La Passione review – Grisey's masterpiece endures

Andrew Clements

Finding contemporary works to programme alongside Gérard Grisey’s Quatre Chants pour Franchir le Seuil (Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold) is an almost impossible task. This song cycle for soprano and ensemble, Grisey’s final work, first performed in 1999 just a few months after his sudden death at the age of 52, stands as one of the finest achievements of the last half-century. It’s an awfully prescient meditation on death and the process of dying, which might have signalled the beginning of a new, more openly lyrical phase in Grisey’s development, had he lived to explore it. Its mingling of loss and consolation is still very hard to separate from the memories of its premiere.

On Barbara Hannigan’s recording with the Ludwig Orchestra, she pairs Quatre Chants with a Haydn symphony, No 49 in F minor, which gives its nickname, La Passione, to the entire disc. Hannigan’s performance of the Grisey (which she conducts as well as sings) is cooler, perhaps less immediate than the other version available on disc, with Catherine Dubosc and Klangforum Wien, but it evokes the work’s haunting, unclassifiably expressive world more vividly than ever.

How the disc all fits together, though, is more problematic. Describing the programme as a triptych, Hannigan prefaces Haydn’s opening Adagio with Djamila Boupacha, the soaring central movement for unaccompanied soprano of Luigi Nono’s Canti di Vita e d’Amore, and then in the symphony encourages the continuo player to “stumble and fumble in the darkness, on a different path from the strings”. But in what is otherwise a conventional modern instrument Haydn performance, the effect of the anarchic harpsichord is distracting; in the end it’s the account of Grisey’s masterpiece that provides the enduring experience here.

This week’s other pick

There are no obvious connections between the three pieces on the latest release from NMC, all taken from concerts at the Wigmore Hall, and few stylistic links between their composers either. Anna Meredith’s Tripotage Miniatures, played by the Aurora Orchestra, are attractive essays in Meredith’s own peppy brand of minimalism, while Alexander Goehr’s tenuously tonal After “The Waking” reworks a setting for two baritones of a Theodore Roethke poem as a sequence of movements for a quintet of wind and strings (the Nash Ensemble). Most recent and lingering of all are Colin Matthews’s Three Postludes, dedicated to the memory of Oliver Knussen. The scoring, for oboe quartet and another quartet of strings, obliquely references Knussen’s own Cantata for oboe quartet, but the prevailing mood is less elegiac than angry; even the suave beauty of Nicholas Daniel’s oboe playing (with the Britten Sinfonia) can’t disguise that.