Folkjul II: A Swedish Folk Christmas
Arrangements by Gunnar Idenstam
Ulrika Boden (vocal/fipple flute)
Sandra Marteleur (violin)
Gunnar Idenstam (organ)
St Jacobs Kammarkor/Gary Graden
rec. 2017, Eric Ericsonhallen, Stockholm
BIS BIS-2334 SACD [73.21]
The booklet of this beautifully-presented disc opens by explaining the “not always easy coexistence” between the folk culture prelevant in Sweden over the past centuries and “high culture”, often of a religious nature. This disc attempts to bridge this gap with respect to Christmas music.
The disc opens traditionally with choir (the most admirable St Jacobs Kammarkor) and organ (played by Gunnar Idenstam) performing the old Basque carol Gabriel’s Message, used by the choir in their performances of the Folkjul repertoire as a processional hymn. It immediately sets the bar high for quality of performances.
The second track aptly demonstrates the aim of the disc as set out in the booklet notes. This combines a traditional hymn - All Hail to Three, O Blessed Morn – sung by choir and interwoven with folk melodies played (very well indeed – none of the scratchy tone that sometimes can come with the folk territory) by folk violinist Sandra Marteleur, and with one verse sung by folk singer Ulrika Boden. You feel it shouldn’t work, but it does, and it is infectiously joyful.
After In dulci jubilo we have a Staffan ballad – with its origins in a pre-Christian horse culture which then converted - as so many pagan elements were subsumed by Christianity – into worship of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr and, neatly, claimed by legend to be King Herod’s stable boy.
Ulrika Boden also appears as a flautist playing the fipple flute in, for example, Polska by Viktor Gabrielsson, which is perhaps the most saccharine work on the disc. As well as arrangements of traditional works, we also have a few modern compositions, such as A Gangar with your Coffee by violinist Sandra Marteuleur, written as a wedding gift, or A Polska for Christmas, another work written as a gift, this time by Gunnar Idenstam.
A Star Shines bright is a traditional folk song which is full of atmosphere, and in which the organ works surprisingly well as a background folk instrument; while another Staffan ballad is combined with the Musette from The Notebook of Anna Magdalena Bach. In A Star Passed Across the Sky Idenstam has taken a mediaeval carol, combined it with a folk-like tune, and then at the end converts it into a Swedish polska, which, again, works very well indeed. This is followed by The Blessed Day – a traditional performance of a Scandinavian song to a tune from the far north of Sweden.
The disc concludes with the well-known Lutheran Christmas hymn From Heaven Above, which Idenstam combines with a new folk melody; this builds up to the most tremendous climax at the end, and when Ulrika Boden joins the choir, thundering organ and nimbly weaving violin with kulning, the emotional impact is almost overwhelming.
In essence, this is a brilliant disc. All the arrangements – made by Gunnar Idenstam – work really well. Part of the reason for this may be the judicious use of a single instrument – the violin – representing the instrumental folk element and weaving around the choir; possibly it is also because the violin line is very rhythmically defined and adds something harmonically too; and it is also because the choir sing so mellifluously. The ensemble of the St Jacob’s Kammarkor is spectacularly good for a church choir. The organ playing impresses as well – Idenstam is always there, exactly on time, whether accompanying choir or dancing with the violin. The two folk musicians are on top form too, making this an exceptional, truly unusual and thoroughly enjoyable disc for Christmas.
Gabriel’s Message [2.25]
All Hail to Three, O Blessed Morn [8.13]
In dulci jubilo [4.244]
Begging Song from Malung [3.44]
Polska by Viktor Gabrielsson [4.29]
God’s Angel Now Sing [1.55]
A Gangar with your Coffee [3.01]
A Star Shines bright [6.30]
A Thousand Candles are Now Lit [2.12]
A Polska for Christmas [4.15]
Staffan Ballad / Musette [4.44]
Staffan Halling II [2.36]
A Star Passed Across the Sky [5.48]
The Blessed Day [2.27]
Upon the Bright Star [4.11]
Christmas Morning [3.48]
From Heaven Above [6.53]