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“The Writings”, David Lang’s work on the Hebrew Old Testament, published by Pentatone.

In 2005, David Lang, one of the three founding composers of the New York cultural institution Bang on a Can, began to develop a series of choral pieces based on texts taken from books of the Old Testament: the Song of Songs, the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Book of Ruth and the Book of Lamentations. Over the course of fourteen years these pieces were premiered independently: the first, Again, premiered in 2005, was written for the Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble. For Love is Strong was written for Paul Hillier and Ars Nova Copenhagen and premiered in 2008. Where You Go was written for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Tanglewood Music Center and premiered in 2015. Solitary was written for Cappella Amsterdam and premiered in 2016.

The four pieces were performed together, under the unifying title The Writings, on 20 March 2019, in a concert at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall in New York, complete with the world premiere of the last of these pieces, If I Am Silent, from The Book of Esther, which had been commissioned jointly by Carnegie Hall and the Nederlands Kamerkoor.

Three years after its premiere, the Pentatone Music label released the five pieces (Again is repeated, opening and closing the disc in slightly different versions), sung by the Cappella Amsterdam ensemble conducted by Daniel Reuss. Lang, whose “specialisation”, so to speak, has been in choral music – in 2008 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Music for his choral work The Little Match Girl Passion, which also won the 2010 Grammy for Best Chamber Ensemble Performance by Paul Hillier and his ensemble Theatre of Voices. Lang’s austere, repetitive score produces a deep emotional impact, fully in keeping with the mystique of the recited themes. Actually, Cappella Amsterdam’s performance is, compared to that of other choral ensembles that have recorded some of these same pieces by Lang, such as Company of Music or Theatre of Voices, very beautiful in an even stricter austerity that does not seek to embellish the intrinsic beauty of the work (Again has been recorded on several occasions, by various ensembles, always with a slightly faster tempo than that of the Dutch choral ensemble; the same is true of For Love is Strong, also recorded at a faster tempo by Ars Nova Copenhagen).

The minimalist harmonic language and the borrowing of vocal writing techniques from early music come together to create a polyphonic work with Renaissance contrapuntal elements of great intensity and beauty. The last of the composed pieces, second in the order of the disc, is, quite simply, an impressive piece in which words and long pauses follow one after the other creating a beautiful tension.