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Candlelight Carols - Christmas with Allmänna Sången
Gunnar WENNERBERG (1817 – 1901) Gören portarna höga (Gates, raise your arches); Ivar WIDÉEN (1871 – 1951) Gläns över sjö och strand (Shine over lake and shore); Hugo ALFVÉN (1872 – 1960) Julsång (Christmas Song); Jean SIBELIUS (1865 – 1957) Julvisa ("Giv mig ej glans …") (Christmas Song "Give me no splendour, gold or pomp"); Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK 1562 – 1621) Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is born); Michael PRAETORIUS (c. 1571 – 1621)/Jan SANDSTRÖM (b. 1954) Det är en ros utsprungen (Behold a rose is springing); Benny ANDERSSON (b. 1947) Innan gryningen (Before Dawn); Trad/Otto OLSSON (1879 – 1964) Gammal julvisa (Old Christmas Song); Adolphe ADAM (1803 – 1856) O, Helga natt (O, Holy Night); Franz GRUBER (1787 – 1863) Stilla natt (Silent Night); Niels W. GADE (1817 – 1890) Barnens Julafton (The Children’s Christmas Eve); John RUTTER (b. 1945) Shepherd’s Pipe Carol; Candlelight Carol; Herbert HOWELLS (1892 – 1983) A Spotless Rose; Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809 – 1847) Hark! The Herald Angels sing
Karl-Magnus Fredriksson (baritone)
Allmänna Sången
Uppsala Chamber Soloists/Cecilia Rydinger Alin
Recorded in October 2004 at the University Hall, Uppsala, Sweden
BIS-NL-CD-5028 [62:05]


Allmänna Sången is one of the most well-known choirs in Sweden, and also one of the oldest. It was founded in 1830 with close bonds to Uppsala University. It was for more than 130 years a male choir, women being in short supply in academic circles in the 19th century. From 1961 it became "allmän" in the right sense of the word ("allmän" meaning general). Having been lead since 1988 by Cecilia Rydinger Alin, one of the most versatile of Swedish conductors - I specially remember a wonderful performance of Tristan und Isolde with the Värmland Opera in Karlstad some years ago - they must be counted among the best choirs in the country with fresh tone and homogenous sound. The average age of the choir is quite low which contributes freshness to their sound. Nuanced singing and evenness of production are a further two characteristics I would apply to the choir.

The recorded sound, as always with BIS productions, is honest and unfussy. It registers what it was like in the University Hall in Uppsala, without adding anything or taking anything away.

Repertoire-wise this is also an attractive proposition. It offers a blend of eternal favourites with quite a few pieces off the beaten track. O, Holy Night and Silent Night are almost de rigueur. To the Swedish public the first track, Gunnar Wennerberg’s Gören portarna höga, a setting of Psalm 24 in the Book of Psalms, is certainly standard fare. I have lost count of how many times I have sung it. Gläns över sjö och strand is also an evergreen, but the most common setting of this Viktor Rydberg text is Alice Tegnér’s; Allmänna Sången here prefer Ivar Widéen’s rarely heard version which is also much more in tune with the lyrics. A pleasant surprise is Hugo Alfvén’s Julsång which I can’t remember hearing before. Internationally Alfvén is best known for his colourful orchestral music but on home ground his reputation as a composer and arranger for choir is very high. Without his pioneering work during the first decades of the last century, also as a conductor of OD (the other famous choir from Uppsala), the standard of Swedish choral music would never have attained today’s level.

The song I immediately fell in love with was Innan gryningen (Before Dawn) set to a text by one of the foremost Swedish poets, Ylva Eggehorn, by Benny Andersson of ABBA, Chess and Mamma Mia fame. Few present day song writers have such talent for creating melodies that go to the heart. Beginning with fiddle and flute writing evocative of folk music, he then unfolds a simple unaffected melody that gives the impression of having always existed. The price of the disc is worth paying for this song alone. And how wonderfully Karl-Magnus Fredriksson scales down his impressive baritone to intimate chamber music size.

Sweelinck’s Hodie Christus natus est with jubilant brass, takes us back to the late Renaissance while Praetorius’s Det är en ros (Es ist ein Ros entsprungen) is an encounter between the 16th century melody, sung extremely slow as a cantus firmus, and Jan Sandström’s late 20th century clothes. The two weave a shimmering gossamer light halo around the melody. Sandström is internationally best known, I suppose, for his Motorbike Concerto, recorded and played on innumerable occasions by Christian Lindberg. The present far from easy choral work, composed in 1987, has rapidly become a repertoire piece for the best Swedish choirs.

The Uppsala Chamber Soloists, who accompany most of the songs here except four a cappella items, are heard on their own in the Danish composer Niels W Gade’s little suite Der Kinder Christabend (The Children’s Christmas Eve). This comprises five short movements both solemn and full of joy. It is quite unassuming music but full of charm and the orchestra (in fact strings only) play well, as they do in the rest of the programme. Gade, the most important Danish symphonist before Carl Nielsen, went to Leipzig after completing his education in his home country. There he had a fruitful collaboration with Felix Mendelssohn, deputizing as conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra and also being his successor from 1847. It seems logical to end this Christmas concert with Mendelssohn’s well-known setting of Wesley’s Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. This together with many other English carols has become increasingly popular in Sweden, thanks above all to Anders Lindström’s assiduous work over the last quarter century. John Rutter and Herbert Howells are examples of the British tradition and Rutter especially is extremely often performed today.

I mentioned in passing the Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, who participates in seven of the songs. He has developed away from the lyrical, tenoral baritone I heard at one of his earliest recitals in 1992. There he sang among other songs an extremely beautiful Dichterliebe. Now he is an expressively dramatic singer with ringing top notes and a bass-baritonal lower register. He impressed enormously as the bass in Haydn’s The Creation a couple of years ago. His singing today has a certain similarity to Ingvar Wixell when he was at the height of his powers; praise indeed. Adam’s O, Holy Night and Wennerberg’s Gören portarna höga are gloriously sung but the lasting impression is of his finely nuanced singing, his beautiful half voice and the evenness of his production. Sibelius’s Julvisa, actually one of five Christmas songs collected as his Opus 1, has palpable warmth and inner glow. I must mention again Innan gryningen, which I am going to play again as soon as I have finished this review.

There are riches galore on this disc. It can be confidently recommended to lovers of Yuletide music or of good choral singing or of good baritone singing ... or just lovers of good music well performed.

Göran Forsling

 

 



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