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David Lang: Prisoner of the State

Julie Mathevet, Eric Owens et al; New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden (Decca Gold)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

David Lang
Prisoner of the State
Julie Mathevet, Eric Owens, Alan Oke, Jarrett Ott et al (voices); Men of the Concert Chorale of New York/Donald Nally; New York Philharmonic/Jaap van Zweden
Decca Gold 481 9453   60:34 mins

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David Lang has long struggled with the end of Fidelio: ‘I always want the townspeople to sing about freedom, or about tyranny, or about justice, and instead they sing about how great it is for a wife to save her husband.’ Premiered in 2019, Prisoner of the State is a radical reworking of Beethoven’s opera, melding its narrative ‘skeleton’ with contemporaneous accounts of crime from 1805 (the year Fidelio premiered) alongside Lang’s own reflections on the modern penal system. The resulting opera is a powerful and timely work that places the chorus of prisoners at the heart of the story, and this well-recorded disc has all the energy and fire of a staged performance.

Lang’s music is compelling. His orchestral writing is often sparse, its luminous chamber-like textures and percussive interjections affording the vocal lines an arresting clarity. The New York Philharmonic bring taut control to the score and vocal performances are excellent, with Eric Owens on particularly fine form as ‘The Jailer’. Reviews of the staged production questioned whether Lang had solved the dramaturgical issues that beleaguer Fidelio, but this feels less pressing in this audio recording. Heard as more of an oratorio, the disc shines for its urgent and affecting theme, powerful score and heartfelt performances.

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Kate Wakeling