May 21, 2022

Just after the turn of the millennium, Tangerine Dream created a gargantuan musical piece based on Dante’s La Divina Commedia. Like Dante’s epic prose, it was divided into three separate parts: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Inferno was released in CD and DVD formats in 2002, while Purgatorio and Paradiso followed in 2004 and 2006 respectively, both as double-CD packages. Now, and neatly timed to commemorate the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri, all of this comes together in a six-disc package, with five CDs of music remastered by Edgar Froese’s close collaborator Harald Pairits, plus the 2002 live concert DVD filmed at Castle Nideggen, Cologne. Last, but not least, there is a hardback book that features extensive liner notes by noted author Wouter Bessels, an essay by Edgar’s close collaborater and wife Bianca Froese-Acquaye, and previously unseen photographs from Edgar’s private archive. It’s the ultimate package and a fine tribute to what was perhaps Edgar Froese’s most ambitious opus.

So, let me ask you a question: would you like to listen for five and a half hours to Tangerine Dream’s typical trademark bubbling synths? All but ardent fans are likely to quake at that thought because for all the positive words you could use to describe their music – ground-breaking, epic, cathartic – the word ‘variety’ is not one that is likely to spring to mind. But, La Divina Commedia is not a typical Tangerine Dream piece of music. In a nutshell it is in the format of a classical Oratorio, which by definition is ‘a piece of music for orchestra and singers that tells a story, usually on a religious subject, without acting’. Don’t get me wrong: by that I don’t mean that the bubbling synths are accompanied by a few token strings. That does happen a little in Paradiso but in the first two parts of the trilogy, synthesisers replace the orchestra, creating a unique soundscape for the classical altos, sopranos and mezzo-sopranos to sing over. And before you hit the back-key because you think this is going to be bombastic classical stuff like the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s oratorio Messiah, stop! Froese’s classical influences are closer to say Arvo Pärt, the Estonian composer who has led the classical movement back to its roots based on simplicity, beauty, harmony and melody. This is mostly serene, almost ambient music, which will appeal to just about everyone.

It seems that the creative spark for Froese was the 1911 visionary film, L’Inferno. It is considered to be the very first Italian movie. One might have thought the Italians would have chosen an easier subject, but no, they went for a faithful adaptation of the first part of Dante’s La Divina Commedia! OK, it is the most famous piece of literature written by an Italian but still a fearsome cinematic challenge with the technology available at that time. A certain Raffaele Caravaglios wrote the music for the 1911 release and fast forward almost a century and Tangerine Dream took up the challenge of writing a brand-new score to go with the film. Two concert performances were recorded at the St. Marien Church, Bernau, Germany, and they became the basis of the Inferno album a year later.

The line-up of the band at the time was the father and son pairing of Edgar and Jerome Froese, plus newly arrived percussionist Iris Camaa. They were joined by six classically trained singers (including Froese’s wife Bianca Acquaye). The Inferno album’s 18 tracks last just over an hour, matching the length of the silent film of course. Following the film along with Tangerine Dream’s music helps understand the structure of the piece but it is not essential. On the contrary, watching with twenty-first century eyes can undermine the seriousness of the intent since 1911 special effects were crude. Take for example the first appearance of Beatrice, where to make her look suitably celestial she appears to have a spinning fan stuck to the back of her head in an attempt to create some sort of halo effect (that’s at the six-and-a-half-minute mark of the film if you want to check it out on Youtube!).

The opening Before The Closing Of The Day gives a good hint at what to expect over the next five hours or so. Sumptuous and serene synths give a warm orchestral feel, accompanied by delicate touches of percussion. The singers come in vocalising individually or in small groups to create a stunning otherworldly soundscape. The comparison that immediately came to my mind is with Howard Shore’s soundtrack to Lord Of The Rings, written just about at the same time. Shore uses the human voice in a similar way. Shore of course used a full orchestra, but Tangerine Dream still manage to create similar depth and emotional impact with just synths and percussion.

There are fundamentally two styles of songs on Inferno. There are those that are characterised by normal non-operatic vocals, and these tend to be accompanied by a slightly more rhythmic rock-oriented sound. And there are those characterised by operatic vocals and a more serene symphonic feel. Sometimes these styles mix to powerful effect such as in both Dante In Despair and Voices In A Starless Night where the main melody is with a normal rock voce but supported by operatic vocalising, creating a wonderful effect. Similarly, in Io Non Mori the trademark bubbling synths make an appearance, giving the music a strong forward pulse, helped along by tribal tom toms from Camaa, but the vocal line is in a slow regal soprano voice. That epic Wagnerian vocal style over synth and percussion support is repeated in several tracks and it’s mesmerising. Froese does mix and match styles enough to avoid the risk of it all sounding the same. For example, Falling For Death opens with an ominous pulsing synth chord and builds disturbingly to a frenetic conclusion. The highlight for me is the closing track, Beatrice which is perhaps the most overtly classical piece with its glorious soaring soprano vocal line full of Wagnerian majesty.  

Moving on to Purgatorio, there was no film for Froese to score in this case. That can be seen in a positive or a negative light. It certainly gave the band more freedom to compose music without the time or visual constraints of what was displayed on the big screen at any moment. On the negative side, without the film to clearly glue the pieces together, there’s a danger of a lack of focus in the music.  That risk does come to fruition because Purgatorio has eighteen tracks – just like Inferno – but lasts twice as long. Musically, it is in a similar sound world to Inferno but there’s more of an orientation towards a standard rock sound in many numbers. The frequent use of regular drums and regular 4/4 rhythms compared to the more subtle percussion used in Inferno is a sign of that. Listen to the instrumental opener, Above The Great Dry Land, and there are no classical influences at all. You feel that normal Tangerine Dream service has been resumed. Likewise in the brilliant two-part Sun Son’s Seal. The opening chimes of Part I lead to fast energetic synths and a catchy synth hook that puts us back in typical Tangerine Dream territory. Part II follows (several tracks later) in a similar format with the same synth hook line but with the addition of vocals and vocalising.

Of the more classical-leaning tracks, Beyond All Suns is a standout. It has a fine drawn-out melody, and the harmonies are exquisite. Modern Cave Man is another excellent track with again some stunning harmonies. And the closing track, Spirit Spiral is a clever reworking of Ravel’s Bolero. Of the more rock-oriented numbers, All The Steps To Heaven also has an excellent melody, but that is the exception because there are several other songs where the melody is not so strong and it makes many of those songs easily forgettable. This is a shame because Purgatorio has some outstanding material – and it could have been a fabulous single disc – but its impact is watered down by the more mundane material present here.

And so to the last leg of the trilogy. Paradiso certainly wasn’t a rushed effort to exploit the success of its predecessors. Having dabbled in classical styles, Froese went for broke this time by writing Paradiso for both band and full orchestra, pulling in the Brandenburg Symphonic Orchestra to play the piece live on this recorded version. The opening overture, La Grande Spirale, is rich and lush with wave after wave of swelling strings and synths, out of which emerge the horns. It might not be every rock fan’s cup of tea but it certainly is a powerful symphonic statement.  Not surprisingly, where operatic vocals are used, the orchestra fits hand in glove. Take A Cielo Della Luna, which has some gorgeous singing but the different orchestral textures supporting the voice take it to a different level compared to the limited palate available to the synths.

Whereas the classical writing on Inferno has the simplicity and purity of Arvo Pärt, on Paradiso the lush orchestral writing for strings put it more in the sound world of the late classical romantics, with similarities to Richard Stauss’ last songs  or of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.  L`Era Della Venere is perhaps the most impressive piece in this style with an extraordinary vocal performance over its 12 minutes. Don’t like operatic singing? Just listen to L`Era Della Venere and you’ll be rushing out to buy Wagner’s Ring Cycle soon after! As with Purgatorio, those in a more standard rock format are a bit of a mixed bag. Invisible Sun is a good melodic piece, and also one of the few sung in English (many are sung in Spanish for some reason).  Mercury Sphere is also a catchy number and there’s some excellent orchestral backing with the horns swinging away quite nicely.

For me, Paradiso is the best of the set but I confess this may be due to my classical leanings. Tangerine Dream fans are more likely to favour Purgatorio, I suspect. There’s something for everyone in this set and being able to listen to the three pieces together is certainly a rewarding experience, helping to comprehend the scale and ambition of Tangerine Dream’s unique concept. It’s seven years now since Edgar Froese passed away and the band’s website dedicates this release both to Dante and to Froese. If Edgar is looking down on us from Paradise, then I’m sure this release will put a smile on his face. Actually, if Dante is next to him, he’ll probably have a smile on his face too.