Album review: Elena Langer, Landscape with Three Figures

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Elena Langer cover.
Elena Langer cover.

Elena Langer is an accomplished teller of tales, a gift that has drawn the Russian-born British composer more than once to the operatic stage.

Figaro Gets A Divorce, her latest opera, premiered just last month in the UK. It's a hip sequel to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, updating its 18th century aristocratic household to a 1930s world of espionage.

A compelling narrative runs through Langer's 2013 song-cycle, Landscape with Three People, the title work of her new Harmonia Mundi CD. Eight songs, based on poems by Lee Harwood, explore constantly shifting states of emotional play between three characters, realised in music by soprano Anna Dennis, countertenor William Towers and oboist Nicholas Daniel.

Langer is a composer who gives eclecticism a good name. This is music so approachable you might well swoon at the languid beauty of Towers' first line, gift-wrapped in the sweetest of string sonorities. Moving on, the two singers duet in spiky triple time for First Love Scene and then a short Train Love Poem is given its own time and place by a gruff cello underlay recalling the chugging rhythms of Steve Reich's Different Trains.

Landscape with Three People makes for a captivating 26 minutes, sustained by the eternal yin and yang of words and music.

Later on the disc, a 17-minute setting of Glyn Maxwell's Ariadne to Theseus, was written for Dennis in 2002. Inevitably, soprano and oboist Daniel give what must be a definitive rendition. Most impressive is the way they respond to Langer's skill in catching emotional light and shade through the intensity of dissonance, set against a sensitively scored backdrop of three string players.

Elena Langer can also write on the lighter side, amusingly so in two cat songs to the words of Russian absurdist poet, Daniil Kharms. Kristina Blaumane's cello portrays wounded paws with gently sliding glissando here, while Dennis numbly navigates flickering ornamentation familiar from Russian fold music. The second song is particularly fetching, a tale of some seemingly ungrateful roadside moggies unable to be tempted into vegetarianism by the offer of spuds, onions and a salad.

Elena Langer, Landscape with Three Figures
Harmonia Mundi, through Ode Records
Verdict: A contemporary composer with a gift for telling tales.

- Weekend magazine

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