Northern Lights
Ola GJEILO (b. 1978)
The Ground (2010) [3:37]; Serenity (2010) [5:13]; Ubi caritas (2001) [3:06]; Northern Lights (2008) [4:22]; Dark Night of the Soul (2010) [12:38]; The Spheres (2008) [4:47]; Tota pulchra es (2001) [5:27]; Prelude (2004) [2:57]; Phoenix (2008) [4:16]; Unicornis captivator (2001) [6:37]; Evening Prayer (2010) [5:54]
Ola Gjeilo (piano); Harrington String Quartet; Alison Chaney (soprano); Ted Belledin (tenor saxophone); Phoenix Chorale/Charles Bruffy
rec. Camelback Bible Church, Paradise Valley, Arizona, USA; 28-30 May 2011
CHANDOS CHSA 5100 [59:43]

This disc offers a collection of beautiful sacred and secular music by contemporary Norwegian/American composer, Ola Gjeilo. The inspiration behind much of this lies in nature’s beauty, wonderment and one’s yearning for the spiritual realms. It is refreshing to see a young composer focus on such depth with such sincerity and a direct, communicative language.
We open with The Ground, a setting of the Sanctus from the Latin Mass. It is adapted from a movement of Gjeilo’s Sunrise Mass. This modestly expressive piece is a good reflection of what is to come with all its solemnity and without a hint of cynicism. Strings and chorus evocatively support each other with Gjeilo himself at the piano.
Serenity, as its name implies, is a tranquil piece full of stillness with a central section of soaring beauty. Especially notable are the high sopranos who really shine in this work. The text is from the ancient ‘O magnum mysterium’. It is full of delicate restraint and its elusive melodic lines are sensitively performed.

Ubi caritas offers a flowing, Gregorian chant-like incantation with gentle dissonances that resolve pleasantly.
Northern Lights is described by the composer as a reflection of his native Norway’s formidable winters. There is a sense here of the Aurora borealis – a phenomenon that must have instilled fear and awe in ancient times. This combination of beauty and awe is well captured in this reflective piece.
The longest item is the large-scale Dark Night of the Soul which is in a minimalist vein somewhat similar to the frantic rhythms typical of Philip Glass. The text by the imprisoned St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish priest and mystic, describes the soul’s transcendence from an earthly prison towards a reunion with God. Through moments of frenetic accompaniment, the choir intones solemnly as a soprano soloist – the splendid Alison Chaney - ascends as a witness from the spiritual realms. Furious motion settles to a more lyrical sequence as the work traverses the joyful, the glorious and finally sublime peace.
The Spheres features gentle dissonances that build and pull with care. The skill of the Phoenix Chorale is evident in the transparency and warmth with which they handle the organic motion of the music. They clearly respond to Gjeilo’s musical vision.
Tota pulchra es offers multi-layered polyphony and intriguing texture. Again, the choir’s polish and clarity are notable.
The brief Prelude is a jaunty setting of the Latin motet, Exsultate, jubilate and is sung with precision. The switch in mood from meditative to elation adds to the variety of this disc.
Phoenix is a descriptive setting of the Agnus Dei full of vivid imagery and dedicated to the Phoenix Chorale.
Unicornis captivator has some very beautiful moments with two contrasting styles. Madrigals of various moods alternate with richly textured Alleluias in a way that is mesmerizing.
The disc closes appropriately with Evening Prayer where the choir and piano are joined by the saxophone in a hymn. Interestingly, this piece demonstrates Gjeilo’s jazz skills. The accompaniment is mostly improvised while the chorus passionately sings a rousing prayer of St. Augustine.
The singing from the Phoenix Chorale has admirable clarity, dynamic range and warmth. The recording quality is demonstration-worthy. The liner-notes are informative and written in English, German and French. This is a very fine disc of meditative and refined gems.
Karim Elmahmoudi

A very fine disc of meditative and refined music.