Does the name Borg
ring a bell? Maybe to some readers who remember the 1950s, 1960s and perhaps even into the 1970s when the Finnish bass Kim Borg was one of the leading exponents of the basso cantabile
voice. Besides his opera and recital career he was also a composer of orchestral music, chamber music and songs. Matti Borg is his son and he has walked in his father’s footsteps – also as a singer. I heard his Fröding songs a few years ago at a concert at Opera på Skäret, with the same singers as here but with piano accompaniment. A couple of them turned up somewhat later at the Jussi Björling Festival at Voxna with Gitta-Maria
Sjöberg and I took them to my heart.
The poems by Gustaf Fröding are well known to Swedish poetry- and music- lovers and many of them have been set to music before. Fröding belonged to the same generation of authors – the 1890s – that also included Nobel Prize winners Selma Lagerlöf, Verner von Heidenstam and Erik Axel Karlfeldt. Fröding was and is probably the most popular of them all.
These fifteen Fröding songs cover a wide spectrum of emotions, from folksy humoristic rural stories via satirical portraits – good-natured but biting – to deeply philosophical and serious personal and universal analyses. Matti Borg varies the expressivity of the music depending on the content of the texts. The very first song, for instance, Jonte och Brunte,
describes graphically the old farm-hand and the aged horse on their way home from the field at the end of the day. They are tired, lazy and the horse once looks back to see whether the wheels of the surrey still go round. In seven stanzas this 'sleep-walking' scene rolls on forever, monotonous but true to the spirit of the situation. Mattias Nilsson sounds as tired and bored as either of the two main characters. This is indeed a masterly interpretation of the situation.
In the same sphere – the rural society of Swedish 1890s – the young farm-hand and the young maid of Äktenskapsfrågan
(The question of marriage) (tr. 13) are planning their future life together. They dream of a plough and a harrow, a horse and a pig and a cow, and hens and ducks and beautiful porcelain: that’s the way we want it but – how do we get it? I’m too poor and you’re too lazy. How do we get it? We can’t help smiling at their duet where their visions are woven together but we also shed a tear when they realise that their hopes will never come true.
There is so much else to savour: the lovely Ingalill
(tr. 3) with a beautiful orchestral intro; the charming and jolly Tre trallande jäntor
(Three singing girls) (tr. 4); the yearning Fylgia
(tr. 4); the sad autobiographical En kärleksvisa
(A Love Song) (tr. 10) where the poet confesses that he bought his love for money but he still asks the rasping strings to sing beautifully of love. One shouldn’t overlook either En visa till Karin
(tr. 7), famously set to music by Ture Rangström as part of his cycle Kung Eriks visor
(1917). Borg’s version is less immediately catchy melodically but his somewhat thorny melody is arguably more faithful to the sorrowful text.
There are certainly many treasures among these fifteen songs, that do not constitute a cycle, but the personal touch of the music makes them feel like a unity. In the orchestral version, with its delicious light and airy scoring, this is even more tangible. The solo singing is excellent. Gitta-Maria Sjöberg, whose Verdi/Puccini recital I hailed some years ago, has retained the silvery quality of her soprano voice and Mattias Nilsson, occasionally somewhat gravelly of tone, is admirably expressive.
Another Scandinavian author, the Dane, J.P. Jacobsen, is featured in the choral suite Landskap
(Landscape). Jacobsen, who was a generation older than Fröding – he lived 1847–1885 – was best known for his prose writing but he also wrote some poetry, which was appreciated and set to music by for instance Carl Nielsen, Wilhelm Peterson-Berger and Wilhelm Stenhammar. With his background and training it’s no wonder that Matti Borg has a special talent for vocal music. He knows the instrument, whether for solo purposes or for the intricacies of part-song singing. Without having seen the music I sense the care for the inner voices, which in lesser hands tends to be perfunctory and for the singer uninteresting — I have sung in various choirs for close to fifty years. These settings in fact sound organic and integrated in sound. As for the tonal language, with its roots in the late-romantic Nordic choral tradition, it is accessible and “Nordic”. I was also very impressed by the choir, which is associated with the University of Copenhagen. They produce a fresh and youthful sound, not powerful in the opera-chorus mould but with much more subtlety and – as for example in Lad våren komme
(tr. 17) — with a great deal of heft. I was quite bowled over by the beauty of the title song, Landskab
(tr. 16). It was interesting to compare some of the songs with historical settings of the same texts: Havde jeg, o havde jeg en dattersøn
(tr. 19) which can stand comparison with Stenhammar’s classical setting (impressive); Irmelin Rose
(tr. 20), achingly beautiful and memorable and without dislodging the hegemony of Nielsen’s song, so movingly sung in Aksel Schiøtz’s legendary recording, this could well be a new choral standard song. Then there's Peterson-Berger’s Stemning
(tr. 21) – again Matti Borg finds the right atmosphere, but seen through the eyes of someone living in the 21st
century, whereas P-B (as he is commonly referred to in Scandinavia) is firmly rooted in the late 19th
century. It is always a hazardous venture to set poetry associated with already established versions and Matti Borg passes this test gloriously.
Readers with the slightest interest in present day Nordic music should unhesitatingly give this well-engineered disc a try. It is well worth anyone’s money.
15 Songs to poems by Gustaf Fröding
1. Jonte och Brunte
4. Tre trallande jäntor
6. I ungdomen
7. En visa till Karin
8. Våran prost
9. En vårfästmö
10. En kärleksvisa
11. Världens gång
14. Studentkårens dotter
15. En vårvintervisa
Landscape – 12 Poems by J.P.Jacobsen
17. Lad våren komme
18. Har dagen sanket al sin sorg
19. Havde jeg, o havde jeg
20. Irmelin Rose
23. Til majdag fører jeg hjem min brud
24. Du blomst i dug
25. Så standsed
27. Silkesko over gylden laest