Thursday, November 02, 2006

Frost Psalms

Soon, Pete, I promise that I'll share my opinions about the several CDs that you lent me two weekends back. It's all good stuff, and they're scratching that non-classical itch nicely.

But, in the meantime, it's turned out to be a really good couple of days for listening to Northern European choral music from the 1970s.

After hearing one choir piece by Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932) on internet radio, I picked up a whole album used from Amazon, and it's absolutely delightful. Serious, but delightful: Nørgård's work from the late 70s is generous stuff, lyrically written in an extended tonal language that draws out the voices' natural consonant sonority while shadowing them with rich dissonances.

The title work, Frostsalme (1976, revised 2001), is a freely through-composed ten-minute work, setting two overlaid poems by late countryman Ole Sarvig with creamy harmonies and a judicious use of mildly avant-garde glissandos & unmeasured counterpoint. Some whistling and timbale twinkling, too. Very appealing.

Wie ein Kind (1980, rev. 1996), which has been recorded several different times, juxtaposes nonsense poetry by a Swiss schizophrenic with Rainer Maria Rilke. It's a disturbing combination, very effectively brewed into a grown-up lullaby with an ironic undertone, and laced with solo outbursts that sound like the Muppet Show's Koozbanian mating calls.

Occasionally I'll spend a lunch break listening to CDs in the University music library; finding no additional choral Nørgård on tap I found my way yesterday to the recording of Einojuhani Rautavaara's Vigilia, a two-part extraction (Vespers + Matins) from an all-night vigil he wrote for the Finnish Orthodox Church in 1971.

Rautavaara (b. 1928) is Finnish, and (like many other classical Finns) gaining an ever-wider reputation. Rautavaara's orchestral music is romantic and often overblown; this is the first choral music I've listened to, and it's more forceful, beautiful in that cathedral-like way only church music can be. The Vespers are especially good, with Byzantine-inspired chants taking root in full choral harmonies. Sturdy homophonic phrases are modally grounded but shine with unusual tonal colors as they wind their way around. Some movements lay out their texts recitationally, with a bass solist trading off with choral refrains; other movements are more songlike.

Finnish is a beautiful language, too: long vowels and a limited number of consonants make for savory but also chattery, often alliterative texts. Rautavaara can unspool such a line just right: in quiet moments the lightness of rhythmic snap and harmonic tug are poignant beyond any reasonable expectation.


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