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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

Eric Ericson Conducts Virtuoso Choral Music
CD1

Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Sestina "Lagrime d’amante al sepolcro dell’ amata" (1614)
Luigi DALLAPICCOLA (1904-1975)
Il Coro della Malmaritate (1933)
Il Coro del Malammogllati (1933)
Ildebrando PIZZETTI (1880-1968)
Tre composizioni corali (1943)
Lars Johan WERLE (b.1926)
Nautical preludes for mixed choir a cappella (1970)
Krzystof PENDERECKI (b.1933)
Stabat Mater a tre cori a cappella (1962)
Stockholmer Kammerchor, Rundfunkchor Stockholm/Eric Ericson
Recorded August 28th 1975 (Monteverdi), March 21st 1975 (Dallapiccola), May 23rd 1975 (Pizzetti), July 1970-May 1971 (Werle, Penderecki), all at Swedish Radio, Stockholm)
CD2

Max REGER (1873-1916)
Acht Geistliche Gesänge, op.138 for mixed choir (1916)
Ach, Herr, strafe mich nicht, op.110, motet for five-voice mixed choir
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Die Göttin im Putzzimmer (f.p. 1952)
Der Abend

Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Sept Chansons (1936)
Stockholmer Kammerchor, Rundfunkchor Stockholm/Eric Ericson
Recorded October 20th 1972 Stockholm (Reger op.138), 1968, Stockholm (Reger op.110), May 21st 1973, Swedish Radio Stockholm (Strauss Die Göttin im Putzzimmer), November 13th 1971 Stockholm Radio Swedish (Strauss Der Abend), March 12th 1975, Swedish Radio Stockholm (Poulenc)
CD3

André JOLIVET (1905-1974)
Epithalame (1952)
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1993)
Cinq Rechants (1948)
Frank MARTIN (1890-1974)
Messe (1926)
Recorded September 30th 1972 (Jolivet), August 25th 1975 (Messiaen), January 24th 1975 (Martin) all at Swedish Radio Stockholm
CLARION CLR 902CD [3CDs: 62:50+70:06+66:38]

Clarion

 

As you can see from the above, none of these recordings is less than about twenty-eight years old. The fact that the sound quality is most acceptable by present standards is a tribute both to the original producers at Swedish Radio and to those uncredited engineers at Clarion who have prepared this CD version. The collection features two choirs directed by the distinguished Swedish choral conductor Eric Ericson. Considering that it is in many senses a tribute to him and his work, it seems odd that the accompanying booklet tells us practically nothing about him – even if he is still with us today, which I had to check elsewhere. In fact, for such a large and wide-ranging compilation, the booklet is sadly inadequate, with very little in the way of notes, and, worst of all, no texts or translations.

That small, but not insignificant, carp apart, this is a really valuable and important issue. The discs’ title, "Virtuoso Choral Music", is not calculated to arouse much enthusiasm, which is a pity, because they are packed with wonderful music, including some major twentieth century masterworks. They are sung with artistry, imagination and often stunning technical accomplishment by Ericson’s two ensembles represented here, Rudfunkchor Stockholm (Stockholm Radio Choir) and Stockholmer Kammerchor (Stockholm Chamber Choir). I can’t say I noticed any discrepancy in quality between the two, though, as you might expect, the Radio Choir sounds as if it is somewhat larger. Again, the insert is silent on such salient matters.

Where Ericson and his singers are outstanding is in their ability to maintain beauty of tone at all times. This applies even under the severest of pressure, in, for example, the rhythmical and textural complexities of Jolivet’s Epithalame, or the tonal meanderings of Strauss’s beautiful, but essentially unvocal, Der Abend. There are plenty of choirs who can ‘do’ this music, but who, when they do, are not very nice to listen to. And I’m thinking of certain English ensembles here, whom I shall charitably leave nameless!

Nowadays, we are more accustomed to hearing Monteverdi’s madrigals sung one voice to a part, so that Ericson’s use of a chamber choir sounds unwontedly sumptuous. But the items from the 6th Madrigal Book, collectively entitled "A Lover’s Tears at the Grave of His Beloved", which begin CD1, are done with such style and subtle expressive intensity that my reservations were quickly forgotten. There is clarity of texture, too, so that the composer’s frequently astonishing part-writing can easily be savoured. Taken on its own terms, this is supremely distinguished performing from the Kammerchor, while impeccable tuning and ensemble can simply be taken for granted.

Excellent examples of 20th century Italian choral music by Dallapiccola and Pizzetti follow. The former’s Il Coro del Malammogllati is a particularly sensuous delight. The Swede Lars Johan Werle, composer of chamber operas such as Flower Power, is represented by his striking Nautical Preludes, highly evocative and pictorial, including a full-scale choral storm at sea! The disc is completed by Penderecki’s wonderful Stabat Mater, most familiar perhaps as part of the St.Luke Passion, but composed separately. It is a locus classicus of contemporary choral writing, and is given an idiomatic and very moving performance here. That outrageous final D major chord has never sounded more glorious, and is a good deal more in tune than, for example, the Warsaw National Philharmonic Chorus in their version in the Argo complete Passion.

CD2 contains music by Reger, Richard Strauss and Poulenc. Reger has never been one of my favourite composers, so I was thrilled to find these ‘8 Spiritual Songs’ of op.138 – his final work – so simple and so very beautiful. They are closely modelled on Bach, consisting mainly of simple homophonic writing as in the Chorales of the earlier composer. When sung like this, these are balm to the ears (Sample1: CD2, track 6). Op.110, on the other hand, shows the influence of Brahms, and is a richly complex work of some eighteen minutes, rising to a magnificent affirmative climax at the end.

The two Strauss motets that follow are lighter fare; Die Göttin im Putzzimmer – "The Goddess in the Laundry"! – is enjoyable enough, though ultimately rather fussy in its vocal writing and harmonic contortions. Not surprisingly, the Radio Choir shows a few signs of strain in the soprano line, which is both extremely high and very chromatic. Der Abend ("The Evening") is more successful as a piece, though still finds Strauss stretching somewhat beyond the sensible limits of the human voice. Far more convincing are the lovely Sept Chansons of Francis Poulenc, composed in 1936 using texts by Guillaume Apollinaire and the composer’s friend Paul Eluard. The Kammerchor deal wonderfully well with, for example, the major/minor fluctuations of A peine défigurée, or the nervous rhythms of Par une nuit nouvelle.

CD3 is, for me, the most interesting of all. It begins with Jolivet’s Epithalame, a tour de force in every sense. Written in 1952 as a 20th anniversary present for his wife, it is a setting of a text by the composer himself, based on Egyptian, Indian, Chinese, Hebrew and Greek sources. Much of it is forcefully rhythmical, though other passages, often featuring solo voices (of excellent quality here), are delicate and tender (Example 2: CD3 track 1, 7:15). This is a true virtuoso performance, justifying, on its own, the title of the collection, as do the Messiaen Cinq Rechants ("Five Refrains"), music written around the same time as the famous Turangalîla Symphony. There is a kinship with the Jolivet here, in that the texts are made up of a kind of ‘proto-language’, allied to French, yet using many non-verbal sounds, nonsense syllables, etc. It’s wonderful choral music even for a Messiaen sceptic like yours truly, and you can perhaps get the best impression of the huge range and resourcefulness of the writing from this example from the third song, Ma robed’amour (Sample 3: CD3, track 4, 3:14). Frank Martin’s initially austere but very deeply felt Messe, written in 1926 but not heard until many years later, makes a satisfying and completely appropriate conclusion to the collection.

This is an important as well as a musically satisfying set. Few groups, and few choral conductors, in the world can match the confidence and sheer musical sensitivity which Ericson and his choirs have brought to this often challenging yet glorious music. If you love choirs, and the endless beauty and variety of the human voice, you’ll revel in these masterly performances.


Gwyn Parry-Jones

 



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