come, the orchestra would premiere Andriessen’s The Hague Hacking (2008) as well as present his opera, or grotesque, Theatre of the World (2013-15) to the West Coast audiences.

On 2-5 May 2019, teaming up with soprano Nora Fischer and Conductor Laureate Esa-Pekka Salonen, Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the world premiere performances of Andriessen’s song cycle The only one (2018) for female jazz singer and large ensemble.

Celebrating both the composer’s eightieth birthday and the orchestra’s centenary, The only one was framed by Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488 (1786), with Emanuel Ax, and Beethoven Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21 (1795-1800). An odd combo at first sight, perhaps, but looking more closely, each of the three works feature masters on the top of their games.

Now, two years later, Nonesuch has released the premiere recording of The only one, based on the Los Angeles first performances. The ninth Andriessen album by the label, the new disc is certainly among the finest in the series. Clocking at twenty one minutes, it may not be the most generous item as far as quantity is concerned, but in terms of quality, one could hardly ask for more.

To put it in simple terms, The only one is a masterstroke. Bearing family relationship with Racconto dall’inferno and Anais Nïn (2009-10), both written for Cristina Zavalloni, The only one has its roots in Andriessen’s quest for vocal works conceived for voices combining early music, jazz, cabaret and classical styles.

According to Andriessen’s programme note, the discovery of the artistry of Nora Fischer was a key factor in shaping The only one. For the composer, Fischer was ”a young singer who has attracted attention in recent years through both her classical and pop music projects. The depth of her versatility has strongly influenced the musical language of the piece.”

Soprano Nora Fischer and the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, condcuted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, premiering Louis Andriessen’s The only one (2018) at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in May 2019. © Courtesy of LA Phil

Another essential discovery for Andriessen was the poetry of the Flemish author Delphine Lecompte, whose lines the composer found ”…witty, intelligent, experimental, and sometimes scabrous. She uses short lines; it is sharp and radical, almost surrealistic.” In the score of The only one, Lecompte’s texts appear in english translations by the author, with additions from Monica Germino, an American and Dutch violinist based in Amsterdam.

The Only One features five short poems, with orchestral introduction and two interludes, resulting in a twenty minute cycle, scored for a large ensemble of duple winds and brass, including saxophones, harp, piano, doubling celesta, an array of percussion, electric guitar and bass, and a small(ish) string section.

Andriessen’s instrumental setups tend to stand apart from the symphonic scheme. While his choices are musically brilliant, they tend to pose some problems in terms of programming. As John Adams put it in our recent interview, ”there are these wonderful pieces by Andriessen that never get performed in the United States, because they’re too big for a chamber group to do and they’re too strange for an orchestra.”

Aware of the problem, Andriessen expressed his concerns about writing for symphony orchestras to Chad Smith, Chief Executive Officer of the LA Phil, who wanted to commission the composer to write a new piece as part of the orchestra’s centenary celebration.

”I talked with him about my trouble with the traditional instrumentation of the symphony orchestra. Then he said the historic words: ’You should write what you want to write.’ His reassurance was a good reason for me to say yes”, the composer writes in his programme note.

Thus, for the world premiere performances, bookended by two pieces for classical orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic was transformed into a splendidly Andriessen-esque ensemble, resulting in gorgeous sonic imagery, well shaped and balanced by Salonen. Joined by Nora Fischer’s amplified soprano voice, Andriessen’s vocal and instrumental conception was realized with perfection.

On the new album, the immediacy of the ravishing live account is well served by detailed post production, with admirable sensitivity to nuanced sonics and invigorating presence.

The score opens with an instrumental introduction of one minute and a half, aptly setting the mood with rippling, repetitive patterns for piano, marimba and woodwinds. Joined by strings, longer note values appear, establishing first melodic fragments.

The soloist enters, unaccompanied, with the first lines of the title song. The orchestra joins, as Lecompte’s witty musings on detached aimlessness are unraveled by the soloist. The instrumental lines are woven around the vocal part as crisp morning breezes, which carry into the next song, The early bird. Following the opening instrumental bird calls, the soloist enters, and the music gradually builds up towards a screaming climax, as the languid morning mood thickens into claustrophobic haste.

An instrumental interlude ensues. Based on an ostinato, the spellbindingly rocking musical fabric summons imagery from the streets of Amsterdam in a mist-ridden morning hue.

The ostinato figure reappears as accompaniment in the third song, Broken morning, played by guitar, bass, harp, piano and, eventually, strings. A carnivalesque mixture of musical styles, both European and Latin American, Andriessen’s soundscapes echo the pioneering sonics of Ennio Morricone’s most elaborate film scores.

The first half of the second interlude comes closest to symphonic sonics, with its procession-like canvas. Midway through the movement, the music plunges into orchestral depths. Dexterous woodwind figures emerge, followed by brass and percussion, bridging into the penultimate song, Twist and shame.A peculiar mixture of eleven-tone-row and bluesy vocal lines, Twist and shame is a journey into memory and the self, almost brutally honest in its self-doubt.

In the concluding Grown up, set to a nudist beach, the soloist’s reflections of puberty and adulthood, give rise to a vivid musical tableau, alight with a cascade of emotions. Reaching the zenith with a stroke of a tam-tam, the music cools down to a wonderfully laconic coda by the soloist. With eight matter-of-factly chords from the orchestra, The only one arrives at its close.

Louis Andriessen onstage with Nora Fischer, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the members of the LA Phil after the world premiere of The only one at the Walt Disney Concert Hall on 2 May 2019. © Courtesy of LA Phil.

A luminously surreal, dream-like affair, The only one is a masterstroke. As ever with Andriessen, the emotional sphere of the music is more akin to Stravinsky than Mahler, with both the solo line and the orchestral fabric rooted in self-awareness and often subtly ironic commentary.

Fischer’s performance of the solo part bears dazzling versatility, both in mood and nuance, as the vocal line permutes into various dreamscapes, or states of the mind, with spot-on musical psychology. With Salonen, the forty musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic embrace Andriessen’s diverse textures with impeccable idiomacy and top-class musicianship. Ever beautifully layered, the musical text is laid out with terrific translucence, resulting in a wondrous premiere recording.

A substantial new work from one of the true originals of our time, The only one is an album not to be missed.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

Esa Pekka Salonen, conductor

Nora Fischer, soprano

Louis Andriessen: The only one (2018) for female jazz singer and large ensemble

Recorded at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 2-5 May 2019

Nonesuch Records 7917338 (2021), 1 CD

© Jari Kallio

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