Missy Mazzoli – Dark with Excessive Bright (BIS Records)
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Given the composer’s decade-long success and her emergence as the first woman to clutch a Metropolitan Opera commission, it is vaguely surprising to find that until 2020, most of Missy Mazzoli’s recordings have been on a non-export hometown label, New Amsterdam Records. In a potential breakthrough, the Swedish boutique label Bis has gone where majors fear to tread and given her music a Baltic footprint. One does fear, however, for the survival of the music industry if a talent of this order is ignored for so long by its dominant corporations.
Mazzoli, 42, made her name with an operatic adaptation of the Lars von Trier film, Breaking the Waves, which started, life in Philadelphia and travelled to the Edinburgh Festival. Her latest opera, The Listeners, was premiered last year by Norwegian Opera. She is already an acknowledged force on the world opera stage, but her concert music remains little known.
The title work on this album started out as a concerto for double-bass and chamber orchestra, and was then adapted as a violin concerto with string orchestra, and as a string sextet with a leading voice (both versions are played here). Hers is an arresting voice of creative daring and structural innovation. She takes the sound of a small band tuning up and develops it into a full-throated conversation, challenging listeners to butt in, daring them to walk out. The sound is glacial, the landscape bare. Myself, I hardly dared move until it was over. Peter Herresthal is the gripping soloist; he follows up with a slightly older Mazzoli work, Vespers, for solo violin and electronic soundtrack.
Orpheus Undone, dated 2021, is overtly dramatic, a Chicago Symphony commission that freeze-frames a moment after the death of Eurydice and extends it across 15 minutes of orchestral narrative without a nanosecond’s lapse of this listener’s concentration. I am not sure I would recognise Mazzoli’s voice if I heard it blindfolded, but there is no doubt in my mind of her accomplishment or of her current stature as one of the leading composers of her generation. How have the major labels ignored her?
[This review was last updated for clarity on April 10, 2023.]
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