Norwegian composer Ståle Kleiberg’s star has been steadily rising in recent years, 2013’s operaDavid and Bathsheba attracting his second Grammy Award. His oratorioMass for Modern Man dates from two years later and, like much of his music, its defining signature is heartfelt emotion.
Composed in eight parts for two soloists (soprano and baritone), mixed-voice choir and orchestra, it employs traditional texts from the Latin Mass, alternating the conventional Requiem movements with three new passages in English by Jessica Gordon, librettist ofDavid and Bathsheba. Posing the question “Is belief possible for modern man?”, its topicality is enhanced by Gordon’s pointed, poignant interpolations and Kleiberg’s characteristically rich music, the whole accented by involving colour and often captivating beauty.
Described as being “about the loss of existential meaning as an antithesis to faith and belief”,Mass for Modern Man is a moving, persuasive work in which the ache of mourning in the Latin texts is contrasted by the quiet anger and accusation of Gordon’s vignettes – feelingly sung by the solo voices – of a refugee, a child’s death and a debilitating, all-pervading sense of doubt. What results aspires to complexity – the solution, whatever it will be, won’t be easy the work seems to suggest – with Kleiberg sympathetically, if tentatively, aligning himself on the side of change and progress.
Musically, the dominant accent is soft-edged tonality, Kleiberg crafting an undulating, long-limbed lyrical sheen disturbed in places by pointed use of one-note-per-syllable to underline a text’s intended ‘message’. Much likeBenjamin Britten’sWar RequiemandKrzysztof Penderecki’sPolish Requiem, it is very much a secular Mass (although there the comparisons end), owing greater kinship toBrahms’sDeutsche Requiemin the solace of its thoughtful, neo-romantic lyricism if not in scale.
Eivind Gullberg Jensen, who conducted the work’s premiere, coaxes pleasing, light-touch playing from his Trondheim forces, the supple, committed choir well-proportioned and wholly persuasive. Bright-voiced soprano Mari Eriksmoen and ardent baritone Johannes Weisser acquit themselves superbly, singing with demonstrable feeling – ‘Loss of a Child’ is especially painfully realised – although they occasionally sound exposed by Kleiberg’s tendency to low-lying, measuredly mordant music.
The recorded sound is wonderfully spacious (perhaps too much so at more intimate moments) and the music has much to recommend it, not least for Kleiberg’s innately gentle graciousness and lyrical generosity.
Performance: four stars
Sound: four stars
Ståle Kleiberg: Mass for Modern Man
Mari Eriksmoen (sop), Johannes Weisser (bar), Trondheim Symphony Chorus and Orchestra / Eivind Gullberg Jensen
Michael Quinn is a former deputy editor of Gramophone and Classic FM magazines and associate editor of The Classical Review. Widely published in print and online in the UK, USA, Australia and his native Ireland, he is an artistic assessor of music and drama with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and programming consultant to the region’s newest arts centre,Portico, Portaferry.