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Fartein VALEN (1887-1952)
Ave Maria Op.4 (1915-21) [5:26]*
Hvad est du dog skiøn Op. 12 (1930) [3:07]
Kom regn fra det høie Op. 25 (1936-37) [3:28]**
Der 121. Psalm (1911) [12:40]*
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Cinq rechants (1948) [18:56]
O sacrum convivium (1937) [5:14]
Anton von WEBERN (1883-1945)
Entfliehet auf leichten Kähnen Op. 2 (1908) [2:43]
Zwei Lieder Op. 19 (1925-26) [2:03]**
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Die Nachtigall (1907) [2:40]
Berit Norbakken Solset (soprano), Norwegian Radio Orchestra*
Members of the Oslo Sinfonietta**
The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir/Grete Pedersen
rec. November 2011, Ris kirke, Oslo, Norway
BIS BIS-SACD-1970 [57:44]
Who knew? This is a programme full of discovery and quiet marvels. Who knew that Fartein Valen had written such exquisite jewels as his Ave Maria, or that Messiaen could swing like Thelonious Monk in his Cinq rechants?
Even a huge Messiaen fan like myself might not have thought 20 minutes of a capella singing from the master might be much fun, but Cinq rechants is full of remarkable stuff. In the booklet notes Arnulf Christian Mattes mentions Clytus Gottwald’s suggestion that it “served as a model for the new vocal music of the post-war period” and with plenty of evidence for this I would be the last to deny it. Some of the unison writing is stunningly rhythmic and the intervals are uncompromisingly non-idiomatic for the voice, but the choristers here leap over its demands with apparent ease. What is noticeable is how much bluesy close-harmony writing crops up, as well as moments which have taken on quasi-cheesy associations now, though they would have been remarkably innovative for their time. This is a remarkable performance which had me engrossed and wanting to play it again and again. By way of comparison I had a quick listen to the SWR Stuttgart Vokalensemble (see review), and while this is very good I do hear a greater sense of drive, earthy character and emotional conviction in The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir.
Webern’s Entfliehet auf leichten Kähnen is a little jewel, and was his only a capella work. It seems to inhabit a world somewhere in between the tonal ambiguities of extreme late romanticism and the bolder 12-tone serialism of his later instrumental works. This idiom is heard in his Zwei Lieder Op. 19 which, with its guitar and metallic percussion seems to invite the association of a cubist painting by Braque or Picasso come to life. You might at first think these pieces are alien and strange, but read the texts and you find the imagery is conjured with remarkable observation by Webern. “When the sheep leave the meadow…” writes Goethe, and Webern’s playful clarinet and violin have already set a sun-dappled pastoral scene.
Fartein Valen’s a capella pieces are not quite as toothsome as that opening Ave Maria, but here again, if you follow the texts printed in the booklet you can find yourself within the composer’s expressive response to the words. Remarkable polyphony demands mental agility of the listener in Kom regn fra det høie Op. 25, but there’s a solo instrument in there helping us follow significant lines. It’s a strange effect, as if one of the singers had a sore throat but was contractually obliged to join in so ended up playing their clarinet.
Alban Berg inhabits an entirely different harmonic world, and his Die Nachtigall from Sieben frühe Lieder, arranged for choir by Clytus Gottwald, is like being conveyed on high on a heavenly escalator by comparison with Valen. This transformation of idiom prepares us nicely for the first recording of Fartein Valen’s Psalm 121 in its original full-fat orchestral version. The booklet notes tell us that this was Valen’s “first attempt to break through the ‘Brahmsian haze’ typical of the time”, but Brahms is the first composer who springs to mind when you hear this piece, and the “independent exploration of the expressive outer limits of tonal harmony” are relatively hard to spot. Brahms with some of Mahler’s weight of expression might be one way of summing this work up, but it stands on its own feet as a musical statement, with plenty of gorgeous moments and indeed some remarkable and unexpected harmonic progressions.
The programme finishes with Messiaen’s beautifully devotional O sacrum convivium, which after the turmoil of the previous work acts like a final lullaby. These performances are uniformly excellent and the recording is superb. The production is let down only once as far as I could tell, with some ‘cute’ edits at the 12 and 31 seconds mark in the beginning of track three in Messiaen’s Cinq rechants leading me to fear I had swallowed a tab of LSD rather than an M&M for a moment. I suspect few classical music collectors will have much Fartein Valen in their collections, and the two pieces with orchestra on this disc are remarkable discoveries. Such a disc of relatively rarely heard vocal works may seem to be a bit daunting, but I would urge anyone to give it a try. From the first entry of Berit Norbakken Solset’s solo in the Ave Maria I was hooked, and I hope you will be too.
Dominy Clements