RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Sven-David SANDSTRÖM (b. 1942)
Robin Johannsen (soprano), Roxana Constantinescu (alto), Timothy Fallon (tenor), Michael Nagy (baritone), Festivalensemble Stuttgart/Helmuth Rilling
rec. live, Liederhalle Stuttgart, Beethovensaal, 6-7 September 2009
Sung texts and German translations enclosed
CARUS 83.453 [36:06 + 54:15]
Alittle over two months ago I heard the Scandinavian premiere of Sven-David Sandström’s Messiah in Gävle. The artists were: Stefan Parkman conducting choral forces from Uppsala, Gävle Symphony Orchestra and soloists including Timothy Fallon, as on this recording, in the tenor part. That concert was repeated in Uppsala two days later, which means that the provinces for once were ahead of the Capital. In Stockholm the first performance came a week later at the Berwald Hall, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.
I was deeply moved by that performance (see review) and hoped that there would sooner or later appear a recording. I had my request granted sooner than I could have dreamt. The work was commissioned by the Bach festivals in Oregon and Stuttgart; the Oregon premiere was in July last year (2009); Stuttgart heard it two months later and this recording was made on that occasion.
Sandström set the same text as Handel did, which invites comparisons. It should be stressed, however, that Sandström’s aim was not to imitate Handel. His tonal language is distinctly his own and though the words are exactly those Jennens delivered to Handel Sandström finds other solutions to how to set them. What is an aria in Handel’s work may be a chorus in Sandström’s, for instance. Sandström’s arias, are not da capo which means that Sandström’s work is shorter.
I was, naturally enough, very curious to see how I reacted to the music at this second encounter. Let me say at once that I was just as overwhelmed. The magnificent opening chorus Comfort ye, by far the longest number in this Messiah, at once had me caught and the music never lost its grip until Worthy is the Lamb and the concluding Amen had faded away.
As in Handel’s work it’s the choruses that carry the heaviest burden and Sandström knows exactly how to get the most out of the choral parts, himself having sung in choirs for many years. The orchestral writing is also extremely varied and colourful and there are numerous instrumental solos, not least from the woodwind. The rhythmic vitality is striking and the big percussion section has a field day.
Once again I marvelled at the chorus For unto us a child, the beautiful soprano-alto duet He shall feed his flock and the Ramirez-like chorus This yoke is easy, a hit if there is any justice in this world. Even more the a cappella chorus Lift up your hand is among the most breathlessly beautiful choral pieces ever. And what about the Hallelujah chorus? Beginning hesitantly, as though the people are not quite sure that Lord God Omnipotent really reigneth. But gradually the truth dawns upon them, the music expands and becomes swinging and gospel-like. Joy permeates the crowd and the final bars are truly ecstatic.
The performance in Gävle was impressive, with overwhelming orchestral and choral contributions. But the work’s dedicatee Helmut Rilling and his Stuttgart forces had already performed the Messiah at the world premiere in Oregon’s Hult Center and were even more inside the music during the two performances in Stuttgart and I can’t find anything that disappoints. The technical demands on the soloists are high; they have to execute quite a lot of coloratura, which they do with aplomb. The two female soloists in particular are very good and Robin Johannsen’s Behold, a virgin shall conceive is masterly. In Gävle I thought that Timothy Fallon’s light tenor voice didn’t carry properly but there are no such problems here. Michael Nagy is expressive in his powerful declamations but his wide vibrato is sometimes too prominent for total enjoyment.
The recording is spacious and atmospheric and could just as well have been a studio production, bar the applause at the end, which could surely have been edited out. Sandström started out as downright avant-garde composer, but he has, step by step, become more approachable - without losing his personal tonal language. This new Messiah is deeply communicative in an idiom that is modern but with a melodic and rhythmic beauty that should please even listeners who normally fight shy of contemporary music. In my mind this is one of the finest large-scale choral works during the whole post-war era.