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Reviews: Michala Petri with The Danish National Vocal Ensemble

Reviews: 1

Review by larsmusik December 31, 2012 (2 of 2 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:
(Following is an excerpt from my review for Choral Journal, published by the American Choral Directors Association:) Danish recorder virtuoso Michala Petri had collaborated with a choir several times during her career, but she found her 2007 experience with Swedish composer Daniel Börtz (b. 1943) especially rewarding. Following the Stockholm premiere of Börtz’s Nemesis divina, Petri and guitarist husband Lars Hannibal, who produces her recordings for their own label, actively began to seek out further choral collaborators. First to join them was Latvian composer Ugis Praulins (b. 1957), who proposed a text drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s beloved tale The Nightingale, and drew in conductor Stephen Layton. Layton was then directing the newly formed Danish National Vocal Ensemble, which seemed a good match for the project. They were eventually joined by composers Sunleif Rasmussen (Faroese) and Peter Bruun (a Dane), both recent winners of the Nordic Council of Music award. The resulting disc reveals the stunning variety and vitality of North European choral music today.

Although all four composers here offer choral works of the highest quality (and technical difficulty), the music of Praulins and Bruun stands out. Praulins’ The Nightingale rightly leads off the program. Its eclectic, dynamic character will remind some listeners of works like Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine. The composer’s background in progressive and heavy-metal rock bands, Latvian folk music and ritual, film and television scoring, and Renaissance counterpoint has enabled him to produce a continuously changing tapestry of sound that nevertheless hangs together remarkably well, effortlessly expressing the fancy in the Andersen fragments. And it all sounds quite “vocal,” including the phenomenal part for solo recorder, which is woven throughout the score, often sharing material with the singers.

In his Two Scenes with Skylark, Peter Bruun (b. 1968) relies on more traditional long-form poetry, in this case two of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “skylark” poems. As Joshua Cheek writes in his excellent program notes, “Rising above the earth and soaring through the skies, Hopkins’ birds are metaphors for the soul . . . leading mortals to contemplate supernatural realms that lie beyond ordinary experience.” The first poem, “The Sea and the Skylark,” celebrates the power and freedom of nature and its least land-bound creatures; here the soprano recorder easily assumes the role of the ascending lark, “his rash-fresh re-winded new-skeinéd score” appearing to “pour / And pelt music, till none’s to spill nor spend.” In contrast, the second setting, “The Caged Skylark,” meditates on humanity’s futile, earthbound existence; Petri switches to tenor recorder, breathy, somber, closer to the human voice. Bruun’s choral style is more traditional, and he has managed the difficult feat of complementing Hopkins’ poetry without offering unwelcome competition to the poet’s incomparable reinventions of English.

The other two selections more than hold their own in this distinguished company. Börtz’s Nemesis divina, based on philosophic writings by the eighteenth-century botanist Carl Linnaeus, pays homage to the composer’s countryman and sometime collaborator, filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Börtz “has [often] engaged the metaphysical darkness found in many of Bergman’s films” (Cheek) and does so here, but the outcome is never less than engaging, because Börtz’s sense of drama always informs his sure control of musical structure. Likewise I, by Sunleif Rasmussen (b. 1961) provides an engrossing examination of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, as deconstructed by Danish poet Inger Christensen. Petri’s bass and soprano recorders blend seamlessly with the expert singing of the DNVE.

Everything was recorded in the resonant space of Copenhagen’s Christianskirken, but fortunately the acoustic enlivens the sound of the twenty-voice choir and the soloist rather than swamping them in sonic mud. The vocal soloists are drawn from the choir and do a superb job, as did conductor Layton. This was probably the single most enjoyable choral recording I encountered in 2011. I see that it has been nominated for a couple of Grammy Awards. One can only hope that the disc sells well, and that the music will be more widely performed; perhaps the composers will be persuaded to offer editions with the recorder part modified for a flutist. Not everyone can call upon a soloist as skilled as Michala Petri, and it would be a shame if these glorious pieces were consigned to oblivion because the “star” was not available to render her lines.

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