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Sven-David SANDSTRÖM (b. 1942)
Komm, Jesu, komm [8:46]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 – 1750)
Jesu, meine Freude [19:52]
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf [8:26]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Fürchte dich nicht, ich bin bei dir [9:41]
Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden [6:32]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied [13:19]
Kammerchor Hannover, La Festa Musicale/Stephan Doormann
rec. 2014, Stephansstift Hannover
Sung texts with English translations enclosed
RONDEAU ROP6105 [66:36]

The juxtaposition of Bach and Sandström may at first sight seem an odd one, but in reality these two composers have a lot in common. They both have a deep religiosity, they are enormously productive and a central part of their oeuvres is sacred music. Although their lives were several hundred years apart and in widely separated societies they found a common denominator in the texts. Both also took on the task of writing music for the full ecclesiastical year – in some cases setting the same texts.

Some years ago Sandström presented his own version of Handel’s Messiah, setting Jennen’s text. Last year saw the premiere of his St Matthew Passion – the same text as Bach set close to 300 years earlier. He has also written six motets to the same texts as Bach, and three of these are presented here in harness with the other three texts in Bach’s settings. It would have been interesting to put both composers’ views side by side for comparison but having heard Sandström’s Messiah both live and on disc I know that his ambition is not to make a Bach or Handel for the 21st century. The baroque composers are not models for him — he stands completely free. Still he admits in an interview that “I don’t link myself to Bach musically in any way however it sounds a little like Bach because I use same texts”.

Komm, Jesu, komm initially comes across as a deliberate attempt to become alienated from Bach with jarring dissonances but the music eventually settles in to a sound-world that borders on Bach but with 21st century key-signatures. Through the years Sandström has become simpler, more accessible, more communicative. This is even more obvious in Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf. This is “traditionally beautiful“, without being sweet, though Sandström admits in the aforementioned interview that he isn’t allergic to a little sweetness nowadays. The repeated Halleluja phrases, staccato, at the end give the motet a lift.

Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden is perhaps the greatest of the three motets by Sandström; this in spite of its brevity. It is rhythmically intense and the choir becomes more and more eager, speaking all at once. They then calm down and a serene atmosphere arises, which dissolves into dissonance before the jubilant melismatic Halleluja brings the work to a triumphant end.

What of the Bach motets? Pardon me, Bach, for taking your music for granted. It has always been here, reliable and the acme of perfection. I am afraid this sounds like damning with faint praise but when listening to your motets I realise again that your perfectionism is combined with a playfulness that borders on the surrealistically inventive. I believe you could write a perfect fugue almost in your sleep but there is never a feeling of routine in your composing. These works are still, almost three centuries after they were written, fresh as paint. They sound modern, just as Sven-David Sandström’s are equally inventive and timeless. The most fascinating point of all is that “Bach vs Sandström?” as the header of the liner-notes says never ends in a clash but in a thrilling dialogue about contrasts. The contrasts are more often than not bigger within the compositions than between them. Isn’t that praise enough?

Oh, yes, the choir. They are superb: intonation faultless, great precision, dynamically flexible. The recording is excellent too – that kind of excellence that you don’t actually notice. Technique is at the service of the music and gives the listener a splendid opportunity to experience the craftsmanship and the inspiration in both composers’ works. Bach has always been the undisputed master of choral writing; it becomes more and more obvious that Sven-David Sandström is the undisputed master of choral writing in our time.

Göran Forsling