Scandinavian Choir Music
rec. 2003/04, Münster Heilsbronn, Germany
Sung texts with German translations enclosed ARS PRODUCTION ARS38449 [53:38]
The title of the present disc, “Scandinavian Choir Music” is a bit misleading, since the formal definition of Scandinavia is Denmark and the Scandinavian Peninsula, comprising Norway and Sweden with the common denominator the Scandinavian languages, which are closely related. A wider definition is the Nordic countries where we also include Iceland and Finland. The Finnish language is unrelated to the Scandinavian languages but since Finland was part of Sweden for several hundred years it is natural to include it, especially since Swedish for a long time was the administrative language in Finland, also during the 19th century, when Finland was incorporated into the Russian Empire as an autonomous Grand Duchy. Even the possible title “Nordic Choir Music” would be too narrow since there are also two Estonian composers represented, but historically, if we go back to the 17th century, the Baltic countries were under Swedish rule and there are still many things, in particular in Estonia, reminiscent of Sweden, family names for instance.
The aim of this preamble is to sort out the geographical situation in Northern Europe, and note that a German choir choses to record an all-Nordic choir programme, which is a gratifying tribute to the long choral tradition in these countries. Everybody with even the slightest interest in choral music is probably familiar with the International Choir Festival held every second year in Tallinn. This year (2019) in April was the 16th festival.
The present disc encompasses composers from five countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Estonia and they span several generations, from Niels V. Gade, born in 1817, to Urmas Sisask, born in 1960. There are texts in Latin, English, Estonian, Danish and Swedish, there are sacred and profane pieces, Romantic songs and rather modern works. Together these composers give a quite comprehensive picture of the choral scene in Northern Europe during roughly 150 years.
Norwegian Trond Kverno’s six-part Ave Maris Stella (Hail, Star of the Sea), a hymn originating from the eighth century, seeing Mary as the protector of the sea-farers, was composed in 1976. It is calm and beautiful with a contrasting rhythmical middle section. Harmonically it is quite traditional but spiced with some dissonances. Estonian Urmas Sisask’s Benedictio is even later, written in 1991. Here medieval polyphony is juxtaposed with jazzy rhythms, female voices pitted against male. It is repetitive but wholly attractive. Norwegian Knut Nystedt, who passed away five years ago, aged 99, was possibly the greatest Nordic composer of sacred music during the second half of the 20th century. The three motes, Opus 43, from 1957 are among his best known works and they are masterpieces. The third, I Will Praise Thee, O Lord (tr. 5) should be on every music lover’s wish list, if there is any justice in this world. A true hit!
Estonian Veljo Tormis, who died in 2017, was without doubt the greatest choral composer of Estonia. His list of works encompasses more than 500 individual choral pieces, and he spent a lifetime exploring the ancient folk music of Estonia, using also ancient poetry, though he famously said: "It is not I who makes use of folk music, it is folk music that makes use of me." Very often he issued his pieces in groups with some common theme or, as here, a miniature cycle, titled Autumn Landscapes from 1964 with subtitles The Summer Passes, Clouds Dash Across the Sky, Red Leaves Are Falling, The Light Disappears, The Wind Howls Over the Moor, In the Cold Night and Heather. They are short pieces, none longer than 1:40, but they are charged with intensity.
Swedish Wilhelm Stenhammar was one of the central composers during the early 20th century. His G minor symphony, his piano concerto in the same key and the Serenade in F major are among the greatest orchestral works from this period, as are his six string quartets. But he also composed songs and choral pieces and the three songs for mixed choir to texts by Danish J. P. Jacobsen are frequently performed. They are early compositions – he was only 19 when he wrote them – but they catch so much of the late romantic atmosphere. I Seraillets Have (tr. 14) is my personal favourite but the merry and folksy Havde jeg, o havde jeg en Dattersøn … (tr. 15) is also a gem – and so untypical Stenhammar.
His somewhat younger compatriot David Wikander, is basically known for some well-crafted choral compositions, of which Kung Liljekonvalje (tr. 18) is a standard song for every Swedish choir of some stature. It is very well performed here though I can’t say I hear very much of the text. The text, incidentally, is by Gustaf Fröding, though it is here attributed to Ragnar Jändel, whose only contribution on this disc is Wikander’s Förvårskväll (tr. 16) – less well-known but still a fine piece.
Danish Niels W. Gade’s Morgensang (Morning Song) is the best-known number from his often performed cantata Elverskud (1853), which I quite recently reviewed a complete recording of, titled in German Erlkönigs Tochter (review). In the cantata it is sung with orchestral accompaniment, but here it is the more commonly heard a cappella setting.
Swedish Hugo Alfvén is best known for his orchestral music: five symphonies, three Swedish rhapsodies, of which Midsommarvaka (Midsummer Vigil) also has reached some popularity abroad. But he also arranged folk songs for choirs and composed several original choral works, of which Aftonen (The Evening) possibly is his best.
Edvard Grieg as choral composer is, I believe, a quite unknown capacity internationally, though he wrote quite a few choral songs, mostly though, fore male chorus. Hvad est du dog skjön (How beautiful you are) is the first of 4 Psalms after Old Norwegian Church Melodies for baritone and mixed chorus Op. 74, which he composed in 1906 and belongs to his very last works. The soloist Thomas Walter is very good and the song is beautiful. The concluding piece is by Einojuhani Rautavaara, arguably the greatest Finnish composer after Sibelius. He passed away in 2016. Sommarnatten (The Summer Night) was written in 1975 to a Swedish text. Here he adds four solo sopranos to the mixed four-part choir of which the liner notes say: “The silvery high tones of the soloists evoke the vesperal reminiscence, filled with vibrating heat of a summer day. To this quick movement, Rautavaara opposes slow harmonies, without thirds, like archaic sculptures.” It is indeed a beautiful piece where he contrasts the lowest basses with the highest sopranos.
The recordings were made fifteen years ago and they were published in 2005. The notes have not been revised for this issue, which means that I have added the death dates for Knut Nystedt, Veljo Tormis and Einojuhani Rautavaara.
Amadeus-Chor is an excellent group and my only problem was that I hear very little of the texts, but that is of course always a problem with choral music. The programme is very attractive, as I hope I have made clear in my comments on the individual songs.
Contents Trond KVERNO (b. 1945)
1. Ave Maris Stella (1976) [4:52] Urmas SISASK (b. 1960)
2. Benedictio (1991) [5:57] Knut NYSTEDT (1915 – 2014)
Three Motets [5:37]
3. 1. Thus Saith The Lord [1:54]
4. 2. Peace, I Leave With You [2:03]
5. 3. I Will Praise Thee, O Lord [1:39] Veljo TORMIS (1930 – 2017)
Sügismaastikud (Autumn Landscapes) [9:29]
6. On Hilissuvi [1:32]
7. Üle Taeva Jooksevad Pilved [1:40]
8. Valusalt Punased Lehed [1:14]
9. Kahvatu Valgus [0:35]
10. Tuul Könnumaa Kohlat [1:21]
11. Külm Sügisö [1:25]
12. Kanarbik [1:39] Wilhelm STENHAMMAR (1871 – 1927)
Tre körvisor (1890) [5:44]
13. September [2:06]
14. I Seraillets Have [2:08]
15. Havde jeg, o havde jeg en Dattersø,.o ja! [1:29] David WIKANDER (1884 – 1955)
16. Förvårskväll [4:41] Niels W. GADE (1817 – 1890)
17. Morgensang [1:49] David WIKANDER
18. Kung Liljekonvalje [3:25] Hugo ALFVÉN (1872 – 1960)
19. Aftonen [3:42] Edvard GRIEG (1843 – 1907)
20. Hvad est du dog skjön [5:07] Einojuhani RAUTAVAARA (1928 – 2016)
21. Sommarnatten [3:09]
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