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Stellan SAGVIK (b. 1952)
Missa Maria Magdalena (1994)
Annika Skoglund (mezzo) – Mary from Magdala; Olle Person (baritone) – Jesus from Nasaret; Hannah Holgersson (soprano) – Martha; Carl Unander-Scharin (tenor) – Evangelist; Liselotte Lindgren (contralto) – Angel; Staffan Alveteg (bass) – Joseph from Arimathea; Björn Blomberg (tenor) – Disciple/Pharisee;
Maria Magdalena Motet Choir; Stockholm Chamber Choir; Ralph Gustafsson & Mathias Kjellgren (organ); The county of Stockholm Wind Symphony/Ragnar Bohlin
rec. live, Maria Magdalena Church, Södermalm, Stockholm, 10 April 2005 with completions on 14 April
NOSAG CD 137 [77:21]

 


Stellan Sagvik must be one of the most prolific composers in Sweden with a production spanning almost all genres. Besides that he has studied singing, acting, woodwind instruments and journalism. He has been a music teacher and theatre musician and also runs his own record company, releasing a steady stream of both classical and contemporary music. This mass was a commission from Judith Linder, choir leader at Maria Magdalena Church, situated just south of Stockholm’s Old Town. The church is big and Sagvik utilized the whole space of the building with choirs and soloists spread out at distances up to 30 metres. The church has good acoustics, as I well know from several visits there, but recording this complex work set the technicians a severe test. Each of the more than 40 microphones had to be timed individually, sometimes delayed to give the impression of simultaneousness. Since the mass was recorded at actual performances everything had to be set in advance and it says a lot about the competence of those responsible that the sound-picture is in the main impressively well balanced and atmospheric. That soloists sometimes seem to be at variable distances from the listener may be intentional; especially Jesus varies slightly and the angel that appears in the 12th movement, At the tomb, seems distantly and dimly recorded, but he/she is of course heavenly and should rightly be in a different dimension.

The Stockholm Wind Symphony is an impressive band and the choirs more than live up to the expected high standards of choral singing in Sweden. Stellan Sagvik’s free-tonal musical language often gives them a hard time but they negotiate the complexities superbly. Of the soloists the versatile Olle Persson, who is an eager champion of contemporary music, sings his demanding role with impressive tone and sings with excellent enunciation. Annika Skoglund, whose repertoire spans most genres, from opera to jazz, sings Maria Magdalena’s part with such confidence and such intensity that I doubt I’ve heard her better and the young Hannah Holgersson’s crystal clear soprano sails beautifully through Martha’s high-lying part.  High-lying are also the Evangelist’s readings and Carl Unander-Scharin, who also is a successful composer, can’t quite avoid sounding strained sometimes but he too is extremely articulate. Among the minor roles Staffan Alveteg makes his mark with his dark-hued bass.

So much for the performance. In other words: it could hardly be bettered. And the music? I have been lucky to review quite a number of NOSAG records, among them also several Sagvik compositions, which have always seemed to me quite accessible, without in any way rubbing the listeners the right way. His free-tonal harmonies and his way of structuring the compositions need a good share of bravery to come to terms with, but in the end I have always felt he has something to say and says it personally and with finesse. Missa Maria Magdalena is the largest-scale work of his I have encountered and a time-span of almost 80 minutes needs a lot of substance to become meaningful and engaging. Structurally it is laid out along the same lines as Bach’s passions with an evangelist reciting the biblical texts, choruses personifying the people and soloists acting the main characters. There are no arias, most of the music is held as recitatives but the solos are very often considerably cantabile and require beautiful and expressive voices, which they certainly get. The story is not continuous, since Jesus’s encounters with Maria Magdalena were only intermittent, it is more a matter of pictures and between these pictures – or scenes – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Agnus Dei and Sanctus are interspersed, thus motivating the title Missa. Musically these movements are often the most central, the core of the work. The story is however also related with considerable skill and power. The first scene, Adulteress, begins from almost nowhere with a solo flute, more woodwind are added, creating a warm atmosphere. Then all of a sudden the full orchestra breaks in with tremendous power and a chaotic chorus, depicting the people agitated over Maria’s adultery. This is an efficient opening but later on I sometimes felt that the music was idling. There are numerous repetitions of text, as was common in baroque practice, even from the Evangelist and they make me impatient, the action is halted, frozen almost in cinematic slow motion but without the musical substance one had hoped for to be the reason for the break in the dramatic flow. The scene with Lazarus’s death and resurrection (tr. 7) feels especially long-winded. The atmosphere becomes more tense towards the end of the work and At Golgata is high-strung drama, the chorus shouting “Crucify!”, the orchestra commenting with barbaric rhythmic music à la Rites of Spring. In the penultimate scene, At the tomb, the orchestra has a field day in the earthquake music, worthy a John Williams in its magnificence. These scenes are as gripping as anything I have heard lately in a work of this kind.

As I said it is however the five movements from the mass that form the musical core. Kyrie is hushed and frail, Gloria gloriously powerful, the long Credo possibly the highspot of the whole composition with a dramatic solo part for Maria Magdalena, where Annika Skoglund impresses greatly. Her Et incarnates est is a section of infinite beauty, discreetly accompanied by the organ and Crucifixus for the chorus is aggressive, percussive with an insistent bass drum spreading gloom. Agnus Dei starts with Gregorian simplicity that is gradually condensed to aching intensity. The concluding Sanctus starts powerfully, only to bit by bit die away and thus tie together the end of the work with the beginning.

Apart from some of the longueurs mentioned this mass must be counted as an important work and the Credo especially is something I will often return to. I could also imagine the mass movements to be performed separately to great effect. The work is sung in Swedish – the mass of course in Latin, but in Agnus Dei Martha and Maria first sing the prayer in Swedish, whereupon the chorus repeats it in Latin – and the booklet has full texts and English translations. The cover picture shows Annika Skoglund as Maria Magdalena.

Göran Forsling 


 


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