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Come Away, Death
Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD
Come Away, Death - from Songs of the Clown, Op.29 (1937)
Wolfgang PLAGGE (b.1960)
Södergran-sanger Op.146 [12:46]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Come Away, Death (Kom nu hit, död!) - from Two Songs From
‘Twelfth Night’, Op.60 (1909) [2:26]
Maja Solveig Kjelstrup RATKJE
HVIL (2008) [20:18]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Come Away, Death - from Let Us Garlands Bring, Op.18 (1929-42)
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Songs and Dances of Death (1875-77) [21:28]
Marianne Beate Kielland (mezzo), Sergej Osadchuk (piano)
rec. Jan. 2009, Sofienberg Church. Hybrid SACD. MCH 5.1 DSD. Stereo
Do not be repelled by the album’s title or by
the morbid picture on the front cover. This is not a gloomy
collection of gruesome, death-obsessed music. This beautiful
and diverse vocal music is, in particular, unified by reflections
on death, the acknowledgement of its presence in - or after
- our life. Only in the last song, Mussorgsky’s Field-Marshal,
is Death openly terrifying.
The “golden thread” of this programme is Shakespeare’s
poem Come Away, Death from The Twelfth Night.
Out of more than twenty settings, three were chosen. All of
them treat the text as a tragic renunciation - despite it being
originally placed in the context of a merry comedy. These three
short songs are like way-markers on the way through the album,
separating three longer works.
The setting by Korngold opens proceedings. It is lyrical and
almost operatic, with frequent switches between major and minor.
The melody moves in slow, steady waves. The mood is close to
Purcell’s Dido’s Lament: this is a calm acceptance
of death, with bitter sorrow, but without protest. The setting
by Sibelius is, I guess, in Swedish. It is stern and bare -
the darkest of the three. The music conveys both dread and foreboding.
Despite being very sparse, it leaves a feeling of heaviness,
of a hard and cold tombstone. Finzi’s setting adopts the
pace of a funeral cortege and the ceaseless slow swaying of
a tolling bell. The melody is poignant, with distressing accents:
here the hero is definitely not agreeing with his fate! This
version is more theatrical, less personal than the other two:
the music ascends like a thorn bird rising to the skies. It
is also the most beautiful version, and the melody is haunting.
It stayed with me for at least a fortnight.
Wolfgang Plagge set four poems by Edith Södergran. There
is no explicit mention of death in the poems. However, they
can be interpreted as pondering the subject. The music is boldly
dissonant and creates a feeling of fragility and strength at
the same time - as if depicting a strong yet emotional personality
in deep depression. The accompaniment is sparse and effective.
These settings succeed in their aim to “reproduce and
reinforce both the ascetic and the uninhibited aspects of Södergran’s
incomparable language”, as the composer strove to do.
Although very modern, the music grips and enthralls with its
interplay of white light and delicate glass, of cold rain and
warm wind. The match with the words is tight and delicate. Kielland’s
dark velvety voice brings the songs to life - frightening, poignant,
stirring. This is a very memorable and beautiful work.
HVIL is described by its creators as “the Earth’s
plea to humankind”. There is no translation, and there
probably cannot be any, for the Earth is speaks an eerie language,
whispering and shouting out words in clusters. If you know Norwegian
(and Latin) you’ll probably be able to decipher those
long long words; the rest of us will need a translation, which
is absent. I understand that a detailed explanation is not feasible
- still, I would have expected to receive a little more information.
As it is, I can only speak about the effect of the sounds, without
really understanding the meaning of the words. The effect is
spectacular. The piano part lies in the lowest and highest registers.
In between, the voice cries out: a desperate plea, dark and
intense, and at the same time fragile. The voice jerks and thrashes
about as if in fever. The music descends to the lowest reachable
areas. Kielland is a marvel; her voice is powerful in all the
registers, and she shows great affinity with the work. This
is the most persuasive advocacy for the Earth’s plea:
I don’t understand what the singer is saying, but I feel
that I totally agree with her. The music is atonal: the Earth
does not care about our ridiculous conventions.
The programme is closed by a strong, memorable performance of
Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Grammatically,
in the Russian language, Death is feminine. Thus a woman’s
voice is more suitable here than the customary bass or bass-baritone:
we hear Death speaking, not someone retelling her words. And
among the female voices, the lower one surely has a better claim
to the work, due to its darker connotations. So, Kielland is
already in a good starting position - but a good start is not
enough. What she does, how she sings, what she makes out of
these songs, is absolutely awesome. Lullaby, this female
counterpart to Erlkönig, is a gem of the musical
theatre, and Kielland sculpts each word as if she lives it,
with absolute identification in all roles. This is one of the
cases where it is borne home to the listener that music is not
just about accurate note-rendering. If you have children, by
the end you’ll be half-dead yourself.
The text of the Serenade is rather verbose, without the
dense action that we encounter in other three songs. Kielland
compensates by giving us some magnificent opera singing. Her
diction is very good, and the Russian pronunciation is praiseworthy.
She conveys the feeling of restrained power, which finally uncovers
itself in the explosion of the last notes. Trepak has
the grim dare-devilry, which we know from some pages of Boris
Godunov - especially the role of Varlaam and the Kromy scene.
In the midst of the winds and blizzards whipped up by Osadchuk,
Kielland sings with raw abandon. The ending is a soft consolation.
The Field-Marshal puts a huge exclamation mark at the
end of the recital. The images of the battlefield are shocking,
and Death’s monologue is terrifying. Kielland’s
voice is strong and cuts deep like a blade through butter. The
ending is devastating.
Throughout the disc, the contribution of the pianist Sergej
Osadchuk is invaluable. The power and expressiveness of his
playing matches those of Marianne Beate Kielland’s singing.
He has to handle difficult scores, and he does it boldly, yet
his technique always serves dramatic purposes. In the liner-note,
Kielland recounts the conception of the album. The works are
described - by the creators where they are still living. We
have bios of the performers, all this in English and Norwegian.
Complete texts with English and Norwegian translations (where
possible) are provided. As usual for this label, the recording
quality is exemplary. I listened on an ordinary CD player, but
even so I was amazed by the quality of the surround. If something
can persuade me to buy a SACD player at last, it is this disc.
I just want to hear what the “real thing” can be,
if the plain-CD reduction has such a feeling of space and presence.
Kielland’s voice is captured most vividly and is presented
as if a shining gem on a velvet bed.
There are experiences in life that you remember, although they
may not be pleasant. Some of them are musical. They make you
think, maybe even change. They clean the pipes of your soul.
This disc is one such experience: a work-out for the psyche.
Our souls need exercising not less than our bodies do - especially
in these times when we consume so much emotional junk food.
And, just like the effort and the tension of sport the process
does not necessarily induce an enjoyable feeling, but in the
end you are glad you did it … and so it is here. Unless
even the mention of Death is taboo for you, consider hearing
this disc. There may be no joy in this enjoyment, but
there is much beauty, sincerity and high art. This disc gave
me one of the strongest musical experiences I have ever had.