Posts Tagged “Scandanavia”

Rose Garden Songs, Choral Songs, Motets and Hymn Melodies

Tamás Vetö, Ars Nova Copenhagen


Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) was a man clearly out of step with his time. Reportedly, audiences shunned him in his native Denmark, where he had to promote the premieres of most of his 16 symphonies himself for lack of interest. The trouble was in his sometimes-hysterical arch romanticism that flowed against the stream of the progressive trend in 20th century Danish music represented by Carl Neilsen, with whom he had actually studied counterpoint for about a month. He later had a falling out with Neilsen, whom he came to regard as the epitome of all that was wrong in modern music, and he was quite outspoken on the matter. A contemporary wag described Langgaard as “the white duckling who grew up to be an ugly swan,” and the unfortunate label stuck.

Posterity has been kinder to Rued Langgaard, particularly since the recording explosion that was ushered in first by the stereo LP and then the compact disc. “Neglected” romantics became a passion in the industry, and Langgaard was the beneficiary. Also, his fellow countrymen, who often used to laugh at his premieres, have had a change of heart towards his music, and most of his 400+ works have subsequently been published and performed.

The current program of choral songs by Langgaard reveals the less eccentric, more purely lyrical side of this enigmatic figure. The texts are simple-hearted and straightforward in their emotion, particularly in the Psalm and hymn arrangements of contemporary Danish poets. Langgaard set these to music distinguished by harmonic warmth and gentle expressiveness that has been largely absent from a capella music since Brahms. The three choral songs with secular texts reflect a genuine, refreshing love of nature, as in the following: “A bird flew over the fir-clad moon; / it sings forgotten songs. / It enticed me away from the beaten track; / and onto shadowy paths. / I came to hidden springs and ponds / where the elk slakes its thirst; / but the birdsong sounded still far away / like a hum midst the sighs of the wind; / Tirilil Tove, Tirilil Tove, / far away in the forest!” (Alluring Sounds, J.S. Welhaven)

The 12-member Ars Nova Copenhagen under Tamás Vetö is a premiere vocal ensemble, distinguished for its perfect blend, flawless intonation and expressiveness. This recording was originally released by Marco Polo in 1997, when Dacapo’s catalog was still being issued on that label. Dacapo thought highly enough of this offering to reissue it in luminous hybrid SACD sonics, making it even more attractive. Listeners who treasure great a capella singing will find this offering irresistible.

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The Key Masterpieces

Danish National Symphony Orchestra, Michael Schønwandt;
Danish Radio Sinfonietta, Hannu Koivula;
Athleas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, Giordano Bellincampi;
Morten Zeuthen, cello; Trio Ondine; Kontra String Quartet


I must admit total ignorance as far as prior experience of Danish composer Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996), and I’m probably far from alone in that respect. His fellow countrymen regard him as the successor to his mentor Carl Neilsen as Denmark’s greatest composer. But while Neilsen has gradually achieved world fame, thanks in large part to the untiring efforts of his admirers among conductors and critics, Holmboe remains little known outside his native land. Of the 33 recordings of his music currently listed on, only one is on a label that is not Danish (Dacapo, Danacord, or Classico). Like that of Nielsen, Holmboe’s music is uncompromisingly honest and direct, solidly structured, very personal and very intense (“Controlled ecstasy” is the way he described it). There is little in it that is superficially colorful or pretty. His use of the strings is notable for its extremes, from the darkest stratum of the lowest strings to the most brilliant high register of the violins, a sound so intensely brilliant it hurts.

In keeping with the aim of Dacapo’s Perspectives series, this 2-CD set is described as comprising the composer’s “Key Masterpieces,” as culled from that label’s discography. Actually, it’s a fairly representative sampling of the range of Holmboe’s writing, considering the fact that it comprised more than 200 opus numbers. None of his 13 symphonies is represented, but we do have Chamber Symphony No. 4, Op. 20 (1940) and Sinfonia 1, Op. 73a (1957). The former is distinguished by the interweaving lines of violin and flute soloists and by a strikingly original use of the percussion as an integral part of the texture and not just for accents or special effects. The latter is notable for its tight structure and economy of means. The Sonata for Solo Cello (1969), which makes exceptional technical demands of the performer, is also highly expressive, illustrating what Holmboe meant by “controlled ecstasy.” It calls for the excellent performance it receives here from cellist Morten Zeuthen. Nuigen (1976) was Holmboe’s own pet name for his Second Piano Trio. The title could be translated “What, again?” It, too, represents the composer’s attempt to extract the essence of folk music in its outer movements, to which he contrasts an intermezzo “in sacred style.” His Fourth String Quartet and his tone poem “To the Seagulls and the Cormorants,” Op. 174 (both completed 1987) show that his rigorous approach and the rugged expressive power of his music were far from diminished in his later years.

That leaves us with his oratorio Requiem for Nietzsche (1963-64), based on sonnets by the Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig describing Nietzsche’s journey toward both enlightenment and madness. It is an almost indescribable work, making heavy demands on the tenor and bass soloists (particularly the latter, sung here by Johan Reuter) and calling on the chorus for a number of surprising aleatoric effects that include speaking in a hubbub of voices, whispering, and shouting in addition to plain old-fashioned singing. Even if it didn’t include some controversial notions in its libretto – such as that the voice of Jesus’ tempter in the wilderness was the voice of truth, corresponding to Nietzsche’s idea of man as a limitless, self-contained god – this avant-garde work makes such demands on the listener that it is clearly not for everyday listening.

The performances on this program are universally fine. The recordings, made at different times and in different venues, have been mastered in clear, transparent sonics that give the listner the feeling of a coherent program.

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Music for Piano, including Sonata, Op. 91 and “Rustles of Spring”
Jerome Lowenthal, piano


Question: What does the music of Norwegian composer Christian Sinding (1856-1941) have to do with the contemporary music of our time (which, presumably, is what the website is all about)? I’d have to say, “Absolutely nothing.” Of course, I pretty much review what our zookeeper sends me, but Sinding seems a really odd fit. In his student days in Leipzig he was under the spell of the new music of the day, which then meant Liszt and not Wagner’s “music of the future.” His forms are conventional, and his harmony while striking, was used mostly for coloristic purposes and was decidedly not revolutionary. Even his Sonata in B Minor, Op 91, his most ambitious work on the present program, while organically conceived like Liszt’s masterpiece in the same key, is nowhere near as daring. As Jerome Lowenthal points out in his program notes, Sinding relies on subtle mood fluctuations to achieve organicism, rather than the contrapuntal devices Liszt employed.

A survey of the ten character pieces that accompany the sonata on this disc reveals Sinding to be a true Romantic composer of the old school, distinguished by his continuous flow of feeling, his turns of phrase that seem to embody the cadences of his Norwegian language, and his lack of emotional complication. His was music of heartfelt simplicity, to be played in the parlor “at the end of a perfect day.” The virtuosic element occurs mainly in the tumultuous flow of his short pieces, often ending, as do “Con fuoco” and “Capricccio” in a very decisive cadence that we might take as part of the composer’s thumbprint. The more intimate pieces such as “Melodie” and “Serenade” embody a mood of gently melancholic yearning rather than pathos or neurotic self-pity. “Irrlicht” is a will-o-the-wisp, descriptive but less ambitious than Liszt’s take on the same shyly lit subject. And his pieces in march time, “Alla marcia,” “Pomposo,” and “March grotesque” (but without the sinister spin that Prokofiev would later give that qualifying adjective) are pleasant but certainly not militaristic.

That brings us to “Rustles of Spring,” which was once so enormously popular that, as Lowenthal wryly observes, pianos of that period were said to have learned the Sinding habit and could play it by themselves, without the benefit of a pianist! Lowenthal makes much of the fulsome flow of feeling and the composer’s evident love of nature in this piece. As we have heard in his traversal of Tchaikovsky’s Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra (Bridge 9301 A/B), which like the present offering originally appeared on the Arabesque label, this pianist likes to “take it big” with the music, and he is here given numerous opportunities to do so. It all makes for a very pleasant way to spend your time, as long as you’re not looking for music of real greatness.

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Northern Lights
Cheremissian Fantasy
Kalevala Suite

Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, John Storgårds, conductor
Samuli Peltonen, cello


Conductor John Storgårds leads an ear-opening account of music by Uuno Klami with the Helsinki Philharmonic, the very orchestra that premiered all the works found on this program. Klami (1900-1961) was, we are told, very much a cosmopolitan in his outlook, and was influenced by the new music of Stravinsky, Ravel, and the Russians from Rimsky-Korsakov on. You couldn’t tell it from the present CD offering by Ondine. The music here is highly nationalistic, Romantic in mood and orchestration, and inevitably redolent of Jean Sibelius, who maintained his resolute silence during most of Klami’s active career as a composer. Thereby hangs a tale.

The catalyst for the older style to which Klami reverted in the trio of symphonic masterworks heard here was none other than Robert Kajanus, founder and chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic and the figure most responsible for making it a world class orchestra. An ardent patriot at a time when Finland had wrested its long-sought independence from Russia following the downfall of the Romanovs and was ever vigilant to keep that freedom, Kajanus used all his persuasive powers to convince Klami that the inspiration Sibelius had derived from Finland’s national epic, the Kalevala, was far from spent, and that it was still possible to “score a victory on the old fields of glory.”

That is what we hear on this program, the nationalistic and discretely romantic side of Uuno Klami, rather than the international and modernist. Beginning historically with the Cheremissian Fantasy (1931) for solo cello and orchestra, in which Klami used two alleged folk melodies of the Cheremis, a people distantly related to the Finns who lived in the northern reaches of the Volga. Klami expanded the ranges of the fixed-length pentatonic melodies to give himself more flexibility, and he wrote scintillating music for the solo cello. It is played here by Samuli Peltonen, one of Finland’s finest young musicians, who really shines when the cello breaks out with a mighty burst into the final, most virtuosic section of the piece.

Revontulet (Northern Lights, 1946) is a beautiful example of less=more scoring in an elegantly conceived celebration of the well-known phenomena in the Nordic sky. Some critics at the time of its premiere expressed disappointment that the orchestration wasn’t more colorful, which ignored Klami’s purpose in depicting, in his own words, “an expression of the infinite loneliness of the human spirit.” The oscillation of the orchestral colors in this piece, trailing off into silence at the end, achieves the purpose admirably.

Klami’s masterpiece, The Kalevala (1943) unfolds as a series of tableaux celebrating the origin of the cosmos and the assertion of the human element, as depicted in the Finnish folk epic. The masterfully scored first tableau, Creation of the Earth, moves from the inertia of the cold, primeval void to the glorious moment when the planet comes into being. The Sprout of Spring (couldn’t someone have come up with a better translation for Keväan oras?) is more lushly scored, as befits the subject, while Terhenniemi is a fleet-footed scherzo that captures the mood of folk dancing in a meadow on a summer’s day. Cradle Song for Lemminkäinen is a lullaby for the infant child. Its dignified but austerely melancholy mood clearly tells us (a) that Lemminkäinen is destined to become a great hero and (b) he would be well advised not to invest in the futures market. Finally, in The Forging of the Sampo, Klami brought all the power of the orchestra (and in particular, the sensational hammer-strokes from the percussion section) to bear on themes derived from old Finnish runo tunes as he celebrated the decisive moment when man’s creative energy and resourcefulness made its impact on the world. The Sampo of the title is a cornucopia, and its forging is emblematic of what archaeologists call the “Neolithic revolution,” when advances in agriculture and technology made permanent human communities possible. Thus we end a long journey from initial twilight to bold physical action.

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Nova Genitura
Seadrift (after Walt Whitman)
Fons Laetitiae
Bente Vist (soprano); Thomas Sondergí¥rd, Casper Schreiber, conductors


This was my first acquaintance with Danish composer Per Nǿrgård (b. Copenhagen, 1932), and I had no preconceptions. All three works are song settings to poetic texts, so I have no idea if his preoccupation with the organic applies equally to his more formal works, his sonatas, quartets and symphonies, though I should not be surprised if it did. In Nǿrgård’s music, seeds of rhythmic and melodic motifs are continually being developed and transformed. “Fractal” is a term sometimes applied to the way in which Nǿrgård develops fast melodies from related slower ones. Add an interest in major harmonics and minor subharmonics, plus a fascination with musical proportions based on the Golden Section or on Fibonacci numbers (1-1-2-3-5-8-13-21-34, etc.) and we have an impression of the composer’s technique in the mid-1970s, when he composed the three works on this program. “I stand with one foot in western rationalism,” Nǿrgård has said, “and the other in eastern mysticism, yet I feel both are alien to me. I am, so to speak, a kind of third point in the picture.”

Nova Genitura (of new birth) and Fons Laetitiae (Fountain of Joy) are both settings of Marian hymns, and as such the emphasis is on rhapsodic expressions of joyful feelings. Seadrift is a setting of two Walt Whitman poems based on the poet’s observations of a pair of seagulls on a rocky desolate beach. The first, “Being Together,” describes the joy of their “marital” bliss, the second, “Torn Apart,” the pain the male bird suffers when he is abandoned by his mate. With the Exception of Fons Laetitiae, where the solo voice is accompanied only by the harp, the other song settings are supported by a “Pierrot” ensemble consisting of violin, cello, harp, Baroque guitar, lute, recorders, crumhorn, harpsichord, percussion, and crotales (miniature finger-tip cymbals). They are used sparingly for best effect, so that the emphasis is always on the soprano voice.

Nǿrgård calls for the singer to cultivate a highly expressive, mystical quality. Because of the fractal manner in which he develops his vocal material, it is not entirely correct to refer to “melody” in any conventional sense of the word. Tones, taken ever higher and distended in the process, take the place of the normal tone progressions we usually think of as constituting a melody. Even prior familiarity with Whitman’s poetry, and with the poems readily available in the booklet, I experienced difficulty following Nǿrgård’s unique equation of sound-and-sense, and continually found myself at a loss as to just where I was in a given text.

It may take some familiarity for the listener to feel comfortable (which I confess, I do not) with this sort of music. It also requires just the right sort of vocalist. Bente Vist is ideally suited to Nǿrgård’s needs. Her extraordinary voice seems to dwell forever on the very uppermost limit of the normal soprano’s tessitura. It has a luminous quality, incredible lightness, particularly in the head tones, and a seamless ability to follow the composer’s organic tonal transformations. I only hope the dear lady does not burn out her vocal cords singing much more of this sort of thing. (Oh, by the way, Nǿrgård’s use of the crumhorn at the moment in “Torn Apart” when Whitman’s avian hero realizes his desolate state, helped crystallize for me something I had previously never found the words to describe, namely the unique tone quality of that Medieval instrument. It sounds like a strangled seagull.)


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