|DANIELPOUR: An American
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; Hugh Smith, tenor; Mark Oswald, baritone; Pacific Chorale; Pacific Symphony Orch/Carl St. Clair, cond.
REFERENCE RECORDINGS RR 97 (F) (DDD) TT: 62:58
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I've gone hot and tepid over the works by Danielpour I've heard before. No need to hash them over again here. American Requiem strikes me as both compelling and problematic. Danielpour had written the work and received his galleys from Schirmer's on, amazingly enough, September 11, 2001. Immediately, he decided to change the dedication. In a perverse way, he was probably fortunate. I suspect he would have found writing a work specifically on that event rather difficult -- the horror of it too big to take in quickly.
American Requiem in its large plan owes much to Britten's War Requiem, as well as to Bliss's Morning Heroes and to Vaughan Williams's Dona nobis pacem: words from the Latin liturgy mixed with a poetic anthology relating to death and war. In addition, one hears bits and pieces of just about every major requiem in the choir-and-orchestra repertoire: Mozart, Verdi, DuruflÈ, Britten (again), and perhaps even the Stravinsky Requiem Canticles. Danielpour must have done this deliberately: the parallels are that close.
All that aside, I should say first what I like. Chiefly, I like the fact that Danielpour created an ambitious, big-hearted, extremely expressive work. No irony, no self-protective modesty here. Responding to his subject, he takes a huge chance of reaping both pretension and emotional inadequacy. He lays himself open to a critical mauling and often not only gets away with the risk, but in certain places triumphs. I suppose one might call his music neo-Romantic, but it's not the bloodless, easy-listening sort. To me, Danielpour's idiom carries on classic Modernism. It's actually musically eloquent and tough-minded.
I've read other reviews which thought much less of the piece than I do, and I appreciate their point. Danielpour certainly hovers around the line of -- not plagiarism, really -- but undigested appropriation. He raids Britten's War Requiem for many of his most striking moments. Thus, the "Sanctus" begins with the hammering of bells and a strongly declamatory presentation of the soloist, as in Britten's "Sanctus." This is probably the most glaring borrow in the work, but one comes across lots of others. Yet none of these passages constitute a straight steal. It's an appropriation instead at one level of abstraction. For example, the "Lacrimosa" uses Mozart's rocking triple rhythm, but not the melody or harmony or even the phrasing. The mood and some of the musical iconography of the "Libera me" recall Britten (again), but the actual material differs. For some reason, the Mozart-Verdi-Stravinsky-DuruflÈ cribs bother me less than the Brittens do. It may be a matter of conspicuously different idioms or the passage (in three of the cases) of so much time that the models become archetypally distant.
On the other hand, Danielpour provides a lot that's all his. I particularly admire the section "Lay This Body Down," with its sublimation of the blues, and the H. D. settings. On the other hand, Danielpour's handling of the orchestra and the chorus seem more masterful than the songs for his soloists. There's not one really great, memorable tune in the work, but there's no melodic aimlessness either. Furthermore, the handling of motives (particularly in the "Sanctus," "Benedictus," and "Libera me") is impressive, both in the punch it manages to deliver and from the more technical stance of hiding the machinery. As time passes and the Modernist idiom becomes as classic as, say, Beethoven's, American Requiem may well show up as one of the masterpieces of its time. As Vaughan Williams once remarked, it's not the job of the composer to say the thing that's never been said, but to say the right thing at the right time.
The performances are excellent. I can find no fault in the playing, the conducting, the chorus, the vocal technique of the soloists, or the communication of the texts. And it pumps out the volts. The sound is quite good, achieving a comprehensible balance among complex forces.
S.G.S. (April 2002)