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GRAMOPHONE (06/2022)
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Reviewer :
Alexandra Coghlan

As musical responses to the pandemic go, this is a bold one. While today’s careful, not to say squeamish prevailing philosophy sees disease, decay and death kept firmly at arm’s length, modestly cloaked in euphemism, previous centuries have enjoyed what historian Philippe Ariès once called a more ‘promiscuous’ relationship between life and death – a gleeful coupling of horror and joy, sacred and secular, first love and last rites. It’s this medieval spirit, a collision of musical worlds that’s sometimes tender, sometimes macabre, ironic and erotic, that animates ‘Celebration of Life in Death’, the first studio collaboration between soprano Anna Prohaska and Robin Peter Müller’s La Folia Baroque Orchestra.

The repertoire is as eclectic as the tone, taking in everything from chant and folk songs to Baroque chorales and cantatas, French chanson, Italian opera and pop music. When it works it’s gripping stuff, thanks partly to attacca connections that build musical fragments into more substantial sets and partly to the glorious tapestry of colours from Müller’s ensemble. We get a grumbling hurdy-gurdy (turning the opening ‘Dies irae’ into something out of The Seventh Seal), bagpipes and a boxful of percussion along with the usual suspects. 

Death lurks everywhere, whether in a hungry wolf (‘J’ai vu le loup’), as a welcome release from the pain of love (Cavalli’s ‘Servi e soffri’) or as the indiscriminate scythe-wielding killer (‘Es ist ein Schnitter, heisst der Tod’); sickness is by turns spiritual (in Graupner’s cantata Die Krankheit so mich drückt) and a rather earthier plague in Purcell’s ‘Since the pox or the plague’. But Prohaska can’t always match it in her musical shape-shifting.

At full operatic throttle in Cavalli, coaxing and passionate, before bringing out the Lutheran darkness and severity of her soprano in the Graupner and dispatching a barnstorming encore in the Purcell (complete with flawless cockney accent), Prohaska can’t quite find the same flexibility in the folk and medieval repertoire. Where the likes of Raquel Andueza or Nuria Rial can shed their classical skin completely, Prohaska’s reinvention is less convincing, her tonal expression restricted, especially in comparison with Müller’s extrovert accompaniments. It’s a shame because, Leonard Cohen aside, this is an intriguing recital.

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