Wednesday 30 March 2016

Elena Langer - Landscape with Three People

Elena Langer - Landscape with three people - Harmonia Mundi
Elena Langer Landscape with three people, Snow, The Storm Cloud, Two Cat Songs, Ariadne, Stay O Sweet; Anna Dennis, William Towers, Nicholas Daniel; Harmonia Mundi
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 27 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Vocal music by the Russian-born British composer, full of fascinating textures and evocative writing

Elena Langer's new opera Figaro gets a divorce has been something of a success at Welsh National Opera and now this new disc from Harmonia Mundi gives us a chance to hear Langer's music on a smaller scale though no less dramatic.

Landscape with three people contains a selection of predominantly vocal music performed by Anna Dennis (soprano), Williams Towers (counter-tenor), Nicholas Daniel (oboe) with an instrumental ensemble, Roman Mints (violin) for whom Langer has written a number of works, Meghan Cassidy (viola), Kristina Blaumane (cello), Robert Howarth (harpsichord), plus Katya Apekisheva (piano). The music spans over a decade, 2002 to 2013, with Landscape with three people for soprano, counter-tenor, oboe and ensemble, Snow for violin and piano, The Storm Cloud for soprano and piano, Two Cat Songs for soprano, cello and piano, Ariadne for soprano, oboe and string trio, and Stay O Sweet for soprano, oboe and ensemble.

Elena Langer
Elena Langer
Elena Langer was born in Russia and all her early training took place there. She arrived in the UK in 1999 and studied at the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music (where she first met soprano Anna Dennis who features on many of the recordings on the disc and for whom a number of the works were written). So all the music on the disc has been written in England, but there is still a very Russian thread running through Langer's writing.

And when writing for the voice she reveals a very distinctive specificity of texture; in a note in the booklet Robert Thicknesse refers to 'playful counterpoint, a certain delicacy of texture, a delight in the sound worlds of instruments singly and in combination'. A feature which struck me on first hearing and developed over time was how Langer doesn't so much accompany her voices as surround them, often with a very delicate texture.

The disc open with Langer's 2013 song cycle, Landscape with three people. Setting a sequence of poems by Lee Harwood, the piece examine the relations between a couple when one has an affair. By using two high voices and writing a work which, in its original context, was performed alongside Baroque music where women can play men, there is a delightful non-specific sense of who is whom, with the oboe being the third protagonist.

Written in eight movements, the sections flow into each other creating a very pleasing dramatic whole, you feel it could almost be staged. Textures involve expressive, singable but chromatic vocal lines with the instruments (violin, viola, cello, harpsichord) weaving round them, the oboe treated as a third voice. Accompaniment is spare and elegant. Langer has the knack of creating evocative, memorable sound worlds which are as much part of the overall expression.

The music is by turn vigorous and elegiac, notable for its spare quality and essential bleakness (pessimism about human relations?). There is a lovely clarity t the performance, both singers and oboist Nicholas Daniel create a superb sense of line and the instruments surround them with a little magic.

Snow, for violin and piano, was written in 2009; the piece starts very high with a busy, fascinating texture which gradually calms down and ends in just light flurries. The programme note suggests the music came first and the title later, if so it fits well.

The Storm Cloud (Tucha) from 2012 sets a traditional Russian text for soprano and piano. This brings out a far more Russian feel in the sound world. Anna Dennis's plangent vocal s are not so much accompanied as commented upon by the piano. The text is all about a woman wanting the storm cloud to come and strike her useless husband!

Two Cat Songs, which were written for Anna Dennis in 2006, set poems by the Russian absurdist writer Daniil Kharms from the 1930's (Kharms died in prison in 1942). The first song, The Amazing Cat is about a cat with an injured paw which the poet 'treats' by tying balloons to the cat. The last image is the cat half walking half floating along. The second song Cats has the poet offering strays some entirely inappropriate food, which is refused.

The Amazing Cat has long melismatic vocal lines, creating fascinating textures with the cello glissandos (the booklet describes it as mewing). A highly seductive piece which takes the text seriously. The second song is lively and more folk-ish with some fabulous throaty vocal inflections from Anna Dennis, but still with a highly transparent accompaniment.

Ariadne (written in 2002) was commissioned by the Almeida Theatre (where Elena Langer was composer in residence) to be performed alongside Jonathan Dove's L'alte Euridice. Setting a long poem by Glynn Maxwell and written for Anna Dennis the work is a free evocation of Ariadne's emotions and states of mind after being abandoned by Theseus. Written for soprano, oboe and string trio the work opens with a long dramatically intense prelude from oboe and strings. Anna Dennis's plangently evocative vocals bring out the vivid details in Langer's response to the varied yet intense emotions of the work. It is a dramatic and edgy piece, which evaporates into a wonderfully unearthly conclusion with the hallucination of the lover's voice.

The last piece on the disc is a John Donne setting Stay O Sweet (2013) written for soprano and baroque ensemble (strings and harpsichord). A spare and rather uneasy setting which brings out all the implicit pain in Donne's text.

Elena Langer writes the sort of music which, even on first hearing, makes me think that I have known it for ever. The music on the disc is all entrancing, with Langer having a wonderful ear for expressively memorable textures. Her performers, including a pair of singers who move between baroque and contemporary music, bring a lovely clarity to the music creating some really magical moments.

Elena Langer (born 1974) - Landscape with three people (2013) [24.28]
Elena Langer - Snow (20090 [2.53]
Elena Langer - The Storm Cloud (2012) [4.56]
Elena Langer - Two Cat Songs (2006) [6.41]
Elena Langer - Ariadne (2002) [17.11]
Elena Langer - Stay O Sweet (2013) [3.49)
Anna Dennis (soprano)
William Towers (counter-tenor)
Nicholas Daniel (oboe)
Roman Mints (violin)
Meghan Cassidy (viola)
Kristina Blaumane (cello)
Robert Howarth (harpsichord)
Katya Apekisheva (piano)
Recorded Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk, 3-5 November 2014
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