Most have drawn a blank beyond fear, anguish and rage; but in Ad Ora Incerta ("At an Uncertain Hour"), Simon Bainbridge stands far enough back to chart the course of hopelessness and evil without being overwhelmed. The former Auschwitz-inmate Primo Levi provides Bainbridge's prompt with poems that, by understating the inexpressible, brings us a little closer to understanding.
His imagery is unforgettably haunting. A crow flies in from across the mountains with bad news, and the sun dies to the words of an old poet. Bainbridge's crow is a bassoon that braves infernal swirling and perches somewhere nearby, irritable and waiting. "Monday" suggests the sad predictability of trains that leave on time, with high woodwinds creaking across the tracks. And there's "Buna", the rubber factory within the Auschwitz complex where Levi worked as a slave labourer, with its "whistles terrible at dawn".
Bainbridge summons the whistles and marks the site with a towering silhouette in sound. The mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley re-enacts an emotional no man's land somewhere between numbness and despair, and Kim Walker's shadowy bassoon paints an ominous presence.
Like Kafka in prose, or Celan in verse, Bainbridge's music leaves you altered, re-adjusted, and humbled. The conductor Martyn Brabbins holds the tension well, both with the BBC Symphony in Ad Ora Incerta and with the Nash Ensemble in Bainbridge's more withdrawn Four Primo Levi Settings. Both works date from the mid-1990s.
A kindlier narrative, one that's hardly less gripping in its very different way, arrives courtesy of Koch Schwann and Max Reger's 1910 epic Die Nonnen ("The Nuns") for large mixed choir and orchestra. Again, the canvas is vast and the climaxes blow in with unexpected fervour. But where Bainbridge sketches interminable dusk, Reger basks in his glowing faith, beseeching "our Mother in heaven" to "hear our prayer". Rapt unaccompanied choral passages recall early music models, though the swell of emotion elsewhere conjures the worlds of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, Brahms's German Requiem and other exalted models of the German tradition that Reger transcended en route to arriving at his own very personal style.
Horst Stein directs the Choir and Orchestra of the Bamberg Symphony in a hugely commanding performance, and contralto Lioba Braun is on hand to sing 13 beautifully orchestrated Reger songs that are easily as adorable as the best of Richard Strauss.
It's a wonderful disc, and further confirmation that Reger is the unacknowledged missing link between Brahms and Bruckner, or perhaps between Brahms and the school of Schoenberg. You could quite happily use it as an entrance point to further exploration of Reger's ecstatically modulating style.
But if you'd rather stick with orchestral repertory, then Warners has just come up with a useful (and very cheap) "Ultima" double-pack that very generously programmes Reger's dazzlingly colourful Mozart and Hiller Variations, plus the delightful (and very seductive) Ballet Suite. Josef Keilberth conducts and while the sound is fairly old (dating from the 1950s and 1960s, in mono and stereo), the conducting betokens a level of enthusiasm that Reger nearly always inspires in anyone who has the enterprise to tackle his work.
If in doubt, my advice is to go straight to the second CD and play tracks 8, 14 and 15. Once cast, the spell is unlikely to release its hold.
Bainbridge/Brabbins NMC D059
Reger/Stein Koch Schwann 3-1777-2
Reger/Keilberth Warners "Ultima" 3984-28175-2 (two discs)Reuse content