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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


 

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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921)
Oratorio de Noël, Op. 12 (1863) [35:07]
Ottorino RESPIGHI (1879 – 1936)

Lauda per la Natività del Signore (1930) [22:36]
Britt-Marie Aruhn (soprano); Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo); Ing-Mari Landin (contralto); Erland Hagegård (tenor); Ulf Lundmark (bass); Karin Langebo (harp); Bengt Forsberg (organ); strings from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera in Stockholm (Saint-Saëns)
Lars Hagström (flute); Patrik Wendel (flute and piccolo); Solveig Fagéus (oboe); Kerstin Hallin (English horn); Carl Johan Nordin (bassoon); Jense Lemke (bassoon); Torkel Borelius (triangle); Bengt Forsberg (piano); Ingrid Lindgren (piano) (Respighi):
The Mikaeli Chamber Choir/Anders Eby
rec. 10-11 Feb 1981, Oscar’s Church, Stockholm (Respighi); 28-29 Aug, 24 Sept 1981, St. John’s Church, Stockholm (Saint-Saëns)
PROPRIUS PRSACD 9057 [57:43]

Here we have two Christmas oratorios – well, sort of. Both are a little off the beaten track. The Saint-Saëns, written in 1863, is firmly rooted in late-Romanticism, although there are many references to bygone times, first and foremost to Bach. Respighi’s Lauda is a late work, composed 1928–1930. It could be described as post-Romantic or even neo-classical. Like Saint-Saëns, Respighi too finds inspiration in the past but in his case even more distant. The ancient voices are from the madrigals of the Renaissance and from Gregorian chant, his greatest interest. While Saint-Saëns divides his music into separate numbers, Respighi’s work is through-composed. Within this long flow one can perceive contrasting parts but such is their logical inter-dependence that they are not amenable to separate performance.

Having bought the original LP when it was first released just before Christmas 1981, I was familiar with the music and the performance, even if it has been quite some time since I last heard these recordings. In SACD format the state-of-the-art recordings, especially of organ and choir, make for stunning realism. Such is the tangible presence of the sound that, shutting my eyes, I felt transported to the warm and all-embracing acoustics of St. John’s Church in the Saint-Saëns and the more intimate and analytical sounding Oscar’s Church in the Respighi. The woodwind instruments can be almost exactly pinpointed in the Respighi while the strings in the Saint-Saëns are wrapped in a subtle warm aura. The producer Karl-Göran Linzander deserves praise for such a creative choice of venues. The choral sound is ideal in both churches, and the singing of the choir, founded in 1972 by Anders Eby and established amongst the elect of the Swedish choirs, is as near perfection as one can possibly get.

Different people have different ideals and I know people who find the Swedish vocal ideal too cool, too "sex-less" as somebody once put it. Be that as it may the style has both flexibility and a purity that lets the music speak; one listens to Saint-Saëns, not to the Mikaeli Chamber Choir. To my mind this group has the purity of an English cathedral choir but with the added heft that female sopranos can muster.

The chosen soloists were selected from the pick of opera and concert singers in Sweden and internationally. It is interesting to hear Anne Sofie von Otter in the beginning of her career: perfect rounded tone, immaculate intonation but just missing that personal ‘colouring’ that makes her so easily recognizable today. On the other hand Britt-Marie Aruhn, leading coloratura soprano at the Stockholm Opera for many years, cannot be mistaken for anyone else. Her hallmarks are her glittering silver tones and that fast vibrato: a stylish singer in whatever she undertook. Baritone-turned-tenor Erland Hagegård, cousin of Håkan Hagegård, also had an international career, singing in Vienna at the Volksoper for several years and also at sundry German houses. In Stockholm he only appeared as guest singer. He was for example an exceptionally lyrical and weak Lenski. Here, though, he shows some Italian glow, especially in the Saint-Saëns quintet (track 9). In the smaller parts Ing-Marie Landin exhibits a true darkish contralto and the versatile Ulf Lundmark is excellent in the baritone solos. Ulf still sings splendidly. I heard him just a year ago singing Allan Pettersson’s Barfotasånger (Barefoot Songs) with deep understanding. Among the many good instrumentalists it is nice to find Bengt Forsberg, for many years von Otter’s regular accompanist. Here we also meet him as organist in the Saint-Saëns, the organ of course pealing impressively against the roof of St. John.

To sum it up then, this is a disc that SACD owners should try for the excellence of sound. The music, although not standard fare, is also well worth a listen and the performances are of the highest order, not least the Nordically cool-glowing choir.

Göran Forsling

 

 



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