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Meins Lebens Licht
Knut NYSTEDT (1915-2014)
Peace I leave with you, Op. 43 No. 2 (1957) [2:33]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht, BWV118 [8:31]
Be not afraid
, Op 146 (1995) [4:09]
Ave Maria
for violin and mixed choir, Op 110 (1986) [10:55]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV227 [20:31]
O Crux, Op. 79 (1977) [6:06]
Immortal Bach
, after JS Bach (BWV478) (1987)(arr. for choir and strings by Grete Pedersen) [4:46]
Det Norske Solistkor
Maria Angelika Carlsen (violin)
Ensemble Allegria/Grete Pedersen
rec. February 2015, Ris Kirke, Oslo, Norway
Texts and translations included
BIS BIS-2184 SACD [59:00]

Det Norske Solistkor (The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) was founded in 1950 and, remarkably, has had only two conductors. The first was its founder, Knut Nystedt, who directed it until 1990 when he retired. His successor, Grete Pedersen has been in post ever since. Recordings inevitably take time to plan so I presume this present disc was conceived as a tribute to Nystedt. In the event it became a memorial for he died in December 2014, just a few weeks before the sessions, at the age of 99. It was a very happy idea to combine his music with that of Bach since Harald Herresthal points out in his notes that Bach’s music was very important to Nystedt throughout his long career as a singer, conductor and composer.

We learn in the booklet that the choir “comprises 26 highly trained singers, all potential soloists in various genres as well as fully embracing the art of ensemble singing.” From that you might expect an extremely high standard of performance and you’d be right. The singing on this disc shows the group to be a flexible, versatile and highly accomplished ensemble; they make a very fine sound indeed. In some of the items they’re joined by the Ensemble Allegria. This is a group of 17 young string players (9/3/3/2), who came together in 2007. It’s not entirely clear, even from visiting their website, whether they play on modern or period instruments. I suspect it’s the former but in the Bach pieces the sound that they produce is akin to period strings. For BWV 227 they’re reinforced by a pair of oboes, a bassoon and an organ.

Both of the Bach pieces go very well indeed. BWV118 is beautifully sculpted by Grete Pedersen and the singing is stylish. In BWV 227 I like very much the expression in the chorales ‘Trotz dem alten Drachen’ and ‘Weg mit allen Schätzen!’ Here especially the import of the words is strikingly conveyed. The fugue that comes between these two sections is nimbly done. Pedersen does the two trio movements one to a part and she adopts a similar approach to the five-part chorale ‘Gute Nacht, o Wesen’, which I think works particularly well.

Knut Nystedt’s pieces are all excellent choices and all are very well done. Harald Herresthal rightly refers to the “warmth and inner strength” of Peace I leave with you. This unaccompanied setting of lines from St John’s Gospel is an impressive composition. So too is Be not afraid which takes for its text some words from Isaiah. In this piece Nystedt makes very effective use of dynamic contrasts and it seems to me that his music sits very well with the sentiments of the words. Towards the end a short, richly harmonised chorale is heard after which the piece achieves a tranquil ending; we are reassured.
Ave Maria is a most interesting work. The choir sings the Marian prayer in Latin, mostly in homophonic writing, while a solo violin has an important and taxing independent part. Here the violin solo is expertly taken by Maria Angelika Carlsen, the leader of Ensemble Allegria. Apparently the violin represents jubilation and joy. It’s a very eloquent piece. I read in the notes that in the same year that he wrote Ave Maria Nystedt composed a setting of the Stabat Mater for mixed choir and solo cello in which the instrument represents Mary’s suffering at the foot of the Cross. In view of the fairly short playing of the disc I’m sorry that this wasn’t included too; perhaps it is too long to be fitted onto the disc.

Given that the disc enshrines Knut Nystedt’s love of Bach there could be only one piece with which to conclude the programme: Immortal Bach. Its inclusion is doubly fitting because it was part of the programme at the very last concert he conducted with Det Norske Solistkor prior to retirement. Unfortunately, the performance wasn’t quite the experience for which I’d hoped. Taking as its starting point the first eight bars of Bach’s chorale Komm. süßer Tod, Immortal Bach is a piece that’s wonderfully imagined for the voices. On this disc we hear it in an arrangement by Grete Pedersen which reinforces the vocal lines with strings. This seems to me rather to go against Nystedt’s original concept which is an amazingly challenging essay in soft, sustained vocal sound. More seriously, when Ms Pedersen builds the piece to quite a climax at around 3:00 the sound of the strings is far too present; in fact the instruments dominate. As it says in the notes Nystedt’s idea was that the singers should be placed according to a plan so that the listeners experience the singers around them. I don’t know if this was attempted for this recording – I couldn’t listen to this SACD in surround sound – but the impression I received, perhaps incorrectly, was of all the performers in a conventional concert layout in front of me. I have a particular fondness for a Hyperion recording made as long ago as 1996 by the Holst Singers and Stephen Layton. There a convincing attempt is made to give the spatial effects in a stereo recording. Layton is daringly slow – his recording takes 6:41 whereas Grete Pedersen’s timing is in line with other recordings I know. Layton, I think, conveys much more successfully the timelessness of the piece and his singers are unaccompanied, which adds to the magic.

However, that is just one relative disappointment. Overall this disc gave me great pleasure. All the music here is very rewarding and the performances are of the highest possible quality. BIS’s recording is impressive and, as usual, their documentation is excellent. This is a very worthy tribute by Det Norske Solistkor to their distinguished founder.

John Quinn



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