Bent SØRENSEN (b. 1958)
The Snowbell (2009, 2014) [4:02]
Snowbells (2009-2010) [26:09]
Greyborn (2009) [3:32]
Life and Death (2009) [2:25]
Three Motets (1985) [4:54]
Lacrimosa (1985) [5:20]
“and the sun sets” (2008) [5:20]
Benedictus (2006) [6:14]
The sea stands so still and shining (2005) [3:18]
Danish National Vocal Ensemble/Paul Hillier
rec. October/November 2013, DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen, and 5 February 2014, Garnisons Kirke, Copenhagen
This collection of unaccompanied choral works opens with The Snowbell, a setting for solo voice of a romantic/pastoral love poem by the nineteenth-century Danish writer Steen Steensen Blicher. Sørensen’s melody contrives to be gently yet unpredictably angular whilst at the same time sounding uncannily like a folk song. It is most beautifully sung by tenor, Adam Riis, presumably a member of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble. Church bells announce the beginning of the following work, which is also the longest of the collection. Snowbells is billed as “8 movements for 5 voices and church bells”. The work’s origin was in an art installation by Sørensen and Katrine Wiedemann, where recorded voices and church bells were played through hidden speakers in a forest whose summer colours had been transformed by paint and other materials into a freezing winter scene. Listening to the resulting musical work, in which the voices were recorded in a studio and mixed with recorded bells of eight different Danish churches, is an unearthly experience. The music is, for the most part, slow, even static, with long, held chords and clusters. Such words as are evident are taken from Blicher’s poem, and snatches of the melody of the original setting are occasionally heard. The writing is very advanced, with many special vocal effects. The bells are heard mainly at the beginning of each of the eight movements, and there seems to be little direct connection between those sounds and the choral writing. There are many ravishing sounds in this score, but this listener, at least, has found it difficult to grasp what the composer is driving at. A long and rather diffuse appreciation of the work by Anne Middelboe Christensen is not much help, frankly: a simple listening guide would have been more useful. In the end, perhaps, those ravishing sounds are enough. They are certainly enough to make me want to go on searching for clues.
The remainder of the programme is made up of short works composed between 1985 and 2009. The characteristics of Sørensen’s choral writing as encountered in Snowbells are pretty much present in the earliest works, bearing in mind that however advanced the musical language, he doesn’t hesitate to make use of, even to close a work on, a simple major chord if that is what seems appropriate. Greyborn features slides and clusters that accompany and turn around a folk-like melody, and the short Life and Death is a simple, tonal piece in two verses each of which is hummed into silence. Listening to these short works confirms that the composer is more interested in creating an overall mood in response to his chosen texts, with little attention to individual words. He chooses not to illustrate the screeching pheasants in Life and Death, for example, and where another composer might have had a field day with the locusts in the first of the three motets, Sørensen gives the word straight, even breaking it with a breath. The advanced vocal techniques of certain passages in Snowbells and elsewhere and the simple, homophonic and tonal treatment of the Hans Christian Andersen text that closes the collection gives some idea of the breadth of style to be found in these works, each one of which is, in its own way, highly attractive and accessible. All the music is slow, however, with the exception of the second of the motets, and that lasts less than a minute. A certain monotony can therefore creep in, so the programme is best appreciated when heard two or three pieces at a time.
I have not seen any of the scores, and though some will pose few problems to performers, others sound fiendishly difficult, especially from the point of view of tuning. Paul Hillier has worked with several Baltic and Scandinavian groups, and here he directs the Danish National Vocal Ensemble in performances that are beyond praise. They are beautifully recorded, too. The booklet carries all the sung texts complete with English translations, and if you can cope with this kind of thing (about Lacrimosa): “The music hovers like clouds around the listener in a dark out-of-body, or more specifically out-of-music experience” you might find the booklet notes enlightening too.