Magazine Fanfare (US) Highly recommended.
December 3, 2011
Lynn René Bayley
THE NIGHTINGALE Stephen Layton, cond; Michaela Petri (rcr); Danish Natl Vocal Ens OUR RECORDINGS 6.220605 (59:22)
UGIS PRAULINS The Nightingale. DANIEL BÖRTZ Nemesis divina. RASMUSSEN “I” BRUUN 2 scenes with Skylark.
Would that all “concept albums,” particularly those of new music, come out as well as this. Recorder player Michaela Petri, a veteran of at least two decades’ worth of performances around the globe, was absolutely thrilled with 2007 the world premiere of Daniel Börtz’s Nemesis in Stockholm, so much so that she began to think of doing an album of modern music including the recorder with a vocal choir. A year later, composer Ugis Praulins was asked to write a similar piece, and he chose Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale of the Nightingale. When they told conductor Stephen Layton of their plans, he surprisingly suggested not his own group, Polyphony, but the newly established Danish National Vocal Ensemble. Serendipitously, the ensemble’s director, Ivar Munk, told them that he had been thinking of working with Petri for some time, and so gave his full support to the project.
This disc is the result, and I don’t think it is going too far to say that more than half of the record’s success is due to Layton’s greatness as a choral director. Those who have read my few reviews of his group know that I am a huge fan of Polyphony and, by inference, of Layton. He really knows how to get the best out of a choir, not only the usual things like good blend and phrasing but also the unusual things like rhythmic acuity, flawless diction, and a deep knowledge of how to get the most and best out of all of his singers.
Praulins, a Latvian composer, is one of those whose developing years were spent listening to as much rock as classical music, particularly King Crimson and Gentle Giant. He also formed his own rock band, Vecas Majas. According to the notes, the surge of Latvian cultural nationalism that arose from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led him to delve into the music and traditions of pre-Christian Latvia, which deeply influence his work. While rejecting formalism, Praulins nevertheless seeks to seamlessly join folk songs, Renaissance polyphony, and “a confident theatricality to create music that entertains and uplifts.” The Nightingale is both an unusual piece and an appealing one, using the chorus in a highly virtuosic manner, ranging from the bass low D to soprano D above high C. Of course, Petri’s recorder is the nightingale, and her “voice” is heard signaling the most important events and changes in the story.
Börtz is known for his writing of film scores for Ingmar Bergman, and like the filmmaker he uses an intuitive and modern approach to matters of structure and form. As a result of working with Bergman, Börtz has also absorbed what the notes call “the metaphysical darkness” of Bergman, which he then processes through his music. His earlier works were strongly influenced by the Polish avant-garde, composers like Penderecki, but beginning in the 1980s he changed to a more melodic and linear style. This led to his operas Bacchanterna and Marie Antoinette, and oratorio And His Name Was Orestes. Nemesis divina is based on two texts by 18th-century botanist-physician Carl Linnaeus, Respiratio diaetetica (The dietitics of respiration) and Nemesis divina, a lengthy treatise on theodicy, written to help his son. The composer describes the setting of Linneaus’s words as largely episodic, with the recorder working as an auditory form of “theatrical lighting.” To this end, Petri moves step-by-step from the dark sound of the tenor recorder to the piercing sound of the sopranino. I found Börtz’s choral writing absolutely fascinating, breaking their sound into little shards of color by using neutral syllables. The rather enigmatic nature of Linnaeus’s text, questioning the existence of God because it cannot be seen or touched yet can be intuited like the ego itself, lends itself perfectly to Börtz’s musical panorama. The choir continues to divide itself until it is in eight parts, singing the words in a rhythmically complicated, hocket-like style. The music becomes chromatic, spiked with tritones, gradually emerging as a sequence of three chords. (The notes say this, but so do my ears.)
Sunleif Rasmussen’s “I” is the musical setting of Danish modernist poet Inger Christensen’s self-reflective response to Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Rasmussen uses Christensen’s verse as a reflection on the human condition, intimacy, freedom and creativity. The music starts with Petri playing mournfully on a bass recorder before the chorus enters, singing, “A man and a woman are one” (and here, as unfortunately elsewhere, the Danish choristers’ inability to properly enunciate English comes to grief). I won’t quote more of the poem in detail here, but suffice it to say that Rasmussen’s music matches it in mood and structure. All through the piece, Rasmussen puts the sopranos opposite the rest of the choir, sometimes in call and response patterns but more often in imitative passages while the recorder never really stops, but continues to play an unfolding and developing melody. As in Börtz’s work, Petri keeps moving up through different ranges of the recorder, eventually sounding a shrill note in the section “Grasping the bird’s speech / Calling am I woman.” I found the composer’s masterful use of glisses through the chromatic scale particularly arresting in that they often obscure the actual pulse of the music.
The album concludes with Danish composer Peter Bruun’s Two Scenes with Skylark, based on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The first, “The Sea and the Skylark,” opens with overlapping melodies that create a rich yet turgid texture reminiscent of the ocean. Petri gives us the rhapsodic song of the skylark through rippling arpeggios that provide gentle dissonance with the chorus. As Hopkins’s poetry turns to humanity’s inability to truly appreciate nature’s beauty, Bruun make the music even more dissonant. In the second part, “The Caged Skylark,” stuttering rhythms and fragmented textures depict the plight of the caged bird, which is compared to the plight of the soul.
Much of this music, but especially the Börtz piece and parts of The Nightingale, put me in mind of Pēteris Vasks’s Plainscapes, broadcast on St. Paul Sunday in 2005 by the Seattle Chamber Players with a wordless choir, that has still never been commercially recorded (according to Arkivmusic, anyway). I was mesmerized by Plainscapes, and I was similarly mesmerized by much of the music on this CD as well. Highly recommended. Lynn René Bayley