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As Dreams
Per NØRGÅRD (b.1932)
Drømmesange (Dream Songs) (1981) [13:13]
Helmut LACHENMANN (b.1935)
Consolation II (Wessobrunner Gebet) (1968) [6:19]
Alfred JANSON (b.1937)
Nocturne (1967) [9:02]
Kaija SAARIAHO (b.1952)
Überzeugung (2001) [1:44]
Singe die Gärten, mein Herz (1974) [10:58]
Iannis XENAKIS (1922-2001)
Nuits (1967-8) [8:38]
Nuits, Adieux (1991/96) [9:45]
The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir
Oslo Sinfonietta/Grete Pedersen
rec. June 2014, Ris Kirke, June 2015, Sofienberg Kirke, Norway
BIS BIS-2139 SACD [61:08]

This is in many ways an extraordinary issue – but emphatically not for the faint-hearted! It brings together seven challenging works – challenging for performers and listeners alike – culled from the last fifty years, and representing a variety of European composers. The choir, Det Norske Solistkor (The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) is an ‘élite corps’ of outstanding young singers based in Norway, and this recording, with their conductor Grete Pedersen, represents a stunning achievement. They are also joined by instrumentalists from the fine Oslo Sinfonietta.

This is an important disc for anyone who is interested in choral music and its future. It’s unlikely, however great your interest, that you will enjoy all of these works, and there is no doubt that some are more successful as creative essays than others. Nonetheless, there is something to intrigue, and often mystify, on each and every track.

The longest and in my view the best work on the disc comes first, Drømmesange (Dream Songs) by Danish composer Per Nørgård, in many ways the ‘Big Daddy’ of contemporary Scandinavian music. (His main biography has a photograph of him stark naked on the cover – something perhaps not generally recommended for budding composers). As Erling Sandmo’s notes tell us, the text describes a dream in which a small boy meets his future self; but the dream is presented in three ways, successively peaceful, ambiguous and then nightmarish, before an enigmatic ending. Nørgård sustains this idea with the greatest resourcefulness, the whole thing being based on the haunting melody, with the simplicity of a nursery rhyme, heard in a solo soprano at the outset. After a little while, percussion enters quietly, and from there on, these instruments are used to utmost effect in driving the music forward and enhancing the atmosphere. The vocal writing is superb too, with special effects such as glissandi (little slides between some of the notes – quite sinister at times) and even whistling. This is a piece that, though often uncomfortable, stays in the memory.

Helmut Lachenmann’s Consolation II comes from 1968, and is very much of its time – which is probably a polite way of saying it now sounds dated! It is very reminiscent of the sort of vocal experiments of the 1960s and 70s found in the music of Berio, Penderecki, our own Paul Patterson and many others. Lachenmann fragments the ancient text, taken from a mediaeval prayer, into its component vowels and consonants; and, for this listener at least, there is little obvious relationship between the words and the music created, brilliantly performed though it is. Janson’s Nocturne comes from the same period, but seems to me, though it shows the same preoccupation with language as sound, a more successful piece as music.

Another Nørgård piece is found on track 5. This is Singe die Gärten, mein Herz (‘Sing, my heart, of gardens you do not know’), a setting of part of a complex poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, which deals with the relationship of past, present and future, and of memory and perception. Again, Nørgård creates an unforgettable texture, with sudden reminiscences of earlier music emerging – Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh and Ave Maria.

With track 6, we return to an earlier more ‘experimental’ idiom. In Nuits Greek-French composer Iannis Xenakis assembled fragments of ancient ‘dead’ languages such as Sumerian and Assyrian. So the sound-world is as strange as those of Lachenmann and Saariaho, with maybe the influence of Indonesian music such as the Balinese Kecak or ‘monkey-chant’; yet I found the overall musical impact superior to those earlier tracks, perhaps because of the power of Xenakis’ imagination, and the way these feral noises are fashioned into a musical shape, without losing their strangeness. Xenakis had a life that was in many ways tragic, with his creative paths constantly interrupted or violently diverted by war and upheaval. Indeed he was facially maimed by a shell from a British tank in 1944, and his recovery from the wounds was seen as miraculous. So it’s not surprising to learn that this work is dedicated to political prisoners – to ‘the thousands of the forgotten whose very names are lost’ as the composer himself put it.

The final track brings more Saariaho, her Nuits, adieux, a gentle meditation on two texts, taken from novels by Roubaud and Balzac. Evocative of night, sleep and dreaming, there is, as elsewhere on the disc, singing of great beauty from the soloists emerging from the group, in this case soprano Ditte Maria Bræin (who is also magnificent in Drømmesange), alto Astrid Sandvand Dahlen, tenor Oystein Stensheim and bass Olle Holmgren. The talent and musical imagination on display in this issue are of the very highest quality – quite an experience.

Gwyn Parry-Jones


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