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Classics Today, USA ”Listen to this, all ye choral practitioners, and despair! Or, celebrate”.

November 7, 2018

David Vernier, Classics Today, USA

ClassicToday (US)
A program of Danish songs, set for a cappella choir? Understandably this kind of thing may not be on your "must purchase"--or even "must listen"--list. But one of the reasons we're here is to share discoveries such as this, and hope that you may find it as rewarding and enlightening as we did. Årstiderne--28 Danske Sange--the disc's title, for which no translation is provided, means "The seasons--28 Danish songs". We may have guessed most of that, but no such luck for the song texts, for which no translations are given in the accompanying liner booklet (you have to find them online, annoying and inconvenient enough if you're an English speaker dealing in more familiar German or French, but when all the songs are in Danish, it's really essential that some translation is given that you can easily access while listening).
Fortunately, the beauty of the songs and exemplary choral singing obliterates our objection to the fact that we have no idea what the singers are singing about. You might expect that these are just relatively modern arrangements of old Danish folksongs--except that for various reasons there aren't any "old Danish folksongs". Here's the way conductor Bo Holten describes it: "Denmark is unique in having an unusually rich heritage of national songs written roughly between 1830 and 1960. This is mostly due to its lack of natural folksongs...because Denmark suffered a series of military and other defeats in the 19th century that considerably diminished its size and power. A national feeling had to be supported and therefore national poems and melodies were written in great numbers."
From this situation a group of teachers, pastors, and writers joined to revive the Danish national identity, and from this the Danish tradition of the “folkehøjskole” (“Folk High School”) was created. Singing was a significant part of this movement, and in 1894 the first Højskolesangbogen (High School Songbook) was published. A revision was published in 1922, with many contributions by composer Carl Nielsen.
So that is the background, but the bottom line for today's listeners, even those who have no knowledge of Danish, is that these are wonderful songs, importantly "unsentimental" (in Holten's description) in character, and artfully simple and unfailingly affecting in their design for a cappella choir. Soothing, ingratiating, yet in no way trite or schmaltzy, these melodies and their harmonic realizations are as easy to listen to--and in many cases as sophisticated--as some of Brahms' more agreeable, luscious contributions to this very particular vocal genre (sound clips).
And the singing--here is the way such music--a cappella, homophonic, straightforward songs in their original language--should be sung. This is what happens when a true ensemble performs as its name suggests. In an orchestra, instruments within a given section more or less sound the same--in a choir this is not the case. You have to work especially hard to refine voices into an ensemble while preserving certain individual characteristics. Listen to this, all ye choral practitioners, and despair! Or, celebrate.
A whole program of song arrangements--rarely a line of polyphony, no real ecstatic, dramatic elements, mostly moderate in tempo--although there are certainly some faster, livelier pieces--in essence no more than harmonized tunes, 28 of them, should not be so incredibly affecting and worthy--no, demanding--of repeat. But here it is. I wish the powers of decision at the label had thought it important to include translations of the song texts--after all, this is a recording of songs, whose texts are presumably important, aren't they? So, it misses a top recommendation. But, after a few minutes' listening, you probably won't care. It does what it's supposed to do, and does it extremely well. David Vernier, November the 8th 2018
Quotes extract:
”Listen to this, all ye choral practitioners, and despair!
Or, celebrate”.
“… The bottom line for today´s listeners, even those who Have no knowledge of Danish, is that these are wonderful songs, importantly “unsentimental” (in Bo Holten´s description) in character, and artfully simple and unfallingly affecting in their design for a cappella choir.
“And the singing--here is the way such music--a cappella, homophonic, straightforward songs in their original language--should be sung. This is what happens when a true ensemble performs as its name suggests.
“A whole program of song arrangements--rarely a line of polyphony, no real ecstatic, dramatic elements, mostly moderate in tempo… should not be so incredibly affecting and worthy--no, demanding--of repeat. But here it is”. David Vernier