"Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil" (Four chants to cross the threshold) is a 41-minute set of five songs, featuring Catherine Dubosc's soprano voice and the Klangforum Wien, led by Sylvain Cambreling. It was written in 1997-98, Gerard Grisey's (1946-1998) last composition before his untimely death at the age of 52. The recording is from late October, 2000, at the WDR Funkhaus in Koln.
I first heard this several years ago, and set it aside until now. My reaction is the same as it was then -- "Four chants" is an intriguing work, but I don't find it especially compelling. The vocal line overall is languid, periodically increasing in intensity. Some have mentioned the work's emotional impact, but despite the dire subject matter of death, I don't find it particularly moving. The aspect of the piece that I find the most striking is the instrumentation and timbre. The 16-person ensemble, with some musicians playing multiple instruments, consists of flute/piccolo; two clarinets, including bass clarinet; two saxophones, including alto, tenor and baritone; trumpet; three trombones, including two bass trombones; violin, viola and cello; harp; and three "percussion." What the open-ended "percussion" in the liner notes conceals is the use of steel drums (!) and vibraphone.
The music slides woozily, using microtones and the exotic sounding instruments. Peter Niklas Wilson's liner notes give a description of Grisey's spectralist method: "[b]iomorphous composition means: sound not as a rigid, parametrical, classifiable object, but as a living microorganism whose own momentum becomes the model of musical creation in all dimensions."
The Kairos booklet provides the lyrics for the first four songs in French, German and English, but none for the last ("Berceuse"). The first, "Death of the angel," uses a poem by Christian Guez-Ricord. The second, "Death of civilization," uses fragments from Egyptian sarcophagi of the Middle Empire. The third, "Death of the voice," uses a short passage from the Greek poetess Erinna, who lived around 350 B.C., and died at age 19. And the fourth, "Death of mankind," uses a longer passage from "The Epic of Gilgamesh," an apocalyptic scenario that results in "all mankind [being] returned to clay."
Grisey and his French colleagues Tristan Murail and Hughes Dufourt made quite an impact on the contemporary classical world with their "spectralist" approach to sound and music. However, I'm afraid that Grisey's influence outweighs the impact of his actual compositions. Les Espaces Acoustiques is his masterpiece. "Quatre chants" is not nearly as impressive.
[It is unfortunate that Kairos chose not to include another Grisey work on this half-filled disc. Another shortcoming is the clunky cardboard design that was briefly in vogue in Germany back in 2002 when this disc was released. Fortunately it didn't last long.]