Schola cantorum Reykjavicensis/H÷rur ┴skelsson
rec. October, 2015, Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland
Original texts and English translations included BIS BIS-2200 SACD [58:03]
The Schola cantorum is a chamber choir – on this evidence an elite chamber choir - founded in 1996 by H÷rur ┴skelsson, who is a leading figure in Icelandic choral music. It numbers 19 singers (5/4/5/5). The programme selected for this disc reflects the memorial music that is customarily sung in Iceland on the first Sunday in November; in Iceland the feasts of All Saints and All Souls have become merged and are celebrated jointly on that day. Some pieces by the ‘usual suspects’ such as James MacMillan, Morten Lauridsen, Eriks Ešenvalds and Arvo Pńrt are included and I’m glad of that; all these are eminent composers and the chosen works are fine examples of their respective crafts. However, it’s very good to encounter for the first time a number of pieces by Icelandic composers. The title of the disc is rather a giveaway: most of the music here is slow-paced and contemplative. However, don’t let that put you off; the programme has been shrewdly chosen and there’s plenty of contrast within it.
As befits the nature of the programme, there are no less than three settings, all in Latin, of the Nunc dimittis. The best-known is the setting by Arvo Pńrt. His music always requires exemplary control on the part of the singers and that’s much in evidence here. There’s no hiding place in Pńrt’s spare texture but the singers of Schola cantorum display great precision – a precision, I might add, that’s entirely at the service of the music and not just attained for its own sake. The other two settings of the canticle are fully worthy to stand besides Pńrt’s celebrated version. Both are by members of the Schola – by coincidence both are members of its bass section. The music of Sigurur SŠvarsson’s setting has a fragile beauty. The setting is very restrained, even eschewing the almost traditional climax at the words ‘lumen ad revelationem gentium’. The setting by SŠvarsson’s colleague, Hreiar Ingi is rather darker-hued, at least initially, though the music becomes louder and more radiant at ‘lumen ad revelationem gentium’. In the doxology the voices constantly overlap, creating an impression of urgency though it may be – I haven’t seen a score – that the pulse remains unchanged.
There are two settings of the poem HvÝld (Repose) by the Icelandic poet, Snorri Hjartarson (1906-86). One is by the Schola’s conductor, H÷rur ┴skelsson. His is an intriguing piece, containing probably the most harmonically adventurous music on the programme. Earlier the choir sings another response to the same text, this time by Hugi Gumundsson. This rapt composition is simple, sincere and disarmingly lovely.
The music of Jˇn Leifs has attracted increasing attention outside his native Iceland in recent years, for which BIS must take a good deal of credit through a series of CD releases. To date I’ve only heard orchestral music by Leifs and these pieces have invariably used large forces. Requiem, the text of which has nothing to do with the Mass for the Dead, by the way, is very different. It is one of four works written in response to the tragically early death of his daughter in 1947 – she drowned at the age of just 17. Leifs’ Requiem is patently sincere – one would expect nothing less in the circumstances – and in this piece he bears his evident grief with dignity. On the surface the music seems simple but harmonically it’s sophisticated. I admired this piece very much.
There are two examples of the music of Ůorkell Sigurbj÷rnsson. N˙ hverfur sˇl Ý haf (The sun is sinking now) is a hymn – Sigurbj÷rnsson was closely involved in the music of the Church of Iceland. The tune is most attractive and it’s beautifully harmonised by Sigurbj÷rnsson. Heyr himna smiur (Hear, Heaven’s creator) is another hymn-like piece. In his invaluable notes Halldˇr Hauksson describes the piece as ‘exquisite and timeless’; I can understand why. I must not neglect to mention Anna Ůorvaldsdˇttir’s Heyr ■˙ oss himnum ß (Hear us in the heavens). The piece is based on an old Icelandic tune; it’s slow and prayerful.
The remainder of the programme is devoted to composers and music that will be much more familiar to the general listener. I must confess that when I first played MacMillan’s A Child’s Prayer I thought the sound a bit too ‘present’, especially the quiet murmurs of the word “welcome” by the choir. However, I think that’s a function of the piece being placed first on the disc. When I went back to it my ears had adjusted and I was untroubled. In any event, it’s an extremely fine performance. Tavener’s The Lamb receives a marvellously accomplished performance, the chording precise and the dynamics expertly calibrated. Speaking of dynamics, the notes contain a quote from Eric Whitacre in which he says of his Lux aurumque ‘if the tight harmonies are carefully tuned and balanced they will shimmer and glow’. That’s just what happens here.
For me the standout performance on this superb disc is the Schola’s account of Eriks Ešenvalds’ O salutaris hostia. This is a wonderful, radiant composition and I’ve had the good fortune to hear some excellent performances of it in recent years. This present performance is as good as any I’ve heard with two fabulous soprano soloists carolling above the rest of the choir. So impressed was I by this luminous account of the work that I put down my notepad and immediately repeated it just for the sheer pleasure of hearing it.
This is truly an outstanding disc. The choir is superb. Their tuning, balance and blend is flawless and the sound that they make gives great pleasure. Yet while the singing may be expert there’s no sense of studied perfection; these expert singers and their conductor produce performances of genuine feeling that draw the listener in. In short, this is one of the most accomplished choral discs that I’ve heard in a long time. I loved their programme in which familiar and unfamiliar music is blended in an ideal proportion.
The production values are up to the usual BIS standards, which is to say that they’re very high. Halldˇr Hauksson’s notes are excellent, not least in introducing us to the Icelandic pieces, which will be unfamiliar to most people. I’ve drawn on his notes in writing of the Icelandic music. The recording itself, to which I listened as an SACD, is immaculate. The choir is presented in a clear, natural and present sound that shows off their singing to best advantage.