RÓS - Songs of Christmas
see end of review for track listing
Ditte Marie Bræin, Berit Opheim, Runa Hestad Jenssen, Ingeborg Dalheim (vocals); Rolf Lislevand (lute); Gjermund Larsen (violin); Bjørn Kjellemyr (double bass); Det Norske Solistkor/Grete Pedersen
rec. April 2013, Ris Kirke, Oslo, Norway
BIS BIS-SACD-2029 [52:30]
I wasn’t intending to throw myself amongst the Christmas CD offerings this year, but our avuncular boss Len, seeing that this disc must be ticking most of my boxes, sent it to me anyway. Indeed, anything with the name Rolf Lislevand on it will grab my attention, his having been a main mover behind a couple of my all-time favourites, Nuove musiche and Diminuito from the ECM label. This would be enough, but I have already admired another BIS disc led by Grete Pedersen, Refractions, which unexpectedly combines Berg, Webern and Messiaen with a less well-known but fascinating Norwegian contemporary Fartein Valen. Performers also include vocalist Berit Opheim and violinist Gjermund Larsen with their background in folk music as well as jazz bassist Bjørn Kjellemyr, so expectations are raised to a high level before we even start.
The name Rós or rose is closely associated with the Nativity in Christian symbolism, and this imaginative Christmas collection is so wide-ranging as inevitably to be something of a mixed bag. It is however exactly the kind of bag you’d like to find at the end of your bed on a crisp Christmas morning - full of gems. Highlights there are aplenty, starting with a deeply familiar and beautifully sung a-capella Behold, a Rose is Springing - only the Norwegian version of the text wrong-footing us Brits.
After this, expectations are spun in all kinds of directions, but in the nicest possible ways. Folk tunes in superb arrangements such as The Angels of God are brought together with evocative violin playing and the sparkle of the lute, underpinned with subtly felt bass lines. After the dance of a Ricercata, the Rós - Suite for Christmas starts for real with a mysterious vocal bed of sound for Hildegard von Bingen’s open melodic shapes. Lislevand’s lute extends the spell into the introduction for Eit barn er født i Betlehem, the choir opening out into sounds both modern and timeless. I couldn’t find out much about Ola O. Fagerheim, but the gently sparing version of In this Blessed Christmas Time with its gathering clusters of notes is like clouds of breath on freezing air. A trilogy of movingly simple folk tunes follows, the suite concluded with a more modern but highly atmospheric treatment of My Heart Forever Dwells, and a return to the beginning of the cycle with a more extended version of Von Bingen’s O Eternal Force.
Per Nørgård surprises with the relative melodic and harmonic directness of The Joy of Christmas; more restrained than overtly joyous, but with that lullaby comfort which suits the season perfectly. We’re refreshingly livened up with a transparent Tarantella, and the gorgeous folk simplicity of the Christmas Verse hits home, with superb vocal ‘chimes’ further along. The final a-capella tune from Gulf Nordquist is the perfect conclusion to the programme as a whole.
With all texts given in Norwegian and English, this is a radiant package and pretty much all you will need if you seek an alternative to the more traditional and ubiquitous carols we all know and love, but which can sometimes be too much of a good thing. The performances are all sublime, the arrangements equally so, the recording everything you would expect from this source though without spectacular bells and whistles to bump us out of our candle-lit reveries.
Michael PRAETORIUS (1571-1621)
Det hev ei rose sprunge (Behold, a Rose is Springing) [2:54]
Old Marian Song (instrumental) [0:32]
No koma Guds englar (The Angels of God) [3:04]
Improvisation on Ricercata Segunda (instrumental) [1:24]
Hildegard of BINGEN (1098-1179)
O vis æternitatis (O Eternal Force) [2:12]
O frondens virga (O Leafy Branch) [2:51]
Eit barn er født i Betlehem (A Child is Born in Bethlehem) [4:33]
Hildegard of BINGEN
Ave, generosa (Hail, Magnanimous) [0:53]
Ola O. FAGERHEIM
I denne søte juletid (In this Blessed Christmas Time) [6:18]
Den fagraste rosa (The Fairest of Roses) [3:02]
Maria, hun er en jomfru ren (Mary is a Virgin Pure) (instrumental) [1:09]
Mitt hjerte alltid vanker (My Heart Forever Dwells) [5:46]
Hildegard of BINGEN
O vis æternitatis (O Eternal Force) [4:42]
Per NØRGÅRD (b. 1932)
Julens glæde (Himmelfalden) (The Joy of Christmas) [2:47]
Jolevers (Et lite barn så lystelig) (Christmas Verse) [3:23]
Gustaf NORDQUIST (1886-1949)
Jul, jul, strålande jul (Yule, Yule, Radiant Yule) [2:36]