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Davidovsky’s Biblical Songs, composed with the aid of a Meet the Composer–Reader’s Digest commission for a consortium headed by the Dallas-based ensemble Voices of Change, begins with still another, more intimate setting of a passage from the Song of Songs, this time dedicated to the composer’s wife, Elaine. Opening with a constantly mutating composite instrumental sonority initiated by a middle C struck quietly on the piano, a first high point is reached at the words “there I will give you my love,” accompanied by the two strings that at the peak of their crescendo suddenly add vibrato. This climax does not really subside, but is immediately replaced by the coolly sensuous, exotic roulades of alto flute and clarinet, reminiscent of the quasi-medieval figuration of portions of Scenes from Shir ha-Shirim, as the soprano sings of the fragrance of mandrakes and all manner of “pleasant fruits.” Anxious tremolandi and trills in strings and woodwinds reinforce the exhortation for the beloved to “make haste, swift as a gazelle,” before the return of the calm lyricism of the beginning.
The second song, “And Samson said…” bears a dedication to Davidovsky’s daughter Adriana and is by the far the most straightforward song from a rhythmic standpoint. That quality, along with playful reiterations of words and syllables (“with with the jaw bone bone”) and the optional repeat of the main body of the piece, recall a hallowed tradition of children’s songs based on rather grim, bloody events, in this case Samson’s dispatch of “a thousand men.” Oddly, even this relatively innocent piece cannot, for this listener at least, completely escape its composer’s tape studio heritage: The syllabic repetitions mentioned above recall, at least slightly, the use of electronic reverb.
Psalm 137, the apotheosis of lament in exile, is the dramatic core of the Biblical Songs. The unaccompanied vocal line that begins the song ends with a crescendo, and the players, instructed to match each other, again “like one single instrument,” continue the line, which they periodically shade and highlight as the piece progresses. After its outburst at “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” the vocal part reverts to Hebrew for the passage that begins “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither away.” It is a withdrawal into the comfort of the ancient tongue, as if the anguish is too much to express otherwise. The final cry for God’s vengeance against the Babylonian captors is the climax of the entire cycle and is no less hair-raising for the extraordinary instrumental economy with which it is achieved.