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Lars Petter HAGEN (b. 1975)
Lament (2015) [15:50]
Nils Henrik ASHEIM (b. 1960)
Muohta - Language of Snow (2017) [20:42]
Arne NORDHEIM (1931-2010)
Aurora (1984) [21:27]
Norwegian Soloists’ Choir/Grete Pedersen
Daniel Paulsen, Terje Viken, Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen (percussion)
Ensemble Allegria
rec. 2018/19, Østre Frederikstad kirke; Ris kirke, Olslo, Norway
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
BIS BIS-2431 SACD [59:08]

The skill and musicality of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir has been a feature of BIS recordings for some time now, with albums such as Refractions (review) revealing their prowess in tricky a capella works in a variety of styles. With Lament they bring together “three important Norwegian composers who can all be described as grounded in modernism.” Hopefully this won’t scare too many people away, as the rewards to be found on this recording are rich indeed.

Lars Petter Hagen’s Lament for choir, electronics and percussion solo takes its text from a poem by E.E. Cummings, the words in which are fragmented and stretched beyond recognition. The piece is divided into three sections, the outer two of which are stunningly beautiful. Hagen’s music is characterised by “calmness and slow pace”, but this says nothing about the wonderfully juicy harmonies that he creates as the voices mingle and overlap. The first section has the low depths of some electronically processed sound sent into subterranean reaches, the second is brief and intense, with more violent bass drum action accompanying the voices as they explore closer intervals that relax into a third section in which those gorgeous harmonies regenerate, commented on with rustling and chimes from the percussionist Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen, who deserves applause for commissioning this work.

Nils Henrik Asheim’s Muohta for choir and string orchestra “consists of eighteen words in the Sami language, words which are all related to snow in different ways.” Each word has its own section and access point, many of which are less than a minute long. This might give you the idea of a series of miniatures, but nothing could be further from the truth. “The music carries the listener through a snowy landscape which undergoes smooth, almost imperceptible changes.” There is a wide-open serenity to much of the music, which to my mind’s eye is highly descriptive of white expanses, sometimes at the mercy of swirling winds, sometimes being trudged through or fought against. Texts are all printed in the booklet for this recording, and translated where necessary into English. In this case each word is given its own description, so you know what kind of snow is being represented, for instance, goahpálat, which is “moist snow that sticks to your clothing and other things.” There are some fabulous and sometimes dramatic illustrations of sliding and freezing, as well as highly atmospheric conjuring of animals sleeping or in motion. Both strings and voices have an equal part in these endlessly fascinating vignettes, and this is a powerful and strikingly successful work.

Arne Nordheim is the best known composer here by a long way, Nina Nielsen admitting in her booklet notes that he “was the Norwegian contemporary composer, winning the hearts of his audience (even if not always their ears) with his inborn curiosity, unquenchable playfulness and appetite for experimentation.” Aurora for choir, four soloists, two percussionists and electronics takes its texts from Psalm 139 sung in Latin and Hebrew, and the last canto of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This work was originally composed for the vocal ensemble Electric Phoenix, and it is their voices that appear in some of the electronics. The combination of choir and electronically altered voices, percussion and a variety of seemingly related effects creates at times a surreal set of juxtapositions, the lines between ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ being constantly blurred. There is a dedication: ‘In memoriam Cathy Berberian’, but the vocal writing doesn’t really dip into the extremes for which that particular artist became renowned. The expression here is both earthy and celestial, as it is in Dante’s words, the Italian of which brings about associations with Luciano Berio’s own ‘theatre of the imagination’ at certain moments. Nordheim’s idiom turned to a more lyrical, sometimes even quasi-tonal style from the 1970s, and Aurora has some fantastically beautiful passages to go along with some of the theatricality elsewhere.

In short, this is an excellent recording of some very fine music indeed. BIS’s SACD recording standards are superlative as usual, and other than the weak lack of capital letters in the typeface on the front cover, presentation is excellent in BIS’s now standard mini-LP gatefold packaging.

Dominy Clements

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