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Dutch composer Andriessen has already tackled Plato (De Staat) and Dante (La Commedia) and now turns his attentions to the 17th-century German Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher; probable genius, possible charlatan and definite hieroglyphics expert who attempted to link knowledge to Christian theology, and whose all-embracing syncretism could be seen as a precursor to post-modernism. So far, so worthy. But what Andriessen has created is an explosion of fantasy and invention, remarkable for its wit, erudition, cultural reference and genuine laugh-loud-moments, displaying the sort of madness you can only create if you are incredibly sane. Nine scenes and an epilogue follow Kircher through travels and travails, accompanied by a spooky and unsettling boy of 12, whizzing from the catacombs under St Peter’s to China to Breughel’s Tower of Babel, meeting the weird and wonderful en route – including Pope Innocent XI, a hangman, and a fabulously vicious trio of witches – all with interjections from Mexican mystic, Juana Inés de la Cruz, his ‘platonic intercontinental lover’ (everyone should have one).

Andriessen’s arresting and atmospheric music is wide-ranging in its references, from folk to Baroque to jazz, but never resorts to pastiche, and is conducted with zest in this live recording by longtime collaborator Reinbert de Leeuw at the helm of the Los Angeles Philarmonic. British baritone Leigh Melrose copes with the multitudinous languages of Helmut Krausser’s libretto to great effect as Kircher; Lindsay Kesselman is wonderfully ambiguous as the boy, Cristina Zavalloni a plaintive Sor Juana. Do try it: like any good roller-coaster, once off you’ll probably want to go round again.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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