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Ib Nørholm
Op. 89 (1988)
MacMoon Songs III Op. 154 (1999)
Sjaelfuld Sommer Op.146 (1997)
Three Songs (1988-1990)
Fuglene Op.129 (1994)
Vocal Group: Ars Nova
Danish Chamber Players/Tamás Vetö
Recorded November/December 1999
DACAPO 8.224168 [64.27]
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There is no doubt that Ib Nørholm is one of the most influential Danish composers of the latter half of the twentieth century. Along with Norgard and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen he has influenced much that has happened since the late 1950s.

Ib Nørholm was born on 24th January 1931. He took to music at an early age, producing operas and choral works when he was still at school. Musical studies continued with Holmboe, Bentzon and Hoffding; so he has excellent credentials. Much of Nørholm's career has been spent in the organ loft; he was choirmaster and organist at Elsinore Cathedral and later at Bethlehem Kirken in Copenhagen. During this time he has contributed works for organ and choir. However, composing is only a small part of his career. He was music critic for the Copenhagen 'Information' between 1956 and 1964. He has conducted choirs - both amateur and professional. He has spent time as a teacher and as a lecturer at Odense and later at the Copenhagen Conservatory. He has been the recipient of many prizes and honours - including the Carl Nielsen Prize in 1971. He was knighted in 1981.

Musically Nørholm is quite a complex character. There is much evidence of development in his style and compositional techniques. The first major work that sets the scene is the Symphony No. 1 Op.10 1956/58. This is very much in the post-Nielsen style. It is tonal and lyrical; no hints of the avant-garde. However in the fifties and sixties many Danish composers began to consider the possibilities of the new music. They heard and tried to assimilate Stockhausen and Boulez.

Nørholm began to explore new styles. There was the 'table music' where every detail was laid out in tables that could be read off onto the manuscript paper. Then there was the period of structured serialism - derived no doubt from the contemporary works and theoretic of Boulez. Not content with this he soon moved on to using graphical scores. The antithesis to the rigours of structuralism was the concept of aleatory music. Experiments were tried with unusual instruments and sound combinations. This included a work for solo violin complete with mechanical toys.

At this point there was a reaction to the increasing complexity and the continuous pushing of boundaries. There developed a new 'simplicity' in the works of Nørholm and other composers of that generation. One of the ways this development manifested itself was a plurality of styles. He was prepared to use any technique - from naïve through to avant-garde complexity; he would utilise triadic harmony or develop 12 tone clusters.

Nørholm has a vast catalogue of music to his name. To mention a few highlights is sufficient. There are six operas, including one composed when he was nineteen called 'The Snail & the Rose Tree'. It was based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Grove mentions at least nine symphonies; the first written in 1956 and the last in 1990. Much of Nørholm's music has picturesque titles. For example his last symphony (Op.116, 1990) is subtitled 'The Sun Garden in Three Shades of Light' and his Symphony No. 7 (Op.88, 1982) is entitled 'Elliptic Instincts'. There is a vast amount of chamber music for virtually every combination imaginable - including a piece called 'Instructions for the Golden Hamster' Op.122, 1922. This is scored for four trumpets, two horns, three trombones, with euphonium, tuba and saxophone quartet.

Naturally for a composer who has spent much of his life in 'quires and places where they sing' there is a large quantity of choral music. However there is a surprisingly small amount of organ music.

It is with the choral music that this review is concerned. He has written works for all manner of choral media; for liturgical choristers, amateur choirs, children and of course groups of professional singers. It is this last category that the works on the present CD were composed for.

I have mentioned above that there is a vast theoretical diversity present in the toolbox available to Nørholm. However after listening to this CD I posed myself the question. Does all the background reading and certain of his earlier compositions lead the listener to expect what they get? The answer in my case, and I imagine in many peoples case, is no. I was prepared for something difficult, avant-garde, off the wall, heavy, far out…

What actually do we get?

Well here is a CD chock full of music that the average Anglican Cathedral-goer would find perfectly acceptable. Change the secular texts for the divine prose of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and they would feel that this was music designed for Hereford, Winchester or Ely Cathedrals.

Consider his Three Songs. These were written between 1988 and 1990. These are truly beautiful. There are melting chords; even the twelve-note clusters and dissonances sound soft. He is quite prepared to use any chord if it is the right chord to make his musical point. Here are triads, dominant 7th and 9ths and all the traditional and not so traditional resources of the composer of choral music. The part-writing in the second song is a little tenser, but nothing to destroy our impression that here is a choral composer who is at home with his medium.

Fuglene Op.129 (1994) or 'The Birds' is written for twelve voices plus an accompaniment of flute, clarinet, viola and cello. These pieces do sound somewhat more 'modern' - if that is the correct adjective to use. But listening closer it is the disparity (meant) between the more dissonant accompaniment and the traditional choral writing that lends the effect to the piece. There is a bird-song quality here; there is imitation between the instruments and the singers. There is onomatopoeia when the singers refer to 'Bird everybody/little cry baby/prettiest/emerald/Bird everybody.

Some of this work has an almost operatic feel to it. For some reason I was reminded of Richard Strauss in the opening pages of the second song. There is English pastoral here too - and not only in this piece. There is even a Sullivanesque ending to the third song. How often have I been reminded of 'When the long day closes' whilst listening to this CD?

Sjaelfuld Sommer Op.146 (1997) is possibly the most accomplished work on this CD. It is unaccompanied and as such becomes a perfect fusion of words and music. The harmonies and counterpoint add immensely to the overall word and music painting of these poems. The span from the music describing the 'squirrels whirls' to the slow heart-easing harmony of 'now meditative depth' allows the words to dictate the harmonic structures of the piece. We even hear skaters 'slipping and sliding'!

The harmonies are melting and as such are gorgeous. The last song reminds me of so much English part-song writing. Perhaps Stanford's 'Bluebird' is the piece that constantly comes to mind on hearing these pieces.

The opening piece on this CD is 'Americana' Op.89 (1988). These are settings of poems by American poets including Walt Whitman and John Berryman. There is nothing here which will give the slightest offence to even the most conservative enthusiast of choral music. If I was asked to describe these pieces in a nutshell it would be 'Fred. Delius visits the Barbershop' This is not being derogatory - but simply giving some idea as to the flavour of these settings. The fourth song, 'The Last Invocation' is perhaps the loveliest thing on this disc.

I must confess that the MacMoon Songs III are to me at any rate the least impressive works on this CD. They are scored for 12 voices and instrumental group and utilise a number of techniques including jazz elements. Again there is every kind of choral writing from unisons through to 12 note clusters. To me they lack some of the magic, which make the other pieces on this CD special.

Altogether this is an interesting recording. The performances are impressive. The programme notes are exceptional; there is not much more information to be gleaned about these pieces that is not in the text. DaCapo are well ahead of the field in this area. They make interesting reading, help understanding of the works - in fact they turn us all into musicologists.

In conclusion, there is comparatively little of Ib Nørholm's music easily available on CD. I found only three discs on a recent trip to Tower Records in Piccadilly. This recording is an excellent introduction to his choral works. I would like to listen to a variety of other works produced by this composer at various periods of his career.

As a listening strategy, I would suggest that each work be listened to separately. To try to take in everything in this disc is well nigh impossible. Like most choral music, when listened to en masse it just tends to confuse the issue. It blurs the effect. These pieces deserve to be considered in detail and absorbed into the soul.

John France

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