Eksempler (Examples)(1970) [9:08]
Ikke blot hende (Not only she) [2:04]
Morgen (Morning) [1:43]
Born kender overmagt (Children encounter superiority) [00:15]
Barn rodkindet (Child red-cheeked) [0:59]
Gammel mand i meditation (Old man meditating) [3:17]
Pa traeet er der et blad (On the tree is a leaf) [0:15]
Igen (Again)(2006) [17:32]
Sol gar op, sol gar ned I (Sun goes up, sun goes down I) [4:07]
Tid til… (Time to…) [5:51]
Sol har op, sol gar ned II (Sun goes up, sun goes down II) [7:54]
6 Enkle Danske Sange (6 Simple Danish Songs) (2002) [9:05]
Forarsnat (Spring night) [2:19]
Sovende pige (Sleeping girl) [1:52]
Min nye kjole (My new dress) [1:04]
Barn rodkindet (Child red-cheeked) [00:56]
Digt med ikke (Poem with not) [1:34]
Det pa billeder (Something in pictures) [1:21]
Konstateringer I (Statements I) (1969) [6:05]
Episk tekst (Epic text) I-VI
Konstateringer (Statements)
I-II [1:25]
Tre stadier (Three stages) (2003)
I gademe (In the streets) [4:08]
I skovene (In the woods) [4:16]
Gader, skove, som bolgerne (Streets, woods, like as the waves) [4:40]
Fire Madrigaler fra Naturens Verden (Four Madrigals from the Natural World) (2001)
Flagermus' ulralyd (Bat's ultrasound) [3:15]
Elefanters oktav (The Octave of elephants) [8:16]
Kohejre (Cattle egret) [2:06]
Komet (Comet) [2:26]
Ars Nova Copenhagen/Paul Hillier
rec. Stavnsholt Kirke 12-14 March 2008 (Statements, Examples); Garnisons Kirke 29 November-1 December 2009 (Danish Songs, Three Stages, Four Madrigals); 1 March 2010 (Again). Danish texts and English translations provided. A DXD recording
DACAPO 6.220583 [70:57]
There are some fine choirs in the far north, and I’ve been fortunate to review a few of their discs here. For instance, the YL and Talla choruses from Finland in a cappella works by Einojuhani Rautavaara - review - Norway’s Bærum Vokalensemble and Ensemble 96 in music by Knut Nystedt - review - and now, in pieces by the Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, we have Ars Nova Copenhagen. This isn’t a full list, merely a sample of the sophisticated, high-spec choral singing now on offer in these countries.
Ars Nova, under their much-lauded conductor Paul Hillier, are new to me, but it didn’t take long to realise that this is a top-notch ensemble, very well recorded. The music of Gudmundsen-Holgreen may be something of an acquired taste, its quirkiness of style and content a challenge for singers and audience alike. After the obligatory rites of passage in the 1960s - including flirtations with serialism - this composer adopted a form of minimalism described as ‘the new simplicity’. One shouldn’t take such labels at face value, for as I’ve already hinted that doesn’t necessarily mean this music is easy to perform.
The cool, somewhat bleached sound of this choir is typical of the breed. In the texts of Examples Gudmundsen-Holmgreen captures the prevailing zeitgeist - the work was written in 1970 - encompassing preoccupations with gender in ‘Not only she’, and the drowsy narcissism of the age in ‘Morning’; meanwhile, in the gnomic texts of ‘Children encounter superiority’ we surely have a nod towards e e cummings. And, in keeping with the pseudo-mystical tendencies of the time, the texts are sometimes mere fragments (‘On the tree is a leaf’).
Ars Nova’s sound is rarefied and superbly focused; while they’re well caught I did wish for a little more air in this recording. That said, it sounds just fine in both the Red Book and Super Audio layers, high-lying passages emerging with astonishing naturalness and clarity. That’s particularly true of the writing in Again, based on Biblical texts, where the voices circle and twine most artfully, the gentle breath of ‘Time to…’ a marking of the passage of life itself. This is music of rare skill and beauty, magnificently sung.
I must confess that on first hearing I felt somewhat distanced by both the sound of this choir and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s slow-moving vocal lines, but there’s an inner richness and complexity to the writing that reveals itself on repeated hearings. A deeply contemplative core, if you like, and really rather moving as well. And despite its title, the Six Danish Songs finds a remarkably poignant spirit in small things, from the love and loss of ‘Sleeping girl’ to the repeated cadences of ‘Poem with [the word] not’ (insertion mine). The latter is lightly sprung and airily sung - a real joy to hear.
In Statements we return to the composer’s earlier style, with its trendy texts and more experimental touches; here the women’s long, winding lines are literally punctuated by short plosives from the men. It’s very effective, although it gets a little repetitive after a while. Those small misgivings aside, there’s no doubting the commitment of these singers - their intonation and blend is simply astonishing. Three stages is much earthier in sound and sentiment, a veritable shopping list of capitalist clichés and consumerist cravings; for instance, in a circling antiphon the men and women engage in the strangest dialogues - ‘Money, money/Buy, buy/Toyota! Mazda! CO2! CO2!’ and ‘Get! To! Heck! Barseback!’
It gets rather more explicit, but it’s essayed with such glee and good humour that I doubt anyone could be offended. Well crafted and weirdly entertaining, Three stages makes a perfect foil for the more ‘serious’ pieces in this collection. But whatever the mood or musical demands, Ars Nova and Paul Hillier never fail to please. And, as you might imagine, the choir has great fun with the ‘Bat’s ultrasound’ and assorted calls of the wild in the aptly named Five Madrigals from the Natural World. Not only is this clever, it’s also discreetly done. As a concert closer it’s guaranteed to leave the audience in the best of moods.
A slow burner this, so I’d implore you to persevere. Just get a feel for the composer’s unusual - and eclectic - idiom, and then listen again with the texts. It really is a very rewarding anthology and, as always, the liner-notes and general presentation are as good as I’ve come to expect from Dacapo.
If you’re after something different, don’t hesitate.
Dan Morgan
If you’re after something different, don’t hesitate.