American composer David Lang's works are often conceptually tailored to a particular and unusual ensemble that matches the thematic content of the work. He has composed a piece (Crowd Out) for 1,000 voices, inspired by the sound of soccer crowds in Britain. Nevertheless, Love Fail marks something of a milestone for him: he has never before written for a group with the chops of the medieval-oriented female vocal quartet Anonymous 4. (Shelter, composed for Trio Mediaeval, is a pale comparison.) For Anonymous 4, too, the recording is a milestone: around the time it was released in 2014, the group announced its retirement after the 2015-2016 season, and it perhaps points the way to a future in contemporary music for its supremely talented members. Love Fail, like many of Lang's other compositions, is somewhat unclassifiable, and in this lies its appeal. It's not a cantata, song cycle, or opera, although it was originally presented on stage. The work is a rumination in 15 short sections on the medieval idea of love, and specifically on the story of Tristan and Isolde. Wagner's Liebestod makes an appearance at the end. Mostly the work sets translated fragments (digitally translated, the composer says) of medieval poetry, along with some modern interpolations by poet Lydia Davis; the latter are effective riffs on the basic idea, and some are even humorous (try "Forbidden Subjects," track 8). Lang's music falls in between minimalism and a quasi-medieval style appropriate to the subject, with elements of pastiche and some hair-raising interludes. What sets it apart from the norm is the care with which it is shaped to take advantage of the multiple colors and sharp edges of Anonymous 4's voices, and at times the sounds heard achieve the grail of being simple and uncanny at the same time. Like Lang's other works, it will get your attention immediately, but it also has a real economy that is new and growing. Highly recommended.
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AllMusic Review by James Manheim