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Edvard Grieg Kor Sings Grieg Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907) Fire Salmer (Four Psalms) Op. 74 (1906) [22:47] Ave Maris Stella (1893) [3:36]
Holberg Suite, Op. 40 (1885, arr Jonathan Rathbone 2014) [19:45] Ole BULL (1810-1880) Sæterjentens Søndag (The Herdgirl’s Sunday) (c 1850, arr. Paul Robinson 2014) [4:01] Anon Jeg lagde mig så sildig (I went to bed one night) (arr. Paul Robinson 2014) [3:14] Agathe BACKER GRØNDAHL (1847-1907) Aftnen er stille (The Evening is Quiet) (1870-73, arr. Paul Robinson 2014) [5:01] David LANG (b. 1957)
Last Spring (2015) [5:12]
Audun Iversen (baritone), Edvard Grieg Kor / Håkon Matti Skrede, Paul Robinson
rec. 2018, Domkirken, Bergen, Norway
Texts and translations included
Reviewed in Stereo and Surround CHANDOS CHSA5232 SACD [64:02]
The ‘core’ of the Edvard Grieg Kor (forgive me) consists of eight voices, and it seems to me that the most successful items on this new Chandos issue are those that stick with those singers. Apart from a virtuosic ‘Swingle’-like transcription of the Holberg Suite (by one of the Swingle Singers’ former members no less) there are three delightful arrangements of folk-influenced songs, two by Grieg’s contemporaries, as well as an original work by the American David Lang. The rest of the disc is given over to two of Grieg’s very few overtly religious compositions. For these the choir doubles in size, and while I suppose the heft of these works demands this expansion, to my ears there is something of a dilution in the purity of this choir’s sound.
In actual fact, for me at least David Lang’s Last Spring proved to be the musical and spiritual highlight of this disc. It’s actually an English translation of Våren, whose original Norwegian text by Aasmund Olavsson Vinje was set by Grieg for voice and piano. The poem is a touching description of an elderly man encountering the transition between Winter and Spring and wondering if he will live to see it again. In one of life’s sad little synchronicities, at the time of its composition in 2015 Lang was staying in Maine as a guest of the artist and patron Marion Boulton Stroud when she passed away suddenly. Its insistent refrains “One….more… time….” and “More…time…” are gently devastating. Last Spring is far more than a touching elegy; it permeates one’s skin and takes up residence in one’s soul. It emerges as vernally fresh and especially affecting in this ethereal, deeply felt reading.
These eight voices are beautifully matched and eminently suited to the three, brief, folk-inspired songs. The King’s College alumnus Paul Robinson (he is one of the group’s tenors and directs them in these pieces) has devised the arrangements. The delightful folksong Jeg lagde mig så sildig (I went to bed one night) retains an elemental purity and arguably comes off best. The great violinist Ole Bull was regarded as Norway’s equivalent to Paganini; Sæterjentens Søndag (The Herdgirl’s Sunday) is possibly his most famous piece and is thought to derive from an old folk tune - the words came later. In both this, and in Aftnen er stille (The Evening is Quiet) by Grieg’s lesser-known contemporary Agathe Backer Grøndahl the arrangements are tastefully done, while the Kor’s performances are deftly elastic, and feature some accomplished solo work.
The eight voices combine to even more telling and virtuosic effect in Jonathan Rathbone’s skilful reworking of the ever popular Holberg Suite. Rathbone has helpfully provided a brief but insightful essay about the art of arranging instrumental music for voices and addresses therein the particular challenges the Holberg Suite presents in this regard. Much of it relates to the issue of retaining the key relationships between movements, while recognising the differences in range between instruments and voices. Rathbone’s solution is to raise the key of each panel by a minor third, so effectively the original G major key becomes B flat, and while those intimately familiar with the music will undoubtedly notice, the ear quickly acclimatises. Doubtless his efforts will not be to everyone’s taste, and while the odd Grieg purist may take offence, I find this an expert and imaginative arrangement which is arguably more colourful (in a tasteful, pastel sense) than the original. In any case Fra Holbergs Tid is not the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony. The singing is quite superb, Paul Robinson’s direction is splendidly paced, while Chandos’s Surround option presents a kind of spectacular intimacy, notably in the swifter, odd-numbered movements.
There is fervour aplenty in the extended choir’s accounts of the splendid setting of the song Ave Maris Stella, and in the Fire Salmer (Four Psalms), Op 74 which proved to be Grieg’s last work. While there is much speculation as to why this composer should have waited until the end of his life to produce this music of faith (he was deeply suspicious of the Norwegian clergy; he embraced Unitarianism after a trip to England in the late 1880s), the Psalms are ultimately folk-influenced hymns. But I feel that the personality that’s conspicuous in the smaller choir formation somehow diminishes in its expansion to sixteen voices; I sense both strain and strangeness in these readings – the voices seem neither as comfortable nor as well-matched. It’s an impression that’s reinforced in the greater detail offered by the Surround option. Baritone Audun Iversen at times projects an unexpected, rather declamatory harshness which is at odds with the choral blend. The Edvard Grieg Kor seem to occupy a middle ground between two other Norwegian accounts of the Psalms; Grex Vocalis on 2L (2L45) sound excessively ‘churchy’ to my ears; however the uncomplicated sonic purity achieved by the Norwegian Soloists Choir under Grete Pedersen on BIS (BIS SACD 1661 - review) seems almost ideal for these works whose significance within Grieg’s corpus has perhaps been underestimated. It is also interesting that (presumably the same) Audun Iversen is billed as one of the two soloists on that disc – his voice seems to have been more convincingly integrated into the BIS sound picture than is the case here.
So I’ve found this disc something of a curate’s egg; it will certainly be interesting to see how the recording career of this relatively new Bergen-based choir pans out. I would certainly like to hear more of them in their eight-voice formation. The documentation in the booklet is excellent while the Chandos sound in both formats is in the best traditions of the house, notwithstanding the personal caveats I outlined above.