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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Alfred JANSON (b 1937)
The Wind Blows
3 Poems by Ebba Lindqvist, for mixed choir and melodica (1975-80) [4:14]
The Wind Blows, Where It Wishes, for mixed choir, violin, cello and bassoon (2016) [8:55]
N er det fint leve, for mixed choir and piano (1983) [3:54]
Lille mor klode, for mixed choir, piano and melodica (1983) [4:51]
Sarabande, for double choir and ensemble (1995) [11:53]
Sonnet No. 76 [5:56], for choir and baritone solo (2000) [5:48]
Construction, for mixed choir and instruments (1963) [8:18]
Ky og vakre Madame Ky, for mixed choir, piano and melodica (1967) [4:32]
Viska du vind, for mixed choir, piano and melodica (1973) [3:22]
Nocturne, for double choir and ensemble (1967) [9:03]
Alfred Janson (melodica)
Emilie Heldal Lidsheim, Maria Angelika Carlsen (violins)
Jan Clemens Carlsen (cello)
Embrik Snerte (bassoon)
Helge Lien (piano)
Eirik Krokfjord (baritone)
Anders Kregnes Hanse (percussion)
Oslo Sinfonietta
Norwegian Soloists Choir/Grete Pedersen
rec. 2014-17, Sofienberg Kirke &)
Ris Kirke, Oslo
Texts and translations included
Reviewed in stereo and SACD surround
BIS BIS2341 SACD [66:28]

Alfred Janson occupies something of a niche position in Norwegian music. From his beginnings in the late 50s and early 60s in jazz, his more ‘art-music’ oriented compositions have often seemed designed to provoke audiences or the establishment. Geir Johnson’s learned booklet note begins with a consideration of the void in Norwegian classical music that directly followed World War II, probably as a result of the commonalities perceived by some composers at the time between the nationalistic aesthetic of Grieg and the Nazi cultural values that infected the country during its occupation. Small wonder that individuals such as Arne Nordheim and Janson chose to pursue a more modernist doctrine, one often linked to radical politics. In many ways Janson’s early pieces blazed a trail; hearing the provocatively titled Valse Triste for jazz quartet and pre-recorded tape (1970) is a superficial reminder of the appeal of collage techniques to composers of the time, but the use of a televised cultural debate as source material laid Janson’s political sympathies bare. Other works of this ilk which pricked the consciences of concert-goers in Norway during these years included his breakthrough work Construction and Hymn (1963) while the magnificent orchestral work Nasjonalsang (National Anthem-1988) is a half-hour train piece which many readers have possibly never heard with its fractured fanfares, off-kilter ostinati and cows!! (catch up with it here) Not that Janson completely turned his back on traditional forms – his String Quartet of 1978 has a whiff of Shostakovich about it.

One fairly constant preoccupation throughout Janson’s career has been choral music and it is unlikely it has ever received more committed and graceful advocacy than it gets from the Norwegian Soloists Choir on this absorbing new BIS SACD. The ten pieces included span 53 years, yet Janson’s clear focus on matching word, melodic line and texture in each case reveal a satisfying stylistic consistency and often profound originality. All bar one involve the use of single or multiple instruments, and one of the most haunting aspects of many of these works is the presence of the melodica, played by the composer himself. In fact, the first sounds one hears on this disc is a wistful melody on this instrument, which will undoubtedly evoke the spirit of the late, great Belgian harmonica player ‘Toots’ Thielemans for many listeners. This opens the 3 Poems by Ebba Lindqvist, a Swedish writer who took much of her inspiration from the local landscape. These tiny nature pieces are packed with incident and convey an autumnal radiance. The long unison lines and sporadic harmonic luxuriance are spellbinding, but what strikes one immediately is Janson’s devotion to the letter of the text, and the crystalline clarity of the choir’s delivery of it. Even more than this, this is a recording which absolutely demands to be heard in its Surround manifestation. The sonics are astounding and lay bare the purity and excellence of this ensemble.

The next piece is the most recent and gives the album its name. ‘The Wind Blows, Where It Wishes’ is the only piece here which features the composer’s own words, although they amount to a free improvisation based on John 3:8 from the New Testament. This is an enigmatic admixture of monosyllabically spoken text, eerie whispered and gently percussive wind effects and rhapsodising violin, cello and bassoon. It certainly weaves a complex and intricate web of sound. We then hear two short, satirical pieces with piano to texts by Arild Nyquist which leave the listener in no doubt of Janson’s political leanings. N er det fint leve (This is a great time to live) could almost have been a hit from a satirical revue – its text encapsulating how colour TV has improved our lives to such a degree that watching the news now truly brings the horrors of the world to life. Lille Mor Klode (Little Mother Globe) is an environmentalist’s paean written long before such sentiments were fashionable. There is an underlying melancholy to both of these pieces, while the blending of solo and tutti is magically handled by Janson. The response of the choir to these powerful little songs is one of impassioned commitment. At just shy of 12 minutes Sarabande is the longest piece on the disc, a rather pointillistic, syllabic setting of a 17-word aphorism by Emily Dickinson. The spare instrumental accompaniment (2 each of horns, violins and cellos with organ and percussion) interlocks almost mechanically with the spartan choral material and creates an extraordinary dandelion-clock in sound which muses on life’s brevity. It builds with belated inevitability into a work of enormous and unlikely power and truly creeps up on one; another of these pieces that truly gains in its Surround guise.

The only unaccompanied piece here is Jansson’s setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No 76 “Why is my verse so barren of new pride?”. At its outset the text is gently and beautifully declaimed by the baritone Eirik Krokford over a low drone and commentary from the remainder of the choir. But it emerges into something yet more elegant and complex. Without an instrumental backdrop the purity of the singing can be appreciated without distraction. It leads into another melodica intro which prefaces Janson’s re-jigging of his early orchestral success ‘Construction and Hymn’ (here just ‘Construction’); this begins with unearthly whistling sounds. There is no text, simply an appealing, drifting and intensifying cloud of beautiful vocal gliding and swooping over a background punctuated by clicking, tinkling, rumbling percussion. It’s rather Ligetian and unforgettably spectacular through multiple speakers.

The Vietnam inspired Ky og vakre Madame Ky (Ky and fair Madame Ky) seems at first to inhabit a rock groove, its spare accompaniment perhaps amplifying its austere message until a delicious pentatonic piano splash provides local colour while the more generalised idealism of Viskka du vind (Whisper, wind, of a better World) has a dark, sad beauty that the choir effortlessly project, its concluding chorale oddly reminiscent of the hymn from Finlandia. The disc ends with the gorgeous shimmering Nocturne in a recording which appeared on an earlier Norwegian Soloists Choir release on BIS, As Dreams (review). This is a shimmering dream sequence from 1967 which again drips with those dense chordal textures which will once more be familiar to admirers of Ligeti. Though there is absolutely no hint of slavish imitation here – Janson’s Nocturne is by turns beatific and terrifying, its darkness underlined by vivid, rumbling percussion.

This is an ear-opening recital of wondrously-crafted choral music by a singular figure in post-war Norwegian music whose output seems to have been studiously ignored outside of Norway and Sweden, where his is a household name. I suspect British choirs would love to perform many of Janson’s vibrant, provocative works. Of course, it’s difficult to imagine any group surpassing the performances of Grete Pedersen’s remarkable Norwegian Soloists Choir, however. They emerge with depth and clarity through two speakers, but to get the most from this disc I implore listeners to try the Surround option. If that nice Mr von Bahr is reading this, please could we have some of Alfred Janson’s orchestral music, Nasjonalsang for example? In Surround, perhaps? In this fractured, weird world his time has surely come.

Richard Hanlon
 




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