Death Accepted And Defied

Published: October 1, 2015

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Although scarcely at so high a level, several other new recordings that also involve music about death – in one way or another – have many intriguing elements of their own. Requiem for the Living by Arthur Gottschalk (born 1952) certainly does not lack for ambition. Like Brahms’ work, Gottschalk’s is as much about life as about death; and both works refuse to be bound by the traditional text of the Requiem Mass. There, though, the resemblances end. In eight movements for four soloists, chorus and orchestra, Gottschalk combines the traditional Latin words of the Requiem with ones ranging from those of Buddha to those of Mohammed, from George Eliot to Duke Ellington. He does so in a very complex mixture of musical styles, not only including multiple classical-music genres – some from past centuries (e.g., Renaissance madrigals), some from today – but also tossing in jazz, pop, blues and other nonclassical forms. To some extent, this is unsurprising: many contemporary composers throw Western and Eastern music and thought together willy-nilly, to greater or lesser effect. But context matters – and in the case of Requiem for the Living, it matters a great deal. What Gottschalk does here is take a strictly religious concept and try to move it into a kind of secular humanism that does not, however, deny or downplay its spiritual roots. He also tries to honor the philosophical thinking and music of multiple places and eras, and to do all of this within a coherent framework that even in its Western portions stretches back to a time before Christianity produced the notion of a Requiem Mass: the first and last sections of Gottschalk’s work juxtapose the Kyrie with the Jewish memorial Yizkor. Certainly one of the more ambitious choral works of recent years, both musically and philosophically, Requiem for the Living ultimately tries to do too much, juggling so many elements and approaches that it becomes difficult for listeners to know how to listen to the work and to feel in what direction their emotions are being pulled (indeed, they are usually stretched in several directions at once). Vladimir Lande, a conductor who has shown considerable affinity for complex contemporary music, leads the St. Petersburg Chamber Choir and St. Petersburg State Symphony Orchestra gamely and with a good sense of vocal/orchestral balance, and the four soloists all handle their parts admirably, although none has a really distinctive voice. This Navona release gets a (+++) rating, but listeners who hear the recording and find themselves intrigued rather than exhausted by everything that happens in Gottschalk’s work will likely give it even higher regard, especially after multiple hearings – if they can manage them.

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