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The Cloud of Unknowing
Kim Hellgren (viola)
Markus Wargh, Aaron Sunstein (organ)
Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble/Erik Westberg
rec. 2019-21, Studio Acusticum, Piteå; Nederluleå Church, Sweden
Sung texts in English and Latin (Lux aeterna) enclosed, the latter with English translation

The multi-talented Carl Unander-Scharin’s The Cloud of Unknowing lends its title to the whole collection and also occupies roughly half the total playing time of the disc. As a composer he has mainly written works with vocal elements, including 12 operas. His second opera, Tokfursten (1996), was also recorded and has also been revived and staged about a decade ago (review). He is also a prominent singer, organist, conductor and inventor (!). The Cloud of Unknowing is, besides its musical value, also textually a remarkable work. The text was written by an anonymous monk in 14th century England. I quote Unander-Scharin’s own text in the booklet: “[It] revolves around the timeless question of how to understand and to know God. The only way to do that, according to ‘The Cloud’, is to abandon consideration of God’s particular activities and attributes, and to surrender one’s mind and ego to the realm of ‘unknowing’, at which point one may begin to perceive the nature of God.” He has also included in the composition some sentences from another work by the same monk. Thus we have here a juxtaposition of words from almost a millennium back in time with music from our own time. The mind boggles. My personal reaction to this monumental work is a kind of humbleness. I’m not an active believer, but I respect those who are and realise that the thoughts and questions expressed in the ancient texts are highly topical today. Thus the tonal language of Carl Unander-Scharin, flexible, expressive and decidedly of our time, might help understanding that the eternal questions belong in the present time as well. Without specifically following the texts in detail I was caught by the power of the music, wallowing forth full of confidence. In a way I feel the same timelessness as when I listen to Sven David Sandström’s settings of the same texts that Bach set more than 250 years earlier. I will certainly be returning to both in the future.

The programme as a whole is a rather mixed bag. I found Paula af Malmborg Ward’s Solspel (Sunplay) quite diffuse. The subtitle says 55 bars before dusk, but I honestly hear more dusk than sun. On the other hand I was quite taken aback by the expressivity of Fredrik Högberg’s enthralling Why do you Dance? The title emanates from an interview with Pablo Picasso, who obviously meant that it was a non-question. “You don’t ask a fish why it swims or a bird why it flies.” It’s part of life. Here powerful chords from the whole choir intersperse with moments of conversation, sometimes soloistic, rhythmically dancing, intensified by some folk-fiddling by the viola. Then, towards the end, calm stillness with the viola singing beautifully, echoing Picasso’s words: “She is inside you, dance, paint, love.” Totally beguiling. This is Fredrik Högberg’s first choral composition, an auspicious start!

Kim Hellgren’s viola also plays a central part in Andrea Tarrodi’s beautiful and autumnal Poppies in October. The text is by Sylvia Plath, published posthumously in 1965, and in the nots Tarrodi says: “The poem … already sang by itself, and it was almost as if I was taking dictation from her when I composed the work.” Tarrodi has during the last decade or so produced a number of highly evocative and colourful orchestral works. But she has a wide scope of talent. Her string quartets made a great impression on me a couple of years ago, as did a few piano compositions. For some reason I had never heard any of her choral compositions – which are quite numerous I found when checking her list of works – and the loss is certainly mine.

Two sacred works complete the disc. Brett Dean’s Was it a Voice?, written for the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge in 2014, is the only work here that has been previously recorded. The work, composed for Ascension Day, has a distinct feeling of the mystery surrounding the whole passion story. Jan Sandström’s Lux Aeterna has an interesting history. Originally composed in 1988 to another text, Nunc Dimittis, for the inauguration of the church music education in the School of Music in Piteå in 1990. In 2016 Johannes Pollak, a former student at the composition programme in Piteå, reworked the piece with the Nata lux text. In 2019 Erik Westberg suggested that Sandström adapted the music for the Lux Aeterna text, and the radiant, almost hypnotic piece becomes a jubilant bridge-over to Unander-Scharin’s The Cloud of Unknowing.

The singing is in every respect superior, and the commitment is obvious. The Erik Westberg Vocal Ensemble are the best imaginable advocates for this far from easy repertoire. And the recording is stupendous.

Göran Forsling

Fredrik Högberg (b. 1971)
1. Why do you dance? (2021) [7:52]
Paula af Malmborg Ward (b. 1962)
2. Sunplay – 55 Bars before Dusk (2020) [4:16]
Andrea Tarrodi (b. 1981)
3. Poppies in October (2021) [8:51]
Brett Dean (b. 1961)
4. Was it a Voice? (2014) [8:11]
Jan Sandström (b. 1954)
5. Lux Aeterna (1988/2019) [4:29]
Carl Unander-Scharin (b. 1964)
The Cloud of Unknowing (2019):
6. Cloud & Light [5:19]
7. Unknowing & Forgetting [5:47]
8. God & Love [3:38]
9. Darkness [4:11]
10. Nowhere bodily is everywhere ghostly [2:50]
11. Prayer [5:07]
All except (tr. 4) are World Premiere Recordings

Published October 27, 2022

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