Atlantis by Robin de Raaff on CD: ‘It’s not a doomsday scenario, the world keeps on turning’

It’s become a good tradition: the AVROTROSVrijdagconcert series opens each new season with a composition from a Dutch composer for the combined forces of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Groot Omroepkoor. – This year their ranks had to be cut back considerably, but in 2016 covid-19 was nowhere yet in sight, so Robin de Raaff was not hampered by impeding corona-measures.

His oratorio Atlantis, inspired by the dilapidated Tropicana swimming paradise in Rotterdam, made a deep impression on both public and press. Recently the ambitious work for large choir, orchestra, soprano, baritone and two solo harps appeared on CD.

After its premiere in 2016, the newspaper NRC wrote: ‘The pulsating, swelling, seething and hissing sound brews created a fabulous glow.’ Four years later the live recording was again received enthusiastically. ‘An impressive piece […] like a gigantic fresco’, judged Bas van Putten in the weekly magazine De Groene; ‘a kind of elaborate and layered Lied von der Erde opined Maarten Brandt on the weblog Opusklassiek; ‘an orchestration that is both rich and colourful’ concluded the French reviewer Thierry Vagne.

‘As a public broadcaster, we have a duty to be distinctive’, says programmer Astrid in ‘t Veld. ‘Dutch, lesser-known and adventurous repertoire are of paramount importance anyway. The festive opening of the season is the ideal opportunity to surprise the audience with a brand new composition for our two house ensembles. Earlier, composers such as Theo Verbey, Rob Zuidam and Joey Roukens wrote memorable opening pieces for the AVROTROSVrijdag concert.’

The question which criteria she uses when choosing a composer generates the brief and powerful reply: ‘Quality!’ Robin de Raaff therefore came into the picture as a matter of course: ‘Robin already had an impressive career as a composer, but a piece for large symphonic choir and orchestra was not yet on his worklist. He found it extraordinarily interesting to be able to write for such a large ensemble; it was the realisation of a dream.’

De Raaff agrees: ‘I loved being able to employ the maximum line-up of the Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and the Groot Omroepkoor. I used six horns! Once I had opted for Atlantis, the final part of Hart Crane’s collection of poems The bridge, I decided to bring the orchestral harps forward as soloists as well. They represent the Pillars of Hercules, which had supposedly formed the entrance to this mythical island. Crane describes them as “twin monoliths, two frosted capes”. This immediately evoked images of two imposing harps.’

The reason he chose Crane’s poem is rooted in his love of the music of the Dutch composer Tristan Keuris. ‘Tristan had based his orchestral work Brooklyn Bridge on the first movement from Crane’s collection and I was so impressed that I bought his collected poems.’ However, he did not want to make a one-on-one setting of the verses. ‘I turned the poem inside out, as it were. Crane wrote it in 1930 and draws an almost idyllic picture of Atlantis. I gradually flood this vision with reflections from our time about rising sea levels and the impact this has on our life on earth. Like a kind of yesterday’s future.’

In addition to verses by Crane, De Raaff also selected texts by Plato; at the end, the singers stammer statements by survivors of flood disasters. In this way my piece flashes back and forth between several time parallels. From the 1930s of the 20th century, the Greek Antiquity in which Plato describes the downfall of the once mighty Atlantis, and the 21st century with our concerns about global warming.’

In order to mould all these different, ever-changing visions into a musical form, De Raaff added two solo singers. ‘I wanted to highlight a few phrases, as moments of reflection and introspection. In the first instance this became a solo soprano, representing the voice of Gaia, the primeval mother of the earth. But soon I felt the need to place a male figure next to her, as the voice of Plato; this is embodied by the baritone.’

Robin de Raaff (c) Teo Krijgsman

Programmer Astrid in ‘t Veld left him free in his choices, De Raaff emphasises. ‘Her only request was to give the choir a prominent role. In ‘t Veld: ‘We had indeed started from the maximum occupation of the choir, so it was a bit of a fit and measure with those extra soloists. Fortunately, the commission was subsidised by the Performing Arts Fund, so that we had some leeway. Unfortunately, their support is no longer a matter of course these days.’

De Raaff: ‘I think it’s been a good choice to have the choir play an important role. In the first verse the singers stand up as one mass, as it were. That remains the case up to the very last line, in which this anonymous crowd disintegrates completely into individuals.’ But even though the singers quote fragments of text from tsunami survivors, and the first inspiration was the dilapidated Tropicana swimming pool, Atlantis does not necessarily sketch a doomsday scenario, he stresses.

‘Although my piece sinks further into the depths with each episode and ends on the very lowest A of the piano, at the same time the very highest tones of the white piano keys sound. Like twinkling stars they convey a message of hope: the world does not end, it keeps turning without ending.’

Musically, the piece has a bridge structure, built on the note A of Atlantis, he explains. ‘It begins and ends with it. Because each new verse starts a semitone lower, after thirteen steps we land again on an A, albeit an octave lower. Roughly speaking, you can say that Atlantis moves from A major to A minor, whereby the two A’s can be seen as the pillars of a bridge.’

De Raaff neither lets the world perish in Atlantis, nor does he bury modernism, as the subtitle ‘In memoriam Pierre Boulez’ seems to imply. ‘Of course not!’, he reacts somewhat upset. ‘Boulez was, in my opinion, the last great one of the first hour. Together with composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono he created a radical break with romantic music. They banished every musical reference to the past and developed serialism, based on complex compositional methods. That radicalism is behind us, but I use stylistic elements from it, perhaps we should speak of “neo-modernism”.’

It was De Raaff’s own initiative to put Atlantis on CD, says Astrid in ‘t Veld. ‘That is quite an undertaking, because the release of a live recording requires the consent of everyone involved. Conductor, soloists, choir, orchestra, broadcaster and so on, it’s an enormous task. Fortunately, Robin himself was a great help with the final editing.’

That can’t have been easy either. At the premiere there were some balance problems, as a result of which the four soloists were sometimes drowned out by orchestra and choir. ‘That’s right,’ says De Raaff. ‘TivoliVredenburg’s stage had been expanded considerably because of the large line-up. As a result, the soloists sang up against a wall, as it were, which didn’t help the sound balance. I was allowed to remix the whole recording, which was a difficult but rewarding job.’

Astrid in ‘t Veld is also satisfied. ‘The only thing Robin didn’t stick to at the time was the specified length. The intention was that Atlantis would last thirty minutes, but it expanded into fifty. As a result, the programme became too long and rehearsal times were exceeded. All in all, it was quite a puzzle, but it was worth all the effort. Atlantis has become an impressive piece and I’m glad it’s now available on CD.’

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About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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