lim annunciation kairos

Liza Lim (b. 1966)
Annunciation Triptych (2019-2022)
WDR Symphony Orchestra/Cristian Mačelaru 
rec. 2022, Kölner Philharmonie, Cologne, Germany 
Reviewed as a digital download from a press preview 
Kairos KAI0022003 [43]

I had the great privilege of reviewing the 2021 summation of Liza Lim’s first three operas, Singing in Tongues and it was clear from that set that Lim has grown into one of the most exciting and important composers working today. This recording of her (to date) magnum opus for orchestra, her Annunciation Triptych, if anything raises the bar even higher. It also forms an ideal introduction to her extraordinary, inclusive and visionary music where the operas might present stumbling blocks to listeners expecting a more conventional style of theatrical work. The range of influences and the abundance of ideas in Lim’s music is staggering. That she manages to fuse them all into such a ripe, clear voice is little short of miraculous. Anyone who thinks modern composers have nothing to say beyond gimmicks and noisy tricks ought to hear this score. 

Lim takes as her inspiration for what are three modern takes on the idea of an orchestral tone poem three prominent women – Sappho, the Virgin Mary and Fatimah, the sister of the prophet Mohammed. Quite a trio I’m sure you will agree! The three movements, one for each of these women has a subtitle – Sappho’s piece is subtitled Bioluminescence and what unites all the diverse music it covers is a sense of light and colour shimmering through water. For anyone who has encountered Lim in her earlier more abrasive moments, the sensuality might surprise though her operatic masterpiece The Navigator was shot through with eroticism. I couldn’t help but hear the famous rising triad motive of Wagner’s Rhine looming from time to time through the murky waters. At one point I caught myself thinking of Sibelius and Debussy gets a look in too. All of these other types of music swim up like curious fish off a coral atoll and then dart away out of earshot. 

A secondary text, fragment 94 from Sappho, a poem that appears to be about the painful leave taking from a lover, sets a darker emotional tone against which the exotic marine life glitters and is gone. Lim may have at her fingertips every conceivable resource in the musical arsenal but her music is always first and foremost about heart and soul. 

The second part of the triptych moves to a more traditional kind of annunciation and is subtitled Transcendence after Trauma. It opens with a mysterious percussion rhythm that Seth Brodsky, in his gushing, unconstrained notes, likens evocatively to a foetal heartbeat – presumably of the Jesus whose advent is being announced. This is no straightforward religious piece. The heartbeat, if it so, conjures a sense of deep embodied intimacy as between a mother and unborn child as opposed to anything more theological. Or perhaps that most close of physical relationships is meant to evoke something of that between the human and the divine. The atmosphere of the music is certainly appropriately otherworldly. There is, as in her operas, a sense of reclaiming the idea of the ritual long since lost by Western culture. I was put in mind of the way in which Gubaidulina, for example, takes the listener into the transcendent by wrong footing them in terms of what to expect from classical music. Lim’s music is considerably less ascetic than the Russian composer but she is equally adept at what the Irish poet Seamus Heaney termed “making strange”. Lim’s “strange” is always beguiling and always surprising. 

The final part portraying Fatima and subtitled Jubilation of Flowers, is a much more conventional setting of words by the Lebanese-French-American poet Etel Adnan. If Wagner, Mahler and even Richard Strauss haunted the first two pieces, the composer who kept nudging me as I listened to this was Janácek with its sense of wide open spaces. Solemn trumpet fanfares are answered by deep brass chorales whilst overhead swallows screech and dart in the resonant air. Out of this shimmering, still landscape, the voice of the soprano rises like a celebrant of some ancient ceremony. 

I reiterate that all of these influences – if in fact they are influences – are fully absorbed into the music’s bloodstream and the scores teem with all sorts of different types of musics which will strike others more forcefully than they did me. Lim is like a gleeful, eclectic curator who extends her generous spirit to everything and anything. This is the presiding spirit of the entire triptych. A saying Yes rather than excluding, open to influence not defensively closed off. Lim’s imagination wanders where it will and, without ignoring the hard work and thought that must go into her music, what we hear is a musical natural who makes everything seem as logical in its unfolding as the turning of a leaf or the incoming of a tide. 

This final movement setting words of peace challenging war and hymning Fatimah as a source of artistic inspiration is extremely beautiful in its calm, processional character. It takes musical ideas from the preceding movements and finds in them a pacific resolution as if nature that had been bursting with irrepressible growth was quietening down at the approach of dusk. 

Cristian Mačelaru is building himself a considerable and diverse discography on disc – he was, for example, much more than an accompanist in Trpčeski’s scintillating recording of the Shostakovich piano concertos- but I think this is the best thing he has done yet. I wish – and sadly I will probably wish in vain – that these works got picked up as repertory pieces by other orchestras instead of played once, recorded and then set aside to make way for repeating the cycle for another new work. 

This is as good a piece of music as I have heard in recent years and I can’t recommend it enough. Lim’s world is a strange, murky, glittering, gorgeous one where one never knows what one will encounter next other than that it will be unexpected and fabulous. Surrender your expectations to it and prepare for wonder. 

David McDade

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