Vom Himmel zur Hölle (From Heaven to Hell)

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Wergo's admirable series, Edition musikFabrik, consists of seven thematically arranged discs including works by 25 European (and one American) composers performed by the exciting Cologne-based ensemble musikFabrik. The third volume, Vom Himmel zur Hölle (From Heaven to Hell), has, for the most part, in spite of the seriousness of its title, a surprisingly whimsical and sometimes even goofy tone. The three pieces, by Martin Smolka, Mauricio Kagel, and Louis Andriessen, are outstanding works, all of which have such substance and immediate appeal that they deserve to be widely performed. The title of Polish composer Smolka's Rush (Hour in Celestial Streets) leaves little doubt as to the work's comic nature; what would it sound like if angels drove automobiles and were trapped in a heavenly traffic jam? The piece never descends to slapstick, but its delicate scoring artfully manages to convey the apparent oxymoron of a graceful, serene, well-mannered traffic situation. (If only the stress that triggers road rage among earthly drivers could produce this kind of good-humored equanimity.) Kagel's Orchestrion-Straat describes the amazement of a young boy on beholding for the first time the wonders of an orchestrion, a mechanized carnival instrument that could produce a variety of orchestral and organ-like sounds. Kagel has a marvelous time using the orchestra to imitate the sound of an instrument that could only vaguely approximate the sound of an actual orchestra. It has a gleefully silly effect, but it is nonetheless an exhilarating and completely satisfying musical experience. It's so much fun that, as is the case with much of Kagel's work, listeners might not notice that they are listening to avant-garde music. Andriessen's Racconto dall'Inferno is part of his 2008 opera Commedia, which is based largely on Dante. This section is a setting of parts of Inferno for soprano and orchestra, and while its tone is considerably darker than that of the two other works, it is undergirded by a strong sense of irony. Cristina Zavalloni is fabulously expressive and vocally colorful as Dante. MusikFabrik, led by Peter Rundel in the Smolka and by Reinbert de Leeuw in the Kagel and Andriessen, plays with infectious enthusiasm, and the polish of its performance fairly gleams. Wergo's sound is remarkably clean for a live performance.

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