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Diamonds - 20th Century Masterpieces for Male Choir
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)

Quatre petites prières de Saint François d'Assise (1948)
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974)

Psaume 121 (1921)
Daniel BÖRTZ (b. 1943)

Gryningsvind (Dawn Breeze) (1976) *
Veljo TORMIS (b. 1930)

Muistse mere laulud (Songs of the Ancient Sea) (1979) *
Toivo KUULA (1883-1918)

Iltapilviä (Evening Clouds), Op. 27a No. 5 (1914) *
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Saltarelle, Op. 74 (1885) *
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Traumlicht, No. 2 of Drei Männerchöre, AV 123 (1935) *
Randall THOMPSON (1899-1984)

Tarantella (1937)
Michio MAMIYA (b. 1929)

Composition for Chorus No. 6:2 (1968) *
Eugen SUCHOŇ (1908-1993)

Slovenská pieseň (Slovakian song) (1973)

Jaroslav KŘIČKA (1882-1969)

Three pieces from 'Zornička' (The Morning Star), Op. 28 (1919-20)
Anders HILLBORG (b. 1954)

muoaiyouum (1983/2000)
Orphei Drängar (male choir)
Robert Sund and Folke Alin*, conductors
Recorded at Studio 2, Sveriges Radio, Stockholm, Sweden, during March* and October 2002.
BIS CD-1233 [74.06]

 

Despite the very un-BIS like tacky cover and almost equally tacky quote on the reverse, this disc is well up to usual label standards. The vast majority of the pieces in this very varied but expertly arranged recital do indeed justify their billing as masterpieces.

The Orphei Drängar is a Swedish male choir of some renown. It was founded in 1853 and was directed by Hugo Alfvén for 37 years in the early twentieth century. The performances here, ranging from readings of Sweden’s native music to that of Japan and Slovakia and from as early as 1914 to as recently as 2000, are superlative, as are the very detailed booklet notes.

The CD is introduced by Poulenc's short but immortal Quatre petites prières. In this and the other French pieces on the disc, the choir acquits itself admirably. The third and fourth of the prayers are particularly moving in this performance, revealing the true simplicity and beauty of these settings. Milhaud's Psaume 121 is a much denser, more hieratic piece, making the composer's Jewish roots explicit but also working very well in this context. Even the third French work, by the often lightweight Saint-Saëns, has a certain power and depth to it. It didn't surprise me to read that it was written contemporaneously with the Organ Symphony.

The Scandinavian and Baltic are also, unsurprisingly, much in evidence. The mastery of Veljo Tormis is well represented in the runic Songs of the Ancient Sea - if you have ever revelled, like myself, in the dark sonorities and granitic basses of Sibelius' choral pieces, including Kullervo and The Origin of Fire, then you will love this. Every new piece I hear by this composer impresses and, in a fair world, he ought to be as well-known and popular as his countryman Arvo Pärt. Late-Romantic melancholia comes in the form of Evening Clouds by the short-lived Finn Toivo Kuula and in the Strauss setting of Rückert's Traumlicht. Randall Thompson, on the other hand, an American composer whose work has been unjustly neglected, save for the classic Bernstein account of his Second Symphony, is represented by a rollicking setting of Belloc in Tarantella. It comes across almost like superior show music, as accessible and tuneful as the finale of the aforementioned symphony. Apparently, at some point, Naxos are supposed to be issuing a disc of Thompson's choral works. If the rest are even half as good as this then we should be in for a treat.

Returning to Nordic music, the two most recent and in some ways most challenging pieces here are by Swedish composers Daniel Börtz and Anders Hillborg. The former's Dawn Wind is a complex sounding piece, made more so by being placed between the much more direct utterances of Milhaud and Tormis - one of few, perhaps the only sequencing error here. Listened to in isolation, Börtz's piece is a little more accessible but still less immediate than much of the programme. Hillborg is completely different, providing a hypnotic, phonetics-based minimalist soundscape, cohabited by early John Adams and Asian chanting - Tibet? Mongolia? An absolute classic of the genre anyway and as great a way to close the CD as the Poulenc was to open it. Between Thompson and Hillborg we are also treated to folk-based pieces by Japan's Michio Mamiya, Eugen Suchoň and Jaroslav Křička, both from the former Czechoslovakia. The Slovak Suchoň gets my vote with his rougher, more angular writing although there is much charm in the more diffuse, relaxing music of the Czech Křička. Incidentally, like Thompson, Suchoň was previously represented by just a single work in my collection. On the evidence of that excellent String Serenade (on the defunct Czech Opus label) and this choral work, he is another who deserves and awaits greater attention.

All in all, this is a disc that almost totally achieves what it sets out to do and is one which will definitely repay repeated listening. At least four of the pieces included - those by Tormis, Thompson, Poulenc and Hillborg - in their quite different ways, scale the very highest heights of artistic achievement. Some of the others are not so far behind. BIS remains a label with true vision. Discs like this one and the various series devoted to Skalkottas, Leifs etc. are invaluable and pretty much indispensable. Great stuff!

Neil Horner

 

 



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