Commissioned to write a work for the opening of Hamburg's Elbphilharmonie concert hall in 2017, German composer Jörg Widmann (by some reckonings the world's third-most-performed composer in 2018, behind Arvo Pärt and John Williams) was struck by what he saw as the building's resemblance to a ship, and by extension to an ark (in German, Arche). Widmann decided to swing for the fences, and this is in itself notable in a musical world that tends toward tightly controlled little slices of the musical universe. His Ark makes its way through human and musical history, exploring as it goes forms of the relationship between humans and God. Looking over the graphics, you may notice the sequence of text authors; Claudius, Klabund, Heine, Sloterdijk, Andersen, Brentano, Schiller, Francis of Assisi, Nietzsche, Schimmelpfennig, Thomas von Celano, and Michelangelo, along with texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the Bible, and the Mass. The music is just about that diverse. Widmann was a student of, among others, Henze and Rihm, and there are passages that sound like each of those, but there are also many other sounds (quotations and evocations of Beethoven and Stravinsky are prominent), tonal and not. Although Widmann's use of popular music is minimal, the sheer synoptic quality of the score may remind listeners of Leonard Bernstein's Mass. There is a full-sized symphony orchestra, the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg under Kent Nagano (who conducted the premiere), an organ, three choirs (two of children), three vocal soloists, numerous choir soloists, and two child narrators. The work has aspects of a requiem mass, with both a "Dies irae" and a "Dona nobis pacem" at the end (where it is contemporary humans rather than God who are being addressed), but overall it is more an oratorio-like structure, with narration introducing individual scenes. Does it work? "Everything happens at once; everything interlocks; and at root we have no idea what we can truly hold on to," writes annotator Olaf Scholz. "Every moment transports us into another world." This gives an idea of the listener's experience of the work, whose ambitions are a tall order. But Widmann's gestures are large and coherent, and the lengthy work is never dull. ECM's sound engineering work in the Elbphilharmonie keeps everything clear in large, complex circumstances, and one looks forward to recordings of other large works in this venue.
AllMusic Review by James Manheim
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2