As someone who sings in a choir, I’m very partial to discs of choral recitals. Over the years I’ve reviewed a good many for MusicWeb International. I’ll nail my colours to the mast straightaway and say that this is one of the finest such discs I can recall hearing. The singing is consistently superb and the recorded sound is magnificent. Normally I’m not drawn to male voice choirs - or, indeed, to all-female choirs. I prefer the broader palette of mixed voices and, to be honest, much of the male voice choir repertoire doesn’t set my juices flowing. However, I’m so glad that I made an exception and asked to review this disc for not only is the musicianship exceptional but also the programme contains music that is interesting and rewarding.
Orphei Drängar - they seem commonly to abbreviate their name to OD - is a choir of some 80 singers in an age range between 20 and 55, based in Uppsala. They were founded as long ago as 1853. Since 2008 their conductor and artistic director has been Cecilia Rydinger Alin who, on the evidence of this recording, is a formidably accomplished choral trainer and director.
Much of the music on the disc, including pieces by such well-known composers as Milhaud and Rossini was new to me. Of the familiar pieces, those by Grieg and Biebl are, in my experience, more commonly performed by SATB choirs, though I have heard the Biebl done by a cathedral choir with male altos on the top line. I’m reminded by my review
of that particular disc that it was originally composed for a German fire brigade male voice choir. This Swedish performance is truly magnificent, the finest I can recall hearing by any type of ensemble. The Grieg, another wonderful little piece, also comes off splendidly.
In many ways both the choir and the engineers set out their stall in track 1. This is an arrangement for choir and organ of an old Estonian chorale hymn, the title of which translates as ‘O Christ, you are the light’. The music begins sepulchrally; we hear the organ pedals and the lowest basses in the choir, all very quietly and with solemnity. Gradually the piece builds in volume and fervour as more voice parts are added to the texture. The sound of the choir is hugely impressive: the tone is full and firm, the discipline is superb and both tuning and balance are impeccable. Both the choir and the organ are recorded with marvellous realism. The only slight negative I have is that the organ part includes some instances of what I can only describe as ‘bluesy’ notes, which don’t seem very appropriate. Otherwise, this is a most auspicious launch for the programme.
These ultra-high standards of performance and recording are maintained for the remainder of the programme. The piece by the Estonian, Cyrillus Kreek is a setting of Psalm 137 (‘By the waters of Babylon’) which was written in 1944, a very difficult time for his country. The music is fervent and strongly emotional; this performance is very intense. Milhaud and Pärt also contribute psalm settings. The Milhaud (‘I was glad’) couldn’t be more different from Parry’s opulent setting of the same words. The music is interesting and the Swedish singers perform it very convincingly. The Pärt, enriched by the optional percussion part, demonstrates the extraordinary control of this choir: it starts very softly and builds incrementally in volume and power. The other psalm setting, by Jean Langlais, is something of a surprise. Conventionally one would expect a setting of Psalm 150 (‘Praise the Lord in his sanctuary’) to be exuberant but at the start Langlais’ music is slow, thoughtful and subdued. It ‘gets going’ at “Praise Him with timbrel and dance” but the last line of the text reverts to the restrained solemnity of the opening. The organ part is very French. I’d not heard this piece before but I’m glad I have.
Also new to me was Bob Chilcott’s Newton’s Amazing Grace
, a characteristically imaginative and interesting piece which, among other things, gives the singers the chance to demonstrate their ability to sing with precision. So too does Andres Lemba’s Gloria
; this is strongly rhythmic music which is expertly articulated by the choir.
To be honest, whatever challenge is set them by the various composers represented here the singers of Orphei Drängar pass every test with flying colours. Don’t think for a moment that this is just a choir that’s been drilled to sing with super-efficiency; everything about the execution of this programme proclaims excellent musicianship. I should also commend the shining soprano voice of Elin Rombo, who sings in the piece by René Eespere and in one of the little pieces my August Söderman. Some of the music requires organ accompaniment and Andrew Canning contributes very well on these occasions.
First and foremost this disc is a triumph for Cecilia Rydinger Alin and her superb choir. However, a large amount of credit must also be given to engineer/producer, Elisabeth Kemper. She has produced stunning sound quality, convincingly reporting the sound of the choir - a thrilling listen. BIS has a deserved reputation for high-quality sonics but this is one of the very best BIS discs I’ve ever heard. The Bälinge kyrka, Uppsala, where this recording was made, seems to have been a shrewd choice. It appears to possess a warm and welcoming acoustic which just adds the right amount of resonance.
This is an exceptionally fine disc of rewarding music for male voice choir. I cannot praise it highly enough: my shortlist for 2014 Recordings of the Year already has its first entry.
Previous review: Brian Reinhart
(October 2013 Recording of the Month)