There can be few more thrilling sounds than unaccompanied male
choruses in full flight. Happily there’s no shortage of suitable
repertoire and, if the CDs I’ve reviewed in recent years are anything
to go by, the standard of singing is remarkably high. The Kansas
and Phoenix choirs in Grechaninov’s Passion Week (see review),
Ensemble 96 in Immortal Nystedt (see review)
and, most recently, the YL and Talla choruses in works by Einojuhani
review) are good examples of this. The Grechaninov and Nystedt
discs are especially memorable, one for its dark, old-Russian
sound, the other for its clear, precisely projected modernity.
Those two composers
are hardly household names, but then neither is Fredrik Pacius.
Dubbed the ‘Father of Finnish music’ this German-born conductor/composer
was fairly prolific, writing two symphonies, two operas and
a number of other vocal works. His 1848 setting of Vårt
land (Our Land) to words by Johan Ludvig Runeberg,
was adopted as the Finnish national anthem. Appropriately
enough the Akademiska Sångföreningen – founded by Pacius in
1838 – is at the heart of this new disc, singing in Swedish,
Finnish, French and German. There are two smaller groups as
well, 4Z and the punning Audio Quattro, who sing the quartets
and octets. All are ably led by Henri Wikström, the main choir’s
former pianist and, since 1997, its director.
The first tranche
of songs is collected under the heading Pacius in Swedish,
and includes an apple-cheeked Vårsång (Spring Song)
and a suitably virile Studentsång (Student Song). The
choir is always crisp and clear, with a focused, typically
Nordic, sound. Listeners familiar with the Nystedt disc will
certainly recognise the vocal style which, in Det var då
(That was then), takes on a wonderfully wistful quality.
And what a pleasant surprise to hear the liquid tones of Sharon
Bezaly’s flute added to the mix in Philomele. In the
first quartet 4Z make a splendid job of the lonely little
number Den sjuttonåriga (A Girl of Seventeen); they
are joined by Audio Quattro for the finely wrought Förgät
mig ej (Forget Me Not).
choruses presents special challenges, and I’m pleased to say
the BIS engineers have come up with a clear, fresh recording
that has just enough bass warmth to tether the higher voices.
Two venues are listed and both seem to suit this music very
well; in fact, the Järvenpää Hall was used for Ondine’s Rautavaara
set, which also has a mellow but well-focused sound. As far
as the music goes, Pacius is very easy on the ear, a welcome,
Nordic breeze on a hot summer’s afternoon. That said, there’s
a burst of erotic heat in the tipsy Till Jonas Perón (To
Jonas Perón), delivered with real animation.
The second part
of this disc consists of Pacius’s arrangements of songs by
the Swedish poet and composer Carl Michael Bellman (1740-1795).
These songs and epistles of Fredman have a strong folk-like
element and seem rhythmically distinct from the settings we’ve
heard thus far. Dynamically there is more variation as well,
with the voices occasionally dividing to great effect. These
bucolic – and alcoholic – celebrations are deftly despatched
by the vocal octet and the main choir. It’s not hard to see
why Bellman is considered a pivotal figure in the Nordic song
tradition, such are the infectious rhythms and word pointing
on display here.
By contrast Pacius’s
arrangements of Finnish folk songs – from Kreivin sylissä
istunut (Sitting in the Count’s Lap) to Fantasi över
ett finskt tema (Fantasy on a Finnish Theme) – are a little
less colourful than their Swedish counterparts. But what they
might lack in this respect they certainly make up for in range
of mood and rhythm; just sample the chilling tale of fratricide
in Verinen poika (The Bloody Boy) and listen to 4Z
in the nimble little Folkvisa (Laulu kanteletta soittavalle
tytölle) (Song of the Girl Playing the Kantele) and
the catchy, repeated phrases of Turvaton (Defenceless).
In the latter settings 4Z prove they really are a most characterful
group and I’d love to hear them in other repertoire.
In my Rautavaara
review I grumbled about the somewhat ‘grey’ character of some
of the settings. That’s not really an issue here, although
I would suggest you dip into this collection rather than play
it right through. The German and French settings, to texts
by Uhland, Rückert, Müller and others, are more than enough
for one sitting. Stylistically there’s little to distinguish
these songs from what we’ve heard thus far, although the switch
to German and French does subtly alter the shape of the choral
sound. One could so easily imagine these texts in Schubert’s
hands, especially the crisp rhythms of Der Jäger auf der
Kirchweih (The Hunter at the Parish Fair) and the
gentle Wiegenlied. Indeed, there is a maid of the mill
setting here (Rückert, not Müller) where the movement of the
water wheel – rather than the gurgle of the brook – is cleverly
evoked in the rise and fall of the choral writing.
The final selection,
entitled Patriotic Pacius, contains the tub-thumpers that
give this disc its title. One can’t underestimate the strength
of Nordic nationalism in the 19th century. Finland,
part of the Russian Empire from 1809 to 1917, has a long history
of patriotic pieces, perhaps most famously represented by
Sibelius’s Finlandia. For these pieces Pacius adopts
a more heroic style, especially in the proud Björneborgarnas
marsch (March of the Pori Regiment) and the ringing
affirmation of Finlands flagga (Finland’s Flag).
But it’s the eponymous Hymn till Finland, culled
from Pacius’s 1852 opera Kung Karls jakt (The Hunt
of King Charles), that’s the most stirring piece here.
The choir sing with considerable swagger and end with
thrilling cries of Farväl! (Farewell!). The disc rounds
off with Finland’s national anthem; a solemn piece, it’s sung
here with just the right mix of buoyancy and gravitas.
a cappella male-voice singing doesn’t get much better
than this, Once again BIS have combined a well-programmed
selection of little-known works with a fine recording to produce
a most welcome disc. Lovers of the genre need not hesitate.