It hardly takes an orthodox Jungian to note that the most resonant myths have a way of repeating themselves, manifesting anew in the art of different cultures and eras. Strauss once described Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” in similar terms. He saw it as one of a select few works “that reveal the most exalted truths of the soul, which are not ‘invented,’ but are ‘lent in a dream’ to those favored with them.”
In preparing his Tristan-inspired song cycle “Love Fail” — which was performed with cool clarity and superb skill by the Lorelei Ensemble at the Gardner Museum on Sunday afternoon — the composer David Lang spent time researching the Tristan myth and culling moments from its retellings by writers as disparate as Béroul, Gottfried von Strasburg, Marie de France, and of course Wagner. To form his libretto, Lang adapted their poetry and prose with his own words, and then interpolated brief short stories by Lydia Davis.
The vocal settings Lang then fashioned for his 15 songs manage to ring with both ancient and modern sensibilities. This helps confer a sense of through-line even as the antique truths expressed, for instance, by the 15th-century English writer Sir Thomas Malory (“the joy of love is too short,/ and the sorrow thereof,/ and what cometh thereof,/ dureth over long”) open onto the sharp-eyed contemporary prose of Davis, whose words in the very next song (titled “A Different Man”) describe the play of distance and intimacy hidden beneath the surface of a modern romantic partnership. In this way, centuries of Tristanesque meditations are enfolded in a world of dreamlike and almost incantatory music.
“Love Fail” was originally composed for the vocal quartet Anonymous 4, which recently disbanded after decades of accomplished music-making. It was a wise move for Lang to create an expanded choral arrangement, which here received its first performance. There is now a fullness to the sound achieved without altering the work’s sense of ritual austerity. It also could not have hurt that the Lorelei Ensemble, its members standing in a circle and led by artistic director Beth Willer, performed the new arrangement on Sunday with impeccable musicality and pure-voiced precision.
Ultimately, for a score about tragic love, the sense of pathos in Lang’s music does not emerge as one might expect. It certainly does not rush at you like, for instance, the passion and unsublimated yearning of the “Prelude und Liebestod” from Wagner’s “Tristan.” It does not even surface per se through any one individual song. Rather, it builds slowly through this cycle’s consolatory sense of repetition, its coolly hypnotic meditations on cycles of love and loss which turn out to be as ancient, and as dependable, as the tides.
Beth Willer, artistic director.
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Sunday afternoon