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Fanfare US, 2 review

February 5, 2022

Raymond Turtle

On discs, I am used to seeing Marcus Creed's name associated with the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart, but he has been conducting the Danish National Vocal Ensemble since 2014. He has made two other recordings with this ensemble, both for OUR Recordings—a Messiaen disc (released in 2015) and a disc of music by Martin and Martinů (2018).
It is sensible for this disc to be titled Lux Aeterna, because Ligeti's work by that name is the most familiar item here, and it opens the program. That popularity was created, in part, just a few years after its composition, by its use in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Here, nothing that follows Lux Aeterna is quite as compelling, with the exception of Kodály's quiet but emotionally intense Esti Dal (Evening Song), the prayer of a soldier that he may live through the night. Ligeti's Zwei a cappella-Chöre and Mátraszentimrei Dalok both were composed in 1955 when he was in his young thirties. They have one foot in Hungarian folk music and another in his later experiments in micropolyphony, and the results, while interesting, are a little awkward. The Hölderlin Fantasies, from 1982, are certainly assured, but I find them hard to love. Ligeti is unsympathetic to the performers and to listeners alike. In the third of these fantasies, two or more of the sopranos are asked to sing dissonant chords at the top of their ranges as loudly as possible. No one has ever accused me of lacking courage, at least when it comes to modern music, but there are moments in the Hölderlin Fantasies that resemble a smoke alarm. Paradoxically, if the sopranos in the Danish National Vocal Ensemble had been less in control of their voices—their vibrato, in particular—I that think these passages would have rested easier on the ears. There's a YouTube video of Creed conducting the SWR Vokalensemble Stuttgart in this work that presents the music convincingly but without causing the listener to wince in pain. Terry Edwards's Sony Classical recording with the London Sinfonietta Voices also is a more comfortable choice.
In the works by Kodály, including the extended Mátrai kepek (Matra Pictures), Creed and his Danish ensemble bring discipline and unassailable technique to the music, but the performances are not as warm as they could be. The Hungarian ensembles who have recorded these works might not have been drilled as intensely, but their singing goes more deeply into the music's spiritual core.
The booklet lists 19 singers in this ensemble. In other words, in at least some of the works by Ligeti, they are singing one voice to a part. In Lux Aeterna, the recording respects the seven bars at the end in which the choir has stopped singing but the conductor continues to beat time, even though that effect can be appreciated only under live conditions. The booklet contains the original texts (Latin, Hungarian, and German), but English translations need to be accessed elsewhere, on the OUR Recordings's website.
By now, it probably is clear that I respect the music and the performances on this CD on an intellectual level, but I am having more difficulty admiring them emotionally. Raymond Tuttle

4 stars: Impressive choral singing, but there is some frost on the Hungarian grass