July 13, 2020
In 2012 the American composer and Bang on a Can cofounder David Lang took on the oft-explored Tristan and Isolde tale in his telegraphically titled love fail. Originally written for the female vocal quartet Anonymous 4, the piece got a lustrous makeover in 2016, when Lang expanded his settings for the nine-member Lorelei Ensemble.
Now, in a quietly ravishing, poetically intense recording on the Cantaloupe Music label, love fail is available to the wider audience it deserves.
The (mostly) a cappella performances do full justice to the dexterous musical grammar and emotional complexity of the work’s 15 sections. Lorelei artistic director and conductor Beth Willer leads her nine women singers through the seraphic calms and interior meditations on love’s rapture and suffering.
Voices are rarely raised. Dramatic silences figure importantly in tracing the course of tragic love. Only the harmonic richness of Lang’s writing invokes the terrain of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. But in its dynamically circumscribed yet keenly attentive way, love fail cuts to the deep heart of the matter.
Wagner, as it happens, is one of several contributors to the eclectic text. Lang intercuts his own and others’ adaptations of Thomas Malory, Marie de France, Gottfried von Strassburg, and others with the micro-fictions of the contemporary writer Lydia Davis. If that means that concentrated exchanges of the lovers (“You will love me, alone above all others”) are juxtaposed with Davis’s scrimshawed modern couples who speak of universities, their working hours, and “certain foods,” the seemingly timeless music brings an urgent unity to it all.
Lang’s score collapses the centuries, with sections that invoke plainsong, medieval hockets, or romantic art songs, while employing modern harmonies and vocal textures. The individual numbers range in length from nine minutes to less than one. Nothing feels extraneous or aimlessly extended.
The piece gets off to an arresting start with the strophic “he was and she was.” The qualities of the Tristan figure (blessed, understanding, studious, etc.) are built up in rising, layered intervals. Isolde, by contrast, is portrayed in short, free-standing phrases that give her attributes (wise, fair, shining, and so on) a tremulous purity. A gorgeous merging of the two musical styles becomes a potent metaphor of the lovers’ romantic and erotic fusion.
The brief, tightly compressed “three years,” one of three so-called “breaks” in cycles, telescopes the beginning and end of the story into three short lines and 41 seconds. As he does throughout, Lang varies lengths and stylistics in consistently effective ways. The tragic and the ecstatic, hope and desolation twine organically around each other.
Nothing in love fail exceeds the narrative and musical power of “the wood and the vine.” Although it comes early on, this magnificent number is the core of the entire work. “Now I will tell you a story that is also the truth,” it begins.
That tale, told in a kind of split-screen of story and rueful Greek-chorus commentary, is about a message exchanged between the lovers that both connects and separates them. Lang captures the anguish of hope and grief in both the melodic repetitions and poignant departures from them. The word “despair” gets a wrenching dissonance on first mention and a wishful, harmonic resolution on the second. The sweet open interval that ends the piece conveys a heartbreaking innocence.
The solos that turn up here and there are carried off with beauty and distinction of character. Both alone and in consort with each other, the Lorelei singers can spin out long, liquid lines and deliver gently clipped phases with comparable finesse and conviction. The listener believes every word they sing. And that makes the stirring, sad story they tell feel freshly lived and felt.