Flamma Flamma (The Fire Requiem)

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

First, a confession. I am an unabashed lover of romantic classical music, which makes me as much out of sync musically these days as I am politically (I'm an unrepentant, bleeding-heart, liberal secular humanist, albeit one who is morally and musically conservative).

I think Gregorian chant, so "in" as we come to the end of this millennium, is fine as accompaniment for yoga, meditation and, perhaps, other activities I am too discreet to mention by name. But I find listening to it as boring as waiting for my pet hen, Noirette, to lay an egg.

For the most part the baroque period is too frilly and mathematical to stir my emotions. But I don't mind it in the background as I surf the World Wide Web or send an e-mail message to Outer Mongolia.

The classical period's formality and structural balance is fine for dining and reading, and Mozart came out with some pleasant romantic tunes. But Haydn certainly doesn't stir my passion like Brahms, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Chopin or Rachmaninov, although my hen prefers Haydn for hatching.

As for the minimalists, I think their movement is extremely well named. They offer minimal melody, minimal harmony, minimal orchestration, and altogether minimal enjoyment. About the only thing they max out on is monotonous repetition.

I consider atonal music to be intentionally antimusical and inhumane. "New age" music, in my not-so-humble view, is for aging babyboomers who find rock too loud and have never learned to appreciate Debussy and Ravel. The impressionists knew how to write "new age" music which went somewhere!

So, as you can imagine, I have a great deal of trouble finding contemporary compositions I can get excited about. There is a new compact disc, however, that challenges my prejudices: Flamma Flamma (The Fire Requiem) by the 36-year-old Belgian composer Nicholas Lens (Sony SK 66293).

Lens' score pulsates with primitive energy and driving intensity, reminding me at times of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana, at other times of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera. The Fire Requiem mixes the distinctive ethnic sounds of the Bulgarian women's choir from Le Mystere des voix bulgares with the incredible bass sounds of Marcello Rosca and five other operatic soloists. The 75-minute piece mixes elements of rock, world music and Western classical music. Yet it is highly original and, believe it or not, this all works well together.

Flamma Flamma boldly synthesizes the Western spiritual concept of a requiem mass for the dead with death rituals and ceremonies from non-Western cultures. Its unifying element, according to the program notes, is the idea of fire - fire as a tool of life, as a metaphor for passion, as the most potent agent of transformation in nature, as a way of disposing of the departed.

The mystique of fire captured Lens' imagination as he reached his philosophical conclusion about life and death. As he himself put it: "To me the one thing that makes life bearable is the knowledge that it will come to an end, because accepting this is the only way to unconditionally and freely enjoy life."

Fortunately I didn't have to agree with Lens to enjoy his music. Nor did I have to understand the original libretto by Herman Pontocarero, which is in Latin. I didn't even need to know that this has anything to do with fire, as, indeed, I would never have guessed if I hadn't seen the title or looked at the hard-to-read, overly-arty, not-very-informative program notes.

All I needed to enjoy this album was the exciting, dramatic, tuneful music itself, which is a study in contrasts from its structure and inspiration to its instrumentation. Flamma Flamma mixes operatic and folk voices, an ensemble of traditional orchestral instruments and a diverse selection of electronic and ethnic instruments. It all works more successfully than any contemporary composition I have heard in a long time, although I do find some of it too repetitious for my taste.

Nicholas Lens was born in a small provincial town near the French border. According to a biographical sketch issued by Sony, "he started studying violin with his godfather when he was five. Once when he was playing in a very enthusiastic way during the lessons, his bow touched, by accident, the director of the local academy on one of his vital organs. So the little Nicholas' violin career ended when he was ten."

Not to worry, his first television appearance came just a year later - as a trumpet player. He was then asked to play The Last Post at an official ceremony at a British and American war cemetery. "Nicholas was wearing short pants and it was freezing cold," the bio continues. "The television crew members offered him some brandy. The version of The Last Post he played during the ceremony on his trumpet was never heard before." And never again, I suppose.

Later Lens studied at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Brussels and started composing professionally for theatrical projects, film and TV. He turned down a contract as a double bass player in the Israel Sinfonietta to try to make it as a composer. Flamma Flamma demonstrates to me, at least, that he made a good choice.

Other Noteworthy New CD Releases

* Lili Boulanger: Du fond de l'abime, Psaume 24, Psaume 129, Vieille priere bouddhique, Pie Jesu (Everest EVC 9034): Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) was the incredibly talented younger sister of Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), the Parisian composition teacher whose students included Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Roy Harris and Virgil Thomson. Lili died at age 24 of Crohn's disease, and the works on this recording show what a loss to the musical world that was. These powerful, moving, well-crafted pieces demonstrate that, had she lived a normal lifespan, Lili Boulanger might well have been the first great female composer. Originally recorded on 35mm film under the direction of Nadia Boulanger and released in 1960, the sound is very good on this 20-bit digital CD re-release. Igor Markevitch conducts the Orchestre Lamoureux, soloists, chorus and organ.

* Pablo Sarasate: Complete Works for Violin and Orchestra (Limit RTAC 010/1-3): Sarasate was one of the most famous violinists of the last century, but, as a composer, he is known today only for his Carmen fantasie, Op. 25. These three CDs show that this is very much an oversight. These concert encores are immediately accessible, delightful, melodious and fun. Too bad Sarasate never got around to writing a violin concerto. He had the skill to do it, but not the will. These recordings feature Gabriel Croitoru, violin, and the Orchestra of the City of Malaga conducted by Jacques Bodmer. Limit is a label of Limitada de Produccions, S.I., of Andorra.

* Korngold: Between Two Worlds, Symphonic Serenade, Theme & Variations (London 444 170-2): John Mauceri conducts the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin in this most worthwhile recording of Erich Korngold's music. Between Two Worlds is film music at its finest. The other two works demonstrate that the revival of interest in non-filmscore Korngold (1897-1957) is completely justified and overdue.

* The Times of Day (Reference Recordings RR-67CD): This technically and artistically superb CD features the Turtle Creek Chorale conducted by Timothy Seelig, with mezzo-soprano Melanie Sonnenberg, tenor Timothy Jenkins and the Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra under John Giordano in the premiere recording of Richard Strauss' Die Tageszeiten. Also included is music by Brahms (Alto Rhapsody), Schubert (Standchen), Bruckner (Das deutsche Lied, Ave Maria and Abendzauber), Mendelssohn (Festgesang an die Kunstler) and Biebl (Ave Maria).

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