Sunday, March 12, 2006

Immortal dreams of Claude Vivier

20th-century gay composer's works are released on 2-DVD set

By Tim Pfaff
From - Issue: Vol. 36 / No. 10 / 9 March 2006

People who know anything at all about Claude Vivier all know one lurid detail: he was stabbed to death by a trick in his Paris apartment less than a month before his 35th birthday in 1983.

The Montreal-born composer, still the 20th-century's least-known gay composer of consequence, has long been esteemed by the tiny cadre of people who make or care about contemporary music, principal among them, in his case, fellow composer Gyory Ligeti. But it has taken the release of a stunning 2-DVD set, Claude Vivier: Reves d'un Marco Polo (Opus Arte), to give his work both the recognition and the broader exposure it warrants.
This set would be invaluable if it were audio only. The discs contain masterful, deeply committed performances of Vivier's most important compositions. The rapt, concentrated sonorities that were uniquely his, and that immediately identify him to those who know his work, emerge in strong, often transfixing performances by some of the world's top new-music specialists: the Asko and Schoenberg instrumental ensembles and a phalanx of ace vocalists, all under the musical direction of Reinbert de Leeuw, Vivier's most trenchant, sympathetic advocate.
But these live performances from the Holland Festival last year offer vastly more. Netherlands Opera Artistic Director Pierre Audi has turned them into a fully staged, two-evening program, beginning with Vivier's one completed, hour-long "opera," Kopernikus (1980), followed by a theater-piece, Reves d'un Marco Polo ("Dreams of a Marco Polo" — the article is significant), a canny musical collage crafted by Audi and de Leeuw.

Dreams is a powerful, carefully plotted sequence of Vivier compositions from the 1970s and 80s framed by two versions of his final work, the unfinished "Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele" ("Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?"). As in the best performances of Bach's Art of Fugue , it stops mid-phrase, where Vivier's manuscript does, though its energy long outlasts the decay of its sound.
Sandwiched between the two musical evenings is Cherry Duyns' superb documentary film, Claude Vivier. Interviews with people who knew the composer and the musicians who champion him today along with images of the man and the places where he lived and worked go far toward filling in the picture of this mysterious, one-of-a-kind human. Without sensationalism, it explores Vivier's idiosyncrasy and genius, primitive sadness and childlike glee. One particularly haunting sequence shows him performing, rather bizarrely, in his 1982 "Homme de Peking" ("Peking Man"), apparently a musical take on human origins.
One interviewee matter-of-factly calls Vivier an "angel," adding that he was a "person of excesses, the excesses of an angel." They included sexual ones with young men, and she conjectures that, in his last days, he was "solitary and lonely, yearning for death."
Dark dreams
The question the new DVDs openly, even adamantly pose — and then as obdurately leave to each listener-witness to answer — is whether Vivier's death was self-prophesized, self-willed or even self-engineered. Staging Dreams of a Marco Polo as quasi-biography pays off because Audi is provocative without becoming didactic.
His touch is so light that it wasn't until the ecstatic, frenetic "Zipangu" (1980), a hard-driving threnody for low strings that nearly killed me, that I finally realized I was watching a ritual enactment of Vivier's last night as imagined by the eminently qualified Audi and de Leeuw. When, in the work's final minutes, "narrator" Johan Leysen, an actor of enormous magnetic power, starts cantering around the scaffold set like a desperate, hunted animal, I stopped breathing.
How music as death-drenched as Vivier's rises above a manipulative morbidity is another of its attendant mysteries. But it does. Perhaps it is because all the music is, as de Leeuw explains in the film, "ritual, not psychological, always colored by the harmonies [that lurk in the bass]." It pledges allegiance to no "school" and can be difficult, but its urge to communicate makes it not just accessible but inescapable. The influences on Vivier of his Marco Polo-like visit to Asia, particularly Bali, are clear.
Audi finds potent visual correlatives for the ritual qualities of the music. The onstage population of Kopernikus (which Vivier subtitled "a ritual opera of death") includes the protagonist Agni, a woman (sung, I think, by mezzo Marion van den Akker, but the program notes aren't conclusive) being transported to the "other side," but also some personages she encounters on her way (including Lewis Carroll, Merlin, Tristan and Isolde, and the Queen of the Night) and the instrumentalists, who perform in exotically architectural yet weirdly liquid costumes.
Compelling as it is, Kopernikus does seem, after Dreams , like a curtain-raiser. The half-dozen pieces that are woven together to fabricate the Dreams are so individual and varied, if uniformly mesmerizing, that it is the final tribute to Audi and de Leeuw that they make the visual and musical transitions so seamlessly.
The two outright knock-outs are vocal works, "Lonely Child" (1980) and "Wo bist du, Licht!" ("Where are you, Light!"). Musically, Vivier imposes the most daunting "extended" techniques on his singers, whom he not only pushes to the extremes of their ranges but also assigns all manner of other sounds, from speech to whoops. Kathryn Harries makes the sustained outcry of "Wo bist du, Licht!" the kind of real, harrowing emotional outburst that completely takes your mind off its vocal pyrotechnics. Susan Naruki, a new-music specialist Bay Area audiences know well, gives what may be the performance of her career with this "Lonely Child" (she also recorded an audio version of it for Philips in 1991), which takes naked human sadness to limits few other singers could. Between them, pianist Marc Couroux hammers out the rhapsodic solo-piano "Shiraz" (1977) with the requisite ferocity and delicacy.
Vivier is quoted as saying, "I do not write my music myself," hinting at the extent to which he saw him self as its channel. Also, "Music is love."
You may watch these DVDs more often than you want to. As de Leeuw says, "You can almost feel the music on your skin."

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