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Like to the Lark
Maria Forsström (mezzo-soprano)
Jennifer Pike (violin)
The Swedish Chamber Choir/Simon Phipps
rec. 2019, Ĺrstads Kyrka, Heberg, Sweden

The title of this enjoyable disc is taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet No.29:

Like to the Lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.

and as far as its content is concerned, applies to the unusual arrangement of Vaughan Williams’ ubiquitous The Lark Ascending, although that piece was inspired by a poem by George Meredith. Here the orchestra is replaced by a chamber choir, with the original violin part being retained. The booklet notes discuss the suitability of the arrangement (by Paul Drayton), and notes that the words of the poem are sung beginning in the folk-like central section. I recently attended a performance of The Lark Ascending in its original version for Violin and Piano in a recital by the same Jennifer Pike that we hear here. She was accompanied then by Martin Roscoe, and hearing the work as Vaughan Williams originally wrote it was a most enjoyable and re-energizing experience and I must say that for me this choral arrangement works well. My occasional hearings of Classic FM when I am in the car, have inured me to the orchestral version (and the same can be said about Rimsky’s Scheherazade and Dvorak’s New World Symphony). This performance makes one sit up and listen to the piece with renewed interest; the experience is helped by the quality of the singing and violin playing and the very effective transcription.

The disk begins with RVW’s 1902 setting of a Christina Rossetti poem Rest.  I don’t think that I have heard it before, but the composer was just thirty when he composed it, and, his being a late developer, it is not surprising that it shows few individual fingerprints, pleasant and beautifully sung though it is.

It is followed by a short masterpiece: his 1950 setting of three Shakespeare songs, in which his later, austere style is evident, particularly in the second song The Cloud Capp’d Towers, taken from Prospero’s wonderful speech from Act IV of The Tempest. Despite, or perhaps because of, its austere style, it never fails to send shivers down my spine, and this is a lovely performance. The two songs on either side of it are delightfully sung as well, but it is to this middle one which I return again and again.

Judith Bingham has written a poem, The Drowned Lovers, which she set to music with the intent that it be sung as a prequel to Stanford’s The Blue Bird. The lake in both is the same, and we hear the bird fly over the scene of a murderous revenge. Composed for chorus and solo mezzo-soprano, its lush harmonies have been transformed by Bingham into a fittingly chilly foreshadowing, and it works very well indeed, making one listen anew to the familiar Stanford. Mezzo Maria Forsström does it full justice.

The setting of Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen, left me a little unmoved. Despite the beautiful sounds, I think that I am too enamoured of a soprano voice singing the piece, especially if that voice is Christa Ludwig accompanied by Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic.

Given the excellence of this Swedish choir it is only natural that the CD should include pieces by three Swedish composers, Stenhammer, Alfven and David Wikander, a contemporary of Alfven.  He is represented by his Kung Liljekonvalje (King Lily of the Valley), which is regarded as being at the pinnacle of Swedish choral art, a miniature tribute to natural beauty and human emotion. I have never heard it before, but in its four-minute span it displays a great, yearning beauty, and I’m not surprised that the Swedes rate it so highly.

Stenhammer is, of course, well-known, and his symphonies and concertos have been recorded many times. These three short choral pieces from his nineteenth year do not strike me as being particularly distinctive, although they are lovely to listen to, if not very memorable.

A similar comment applies to the two Alfvén songs, which are, in fact, folk-song settings, although, unlike Stenhammer, he was about 50 when he produced them. Alfvén was a prominent choral conductor, and so had plenty of experience to draw on when composing choral arrangements. As one might expect, they make a pleasing listening experience, and are popular in Sweden.

The last work on the CD is Ola Gjeilo’s Serenity, his 2010 setting of the ancient text O magnum mysterium, for mixed chorus with violin. Like the RVW piece, the combination works beautifully, with the solo violin soaring above the intense choral sounds. I was rather surprised by how much I like this piece, it being both modern yet approachable.

In summary, this is a highly approachable disc and The Lark Ascending more than merits an airing on the radio as a lovely alternative to its usual orchestral presentation. Chandos’ production standards achieve their normal excellence, with a very informative yet readable booklet in English, German and French. Naturally enough, the SACD recording (played in stereo via my SACD player) is superb and the performances exceptional.

Jim Westhead

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Rest (1902) [4:12]
Three Shakespeare Songs (1951) [6:58]
The Lark Ascending (1920) Arr. 2018 by Paul Drayton [15:29]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
The Drowned Lovers (2009) [5:33]
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Blue Bird, Op.119 No.3 (1910) [3:44]
Wilhelm STENHAMMER (1871-1927)
Three Choral Songs (1890) [6:38]
Hugo ALFVÉN (1872-1960)
Uti vĺr hage (In our Meadow) (1923) [2:34]
Limu, limu, lima (1923) [1:26]
David WIKANDER (1884-1955)
Kung Liljekonvalje (King Lily of the Valley) [3:50]
Gustav MAHLER [1860-1911)
Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (1901) Arr. 1983 by Clytus Gottwald
Ola GJEILO (b. 1978)
Serenity (O magnum mysterium) 

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