Perttu HAAPANEN (b. 1972) Talescapes (2007) [7:22]
Tapio TUOMELA (b. 1958) Kanteletar-juomalaulu (1985) [6:43]
Erik BERGMAN (1911-2006) (The Night), Op. 139 (1997) [11:32]; I. Yötön yö –Vita nätter [5:38]; II. Kaamos – Den arktiska natten [5:54]
Tarik O’REGAN (b. 1978) Lamentation (2005) [6:50]
Mikko HEINIÖ (b. 1948) The bishop's spring dream (2005)* [7:54]
Riikka TALVITIE (b. 1970) Muistin pitkä jyrinä (2006) [10:01] (I. Äidin kehtolaulu [3:31]; II. Huuto [3:46]; III. Syksynlehtien seassa [2:44])
YL Male Voice Choir/Matti Hyökki
*Talla Vocal Ensemble/Pasi Hyökki
rec. 18-19 April 2009 and 11 October 2009 (Heiniö), Kuusankoski, Kuusankoskitalo, Finland. Song texts supplied
ONDINE ODE 1155-2 [51:09]

There are some fine vocal ensembles in the Nordic countries, and the YL – the oldest Finnish-language choir in the world – is one of them. I first encountered this group on a two-disc set of Rautavaara pieces – review – which, while entertaining, was not always as polished as I’d expected. I also described that set as ‘accessible’, which may not apply to this new disc; the works here, written between 1985 and 2007, are as contemporary as it gets, and won’t appeal to those who like their choral music bland and inoffensive. And with the exception of Erik Bergman and Tarik O’Regan, the composers represented here are probably as unfamiliar to others as they are to me. Still, as 2L’s Immortal Nystedt demonstrated – review – a top-notch ensemble and quality programming can make contemporary a cappella singing a very rewarding experience.

Perttu Haapanen’s Talescapes, written for the YL’s 125th anniversary in 2008, is rooted in the upside-down world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. And as with David del Tredici’s various takes on Mr Dodgson’s classic tales, it’s not quite what it seems. Rather than opt for a simple, linear narrative, Haapanen has chosen words and sentences that tumble and turn like coloured fragments in a kaleidoscope. The chant-like start is soon punctuated by interjections and collisions, longer lines disrupted by sudden plosives and changes of tempo. It’s not nearly as dry and schematic as it sounds, the voices recorded in a bright, clear acoustic that makes the words very easy to hear.

Tapio Tuomela’s Kanteletar-juomalaulu, a drinking song written for an earlier YL anniversary, is perhaps more conventional in sound and style; here, divided voices and competing rhythms create a rollicking counterpoint that also has its transported peaks. It’s a real showpiece, conductor Matti Hyökki holding it all together with remarkable assurance. The choral sound, as so often with these Nordic ensembles, is cool and incisive, but some may find the close recording emphasises those attributes a little too much. No matter, this is an entertaining piece, sung with skill and good humour.

Erik Bergman’s two-part suite is also a YL commission. And while the composer says this meditation on the Northern night is an interior piece rather than a descriptive one, there are bird calls to be heard here. The countertenor Pasi Hyökki is remarkably pure and agile here, the alto flute echoing those calls to great effect. There’s also a profound sense of solitude and empty spaces, emphasised by the long, horizon-stretching vocal lines of part two. The choral singing is beautifully calibrated, the writing suffused with gently shifting colours. Now this is a gem, the most satisfying work on the disc so far.

British composer Tarik O’Regan’s Lamentations, also a YL commission, is based on a timely theme of peace. The text, by the medieval French scholar-theologian Pierre Abélard, includes parts for two tenors and two baritones, who give radiant voice to his simple, yet heartfelt sentiments. The baritones add a dark glow to the choral sound that is most appealing, and what the choir may lack in polish they more than make up for in quiet intensity. That said, some may find the forward balance rather fatiguing, especially in the (high) tenor parts.

The next item, Mikko Heiniö’s The bishop’s spring dream, is a strange conceit. While listening to a choir, our drowsy prelate dreams, sings and hums of spring in a mix of Latin and English. That gives rise to a complex interweaving of different vocal lines and textures, including one for a sopranista (male soprano), tastefully sung by Pasi Hyökki. It’s very well done, and despite the wakeful claps this piece has the warming inner glow of a hot toddy before bedtime. The Talla singers are afforded a pleasing, more intimate recording as well.

Not surprisingly, Riikka Talvitie’s Muistin pitkä jyrinä – translated as The long rumble of memory – is yet another YL commission, this time set to words by the contemporary poet Mirkka Rekola. And although the first part, Mother’s lullabye, begins and ends with the rocking rhythm one expects from such pieces, the entwining oboe and long, sinewy vocal lines combine to produce some most unusual colours and contrasts. The second part, The shout, is even more striking, the repeated rhythms and competing voices complemented by the oboe. The latter introduces the final movement, Among the autumn leaves; this is an energetic little piece, replete with somewhat ragged hand claps.

There’s much to enjoy here but, as I noted in my Rautavaara review, I find the YL are surprisingly uneven for a choir of this standing. I have no such qualms about the Talla singers, who do a very good job of bringing Mikko Heiniö’s quirky score to life. The liner-notes are adequate and full texts are supplied.

Dan Morgan

There’s much to enjoy here.