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Thomas JENNEFELT (b. 1954)
Nocturnal Singing (2010) [32:28]
Four Opera Choruses (2016) [27:21]
Jessica Bäcklund (soprano)
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir
Swedish Radio Choir and Symphony Orchestra / Andrew Manze (Nocturnal)
The Royal Swedish Navy Band / Fredeik Malmberg (Choruses)
rec. 2010/16, Berwaldhallen & the Konserthuset, Stockholm
Some texts and English translations included

As a former member of the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir himself it is perhaps unsurprising that Thomas Jennefelt has found fame primarily as a choral composer. He first made his name in 1977 with Warning to the Rich, a setting for baritone and choir of words from the Epistle of St James, a paean to the evils of materialism. Text is of central importance to his output – indeed many of his works rely on texts of his own making, including the Villarosa Sequences (1993-2001), which Rob Barnett enjoyed on a Proprius release (PRCD 2029) back in 2003. He has also composed a choral setting of some of Heine’s Dichterliebe poems, immortalised in Schumann’s song cycle.

Jennefelt’s half-hour choral and orchestral work Nocturnal Singing was commissioned by Eric Ericson himself to celebrate the legendary conductor’s 90th birthday in 2008. In a terse explanatory note for the piece in the accompanying booklet, the composer argues that night is ultimately a sanctuary for humans in which we can listen without necessarily having to see. He also points out that the song of the robin has been drowned out by city life to the extent that urban robins have learnt to wait until after night has fallen before recommencing their songs. The piece is thus dedicated both to Ericsson and to the robin, “…for constantly finding new ways for singing to survive”. There is a delightful photograph of the bird at dusk on the sleeve.

The dramatic wordless flourish with which the piece starts is astringent and striking, its string accompaniment heartfelt and pained – almost Pettersson-like. It quickly becomes clear that Jennefelt’s writing for voices is spirited, expert and virtuosic and there are some obviously attractive choral effects in the piece, both avian and nocturnal. The text seems to be wordless and although the chorus engages in what appears to be syllabic chanting at sporadic points the lack of a text or translation for this work in the booklet leads me to conclude that Jennefelt is simply building sonic contrast – indeed he has made regular use of wordless texts and invented language in his choral output. Roughly a third of the way through Nocturnal Singing, the soprano Jessica Bäcklund provides a vocalise which seems more rooted in authentic birdsong. Listeners who are familiar with some of the choral music of the Finn Erik Bergman may identify some kinship between the two Scandinavians. As the work approaches its coda, the strings become busier and adopt more obviously minimalist postures – here the effects superficially at least resemble the closing pages of Steve Reich’s Desert Music.

While there are indubitably some beautiful episodes in Nocturnal Singing I felt that the piece rather outstayed its welcome. It relies substantially on repetition and the veiled colours that dominate the work rather mute its impact. Though the orchestra seems to be limited to strings alone, I found the sonics of this work’s recording to be rather congested at times, to the point that the orchestra seems overwhelmed by the choir in its more virile, assertive passages - an effect that I suspect is not deliberate. The Swedish Radio Choir cope admirably with the demanding choral writing while Andrew Manze performs wonders in making some coherent sense of the whole edifice. While other listeners may not agree, I feel this work might have benefitted from some judicious pruning.

The unusual conceit of the recent Four Opera Choruses (for the first three of which there are texts and translations) is that Jennefelt has yet to write the operas in question, although he seems to have a pretty good idea of what three of them, at least, will involve. Whether they will actually see the light of day, though, is another question entirely. These choruses are accompanied, unusually, by what appears to be a wind band. Thus the imagined opera Sightseeing concerns the inhabitants of a holiday location who are deliberately kept out of tourists’ way. In its Chorus of the Deported the writing for the band is perky and colourful especially since it involves lots of percussion. The singing is largely declamatory and fractured, and the Eric Ericson Chamber Choir perform it with polish and verve. The clarity of the recording is outstanding and immediately throws that provided for Nocturnal Singing into sharp relief. Midsummer Night comes from the projected opera About the Murder of Olof Palme which addresses the ‘flashbulb memory’ of the assassination of the Swedish Prime Minister in 1986 from the perspective of the Swedes of a distant future, who might perhaps see it in legendary, pseudo-historical terms. Thus the text is formed of fragments from Swedish folksong, while the action focuses on a slow, midsummer ritual. There is an appropriately archaic, timeless purity in Jennefelt’s intricately conceived music here. The band accompaniment is reticent and magical. At the party comes from an opera-idea entitled Dresden 1983 inspired by Uwe Tellkamp’s novel ‘The Tower’ which concerns the demise of East Germany. This begins with a part crowd chattering. The chorus is excited and almost expressionistic – the writing for band is agile, almost improvisatory. I wonder if the (rather obvious) influence of Henze here is deliberate or unconscious. Jennefelt gives little away about the opera The Greatest Love whose ‘Final Chorus’ concludes this disc. And again for this no text is provided; as in Nocturnal Singing the text sounds invented, not any actual language. It begins tentatively, with fragmented motifs sung by the female chorus over a hallucinatory tuned percussion backdrop. It builds solemnly but with a surer sense of direction, with the textures of both chorus and band filling out satisfyingly.

Inevitably, the material contained within these choruses is more obviously theatrical than the content of Nocturnal Singing; paradoxically they benefit from what appears to be a studio rather than a live recording. The detail of Jennefelt’s splendid writing for both voices and instruments consequently emerges with real clarity and immediacy. The Eric Ericson Chamber Choir gives a virtuoso account of these intriguing ‘trailers’ while the accompaniment of the Royal Swedish Navy Band under Fredrik Malmberg is both stylish and unfailingly sympathetic to Jennefelt’s diffuse inspiration. Notwithstanding my remarks about the length of Nocturnal Singing, I suspect that work might have elicited a more positive response from this reviewer had it been recorded in the more sympathetic environment provided for the Four Opera Choruses.

Richard Hanlon

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