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Erik BERGMAN (1911-2006)
Choral Works 1936-2000
Helsinki Chamber Choir/Nils Schweckendiek
rec. YLE Studio M2, Helsinki, 2011-2013.
BIS BIS-2252 [56:08 + 55:55]

The music of Erik Bergman has not enjoyed great popularity amongst record companies. Only a handful of discs are solely dedicated to his music. Things might be looking up: this is the second set dedicated to his choral music, a medium in which he excelled. The other is by the Sibelius Academy Vocal Ensemble, Male Voices for the Alba label (ABCD 392:1-3), a set which I was able to borrow and enjoy when it came out.

Bergman is looked upon as one of the pioneers of modern Finnish music. He composed music in most genres, and is credited with composing the first atonal work in Finland. He was also regarded as a very fine conductor, especially of choral music, something that led him to compose mainly for the various choral groups he was associated with. His choral output came to be seen as one the most significant in Europe after Second World War. He composed in many styles, from the Romanticism of his early works, most of which he withheld from the public, through atonalism and serialism, to primitivism, most of which can be found on the discs presented here. This present set offers the listener Bergman’s allowed complete music for mixed choir. It contains some very fine works, the vast majority of which receive their premier recording here.

From the opening baritone solo of S’amor non è, the first of his four settings of Petrarch’s sonnets in Petrarca-Suite, it is evident that Bergman is a composer who stretches his forces to the limit. Here Herman Wallén is excellent, especially in the almost Bergian “shriekspiel” quality of his singing, as are the Helsinki Chamber Choir. They all rise to the challenges posed by this music. There are also examples of Bergman’s more Romantic compositional style represented here, such as his Lamento–Burletta, a wordless chorus of some beauty in the Lamento section, before the Burletta section returns to his more avant-garde style. There follow the choruses from his Four Songs for mixed chorus, Op. 38a. Here the music shows the influence of the late-Romantic masters, such as Richard Strauss and even Sibelius.

What I find remarkable about the music presented in this set is Bergman’s use of a narrator. There may be only four works where there is spoken narration, but the composer also sometimes uses soloists to punctuate the chorus with a sung narration. In works such as Vestenvinden a wordless chorus sings over the top whilst other members sing the words speech-like. Riko Eklundh adds a very dramatic spoken line. This is a very short and interesting work. In Vårt land, one of his final compositions, Bergman takes the poem by John Ludvig Runeberg that forms the text of the Finnish national anthem and gives it a modernist treatment. Here, Riko Eklundh is excellent once again in his enunciation of the text, whilst the choir sometimes gives wordless support and sometimes emphasises specific parts of the text by singing what has been spoken.

The second disc opens with another piece for narrator and chorus, Nein zur Lebensangst. I find Herman Wallén’s narration a little less emphatic. This improves if the volume is turned up, so it might be a question of balance. The second disc also contains Tyttöset, which perhaps contains Bergman’s best-known piece for mixed chorus, Läksin mina Kesäyönä kämään. Tyttöset, composed in 1973, presents three traditional Finnish folk songs. One can understand why the first of these has become so popular. Its choral writing is split. One section sings the tune whilst another sings a more modernist line. An inclusion of two soloists almost gives it a sense of a question-and-answer song.

The final work of the disc and the whole set is the most significant and probably my favourite of the pieces presented here. Lasting twenty-three minutes, Väinämöinen is a setting from the Kalevala for narrator, four soloists and chorus. This is the latest work presented in the set, dating from 2000, just six years before the composer’s death. Here is a composer using all his powers to tell a story from the national epic. The result is an exceptional piece of music, one which firmly sets Bergman apart from Sibelius and secures his place as one of the leading choral composers of his generation.

As already indicated, the Helsinki Chamber Choir are in excellent form. This music raises many challenges, and they meet them all head on. The part played by the narrators and soloists cannot be underestimated in this music. They all acquit themselves well. It is a shame therefore, that Herman Wallén, who has an excellent singing voice, seems a little under-recorded in Nein zur Lebensangst. As always with BIS recordings, the booklet notes are most helpful, as are the full texts in their original language and in English.

Stuart Sillitoe

Disc contents

Petrarca-Suite, Op. 118 [15:09]
Gudarnas spår, Op. 88 [10:17]
Vestenvinden, Op. 73a [2:36]
Lamento–Burletta (1957) [4:46]
from Four Songs for mixed chorus, Op. 38a [3:19]
Mitt träd är pinjen, Op. 12, No. 5 [1:46]
Four Songs for mixed chorus, Op. 44b [4:53]
Psalm, Op. 50a [1:51]
Springtime, Op. 60 [3:43]
Vårt Land, Op. 146 [6:02]
Nein zur Lebensangst, Op.120 [7:51]
Hommage à Béla Bartók, Op. 132 [6:00]
Sommarnatt (1945) [2:31]
Nu är sommarn här (1943) [1:25]
Skärgårdsgossens visa (arr.) (1938) [1:50]
Den vän jag älskat haver jag nu mist (arr.) (1936)
Och gossen gick sig ut i morgonstund (1937) [1:42]
Tyttöset, Op. 73b [7:38]
Väinämöinen, Op. 147 [23:17]


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