Groslot’s “Intimacy of Distance”

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GROSLOT: The Intimacy of Distance.* My Green Shade Forest. Trittico incantevole / *Charlotte Wajnberg, sop; Brussels Philharmonic Orch.; Robert Groslot, cond / 8.579100

Belgian composer Robert Groslot, whose earlier albums were on the TyxArt label, now seems to be a member in good standing of the Naxos roster. This is all for the better, as he is clearly one of the most original as well as one of the most musically interesting of modern composers. Now maybe someday they’ll recognize the fact that Nancy van de Vate exists.

The five-part orchestral song cycle that opens this album is a perfect example. Absolutely nothing you hear is predictable or formulaic; everything is fresh, bold, and exciting, particularly the orchestral writing which is one of Groslot’s specialties. Judging from the title, one might think that The Intimacy of Distance was written during the global “pandemic” which has everyone cowering in fear of the boogie-man virus, but in fact it was written the year before it hit, in 2019. Set to the symbolist poetry of Elisa Nathalie Heine, it stretches the limits of what the orchestra can do without involving the soprano soloist in its orgiastic atonal explosions. She sings graceful, lyrical lines above the fray. Charlotte Wajnberg, the soprano for whom the cycle was written, performs it here, and she has a lovely, crystal-clear voice but, alas, garbled and unintelligible diction (a common failing among modern singers; apparently, they don’t feel as if they have to enunciate clearly anymore). Thankfully, Naxos has provided the lyrics of all the songs in the booklet. Some are sung in German, but even in the songs sung in English you can’t make out a single word that Wajnberg is singing. Perhaps someday a soprano with a similar range but better diction such as Amu Komsi or Barbara Hannigan will tackle this music. I was particularly struck by the fast, almost violent nature of the third song, “Heimkehr,” where even the vocal line is somewhat skewed away from tonality—though it is still in the orchestra that Groslot provides his most unusual sounds. By contrast the fourth song, “Blood Moon Kulning,” opens with low-register clarinet flurries, and in this, a slower song, I could actually make out some (but not all) of the words that Wajnberg sang. And, even though it is the composer conducting, I must give kudos to the Brussels Philharmonic for their virtuosic and emotionally involved playing throughout this CD.

Interestingly, My Green Shade Forest, though obviously meant to evoke natural beauty, is just as abstract in its actual form as the song cycle, only more pastoral and with sparser orchestration—save for the unsettling fast section in the middle, but even this is not as densely scored. Here, Groslot pulls back a bit on the bitonal and atonal harmonies to create more sparkling sounds without giving in to the modern-day trend towards soft or “ambient” music.

The CD ends with Trittico incantevole, a piece commissioned by the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra to honor the painter Peter Paul Rubens. Rubens’ art vacillated between images of historic wars and battles and typical Catholic religious fantasies, but his almost 3-D style, so realistic and yet with a flow that almost made the characters “move” on his canvases, was what grabbed Groslot when he composed this work. My attention was diverted for a minute or so while listening to this CD, thus when Trittico began it almost sounded to me like an extension of Green Shade Forest, but about a minute in I realized that this was an entirely different piece; equally atmospheric but more subtly complex in its use of contrasting rhythms and moving inner voices. There is also more “space” in this piece as Groslot pauses here and there before moving on to the next section.

This is yet another excellent CD of music by Groslot, though to my mind pride of place goes to The Intimacy of Distance as the finest and most interesting work presented here.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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