The music that the French-Canadian composer Claude Vivier wrote in the years preceding his untimely death in 1983 is out of this world: eschewing polyphony, he worked with endless single melodies, wrapped in dazzling microtonal inflections that he called "les couleurs". Informed by his studies of both Western classical music and traditions from Asia, the music is a fresh synthesis where East meets West and is then channeled through Vivier's own modernist genius.
Vivier's work fell into obscurity, and it wasn't until the mid 1990s that he was rediscovered. The Amsterdam-based Schoenberg-Asko Ensemble, their conductor Reinbert de Leeuw and the soprano Susan Narucki took up this music and recorded some of it on a must-hear Philips disc. Then, in 2004, de Leeuw collaborated with director Pierre Audi in the Netherlands Opera stagings on this 2-disc set: Vivier's opera "Kopernikus" and a later array of pieces, some of which Vivier linked to the theme of Marco Polo.
For those entirely new to Vivier, Disc 1 of this set includes a documentary on his life and work made in 1996 as part of de Leeuw's "Toonmeesters" series for Dutch television, and this is a good place to start. It opens with the night of his death: Vivier, then living in Paris, had picked up a male prostitute in a bar, but the young man stabbed him to death and ran off with the paltry sum Viver had in his pocket. On the table was the still incomplete score of what would be Vivier's last piece, "Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele?" (Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul?). In this work for voices, some altered with electronics or extended techniques, Vivier tells of entering the Paris metro late at night and being drawn to a handsome man in the otherwise empty car: after a brief conversation, the narrator says, "Then he removed a dagger from his jacket and stabbed me through the heart." A ghastly coincidence, no? In making the document de Leeuw interviews a number of people close to Vivier in both Canada and Europe, who are upfront about his complex personality (both his unabashed homosexuality and sadly the fact he was rather a lech, his perennial obsession with music, finding new sounds and learning new languages). De Leeuw's enthusiasm for this music which went neglected for so long is infectious. There is some also footage of the Schoenberg-Asko Ensemble performing the late works.
The hour-long opera "Kopernikus: Rituel de la mort" (1979) fills the rest of Disc 1. While this was written just before his discovery of "les couleurs", it already eschews polyphony and pays hommage to the exotic music Vivier had heard in Asia. Despite what the title may lead you to except, this opera has little to do with the Prussian astronomer who revolutioned our understanding of the heavens. Instead, it concerns a woman named Agni who calls on historical and mythical figures: Lewis Carroll, Merlin, a witch, the Queen of the Night, a blind prophet, an old monk, Tristan, Isolde, Mozart, the Lord of the Waters, and finally Copenicus and his mother. In spite of some buffo action in the staging, there's not much of a concrete plot to this.
Disc 2 is dedicated most of Vivier's late output and his truly mature career, an "opera fleuve" on Marco Polo. It opens with a brief fragment of "Glaubst du" before proceeding through "Prologue pour un Marco Polo" for narrator, voices and ensemble (1981), "Shiraz" for solo piano" (1977), "Lonely Child" for soprano and ensemble (1980), "Zipangu" for strings (1980), "Wo Bist du Licht!" for mezzo-soprano, strings and tape (1981), and finally "Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele?" in its (poignantly incomplete) entirety. The vocal writing becomes increasingly effusive, with techniques like hand tremolos (i.e. the "Indian war whoop" that children make), the Japanese percussion instrument called a rin is prominent, and "les couleurs" are just to die for.
As this is a production by the controversial director Pierre Audi, you can expect bizzare staging decisions that arguably bear no resemblance whatsoever to the composer's intentions. The costumes by Angelo Figus are risible. The supporting cast is wearing thick layers of random fabric that makes it look like their heads are sticking out of bags. A few are reminiscent of early 1990s New York club kids (indeed, one bears a resemblance to James St. James). For some reason, the entire ensemble and conductor are wearing priests' collars. The movement of the figures across the stage doesn't seem to have any especial purpose or relation to the text.
Vivier's music needs more exposure: this is music that should appeal to a wide audience, and yet it seems to constantly be forgotten. Unfortunately, I fear the visuals of this 2-disc set will turn a lot of people off. I know that Audi has his following, but I'm not sure how much it overlaps with those who are already fans of Vivier or could potentially become fans. I was excited to find that the set is in 5.1 surround sound, but the quality of the performances are not quite up to the aforementioned Philips disc or the long out-of-print Vivier box set from Radio Canada.
Still, it is exciting to see how the virtuoso piano piece "Shiraz" is played, the performance of "Zipangu" is better than the competition and as I write this, the set has been reduced to budget price (not widely advertised, it seems to have not sold well). So, fans of modern music should still take a chance on it. But take my advice is doing whatever you can to get ahold of the earlier Philips disc.