Music for mixed choir
Schola Cantorum Reykjavicensis/Hörður Áskelsson
rec. 2021, Iceland
All texts, with translations, are included
BIS BIS-2618 SACD 
This is a first for me; a recording containing the work of fifteen different composers, only one of whom is older than yours truly! Added to that, almost all of the works here have been composed since the turn of the century. So, a truly unusual issue; but more unusual still – and more important – is the remarkable quality of the performance and recording, and the very great beauty of a number of the pieces. Almost all of them were new to me, as were many of the composers, but most of them made an immediate and profound impression.
The Schola Cantorum of Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, was founded in 1996 by their conductor, Hörður Áskelsson. They are a highly versatile ensemble, for as well as performing at major venues across the world, they have appeared with artists such as Björk, and even provided the soundtrack music for the video game God of Wars.
The prevailing mood of this disc is calm and meditative, in keeping with its title. But for those who listen carefully, there is plenty of variety, and plenty of passionate commitment too.
The first number, American composer Daniel Elder’s Elegy, is haunting; after the opening shifting harmonies, solo voices emerge to sing the simple intervals of the theme known in the US as ‘Taps’ – a bugle call that dates back to the Civil War, and is now associated with funerals and commemorative services of the US Armed Forces.
The tuning and tonal precision of this choir, whose members are predominantly young, is absolutely top class, and is a major reason why this issue is such balm on the ears. The superb balance of the voice parts equally contributes to this. In the third piece, Galina Grigorjeva’s In Paradisum, the choir rises from a quiet opening to a climax that peaks with a brilliant dissonance, then dissolves into a serene cadence.
Another portion of the Requiem text is set by HreiðarIngi Þorsteinsson in his Lux aeterna, the most extended and one of the most complex pieces on the disc, with long, sustained chords which build up inexorably in layers. Now and then, there is the contrast of more rapid chanting from the upper voices. This is a haunting piece – the ending is extraordinary, with a new element introduced in the final bars, in the shape of strange bird-like warbling from the altos.
Ola Gjeilo is one of the best-known names in this collection, loved by many for his deeply expressive choral writing. And indeed this Sanctus: London – it was composed for a Norwegian choir, so if anyone can explain why ‘London’ comes into the title I would be grateful! – is a superb piece. This is an almost counter-intuitive setting, with the words ‘Osanna in excelsis’ sounding, in the minor key, like an intense lament at first. But the final change to a radiant major chord is magnificent, even if it does call to mind the ending of Penderecki’s Stabat Mater, which follows a similar track.
Welshman Paul Mealor was one of the composers featured at the recent coronation of King Charles III; his setting of Arglwydd, trugarhâ, sung with immense passion by Sir Bryn Terfel, was definitely one of the highlights of the whole event for me. Mealor’s Ubi caritas also has a royal pedigree, having been composed for the wedding of the (now) Prince and Princess of Wales in 2011. This is a deeply thoughtful piece, sustained and euphonious, coloured by gentle dissonances, and the eventual clear emergence of the ancient plainsong in the final bars is a pleasing touch.
Most of these tracks contain original works, but I was struck by the one arrangement, by Hafsteinn Þórólfsson, of a sad Icelandic children’s song, the words of a desperate mother who casts her baby into a waterfall (plenty of Nordic angst on this disc!). The simple melody is concealed amongst complex, dissonant lines; powerful stuff, and following it with Thorarensen’s calmly joyful Agnus Dei was an excellent piece of programme planning.
Easily the best-known work on the disc is the American Eric Whitacre’s Sleep, now a firm favourite with choirs around the world. It is a fine piece, and given a worthy performance, but much of the music on this superb disc deserves to be equally widely known. On this showing, Áskelsson’s Schola Cantorum rate as one of the finest chamber choirs around today. Yes, it’s possible to criticise this issue because of a certain similarity of the various tracks. All are slow, some very slow, all begin quietly, often building to a climax then dying away again. But this likeness is only superficial; careful listening reveals a huge variety of textures and responses to the chosen texts, and everything is illuminated by the concentrated beauty of the performing. The BIS SACD recording is exemplary; it doesn’t draw attention to audio quality for its own sake, simply gives us a faithful rendering of the work of this wonderful ensemble.
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Daniel Elder (b.1986)
Auður Guðjohnsen (b.1975)
Ave verum corpus (2019)
Galina Grigorjeva (b.1962)
In paradisum (2012)
HreiðarIngi Þorsteinsson (b.1978)
Lux aeterna (2018)
Haukur Tómasson (b.1960)
Vor hinsti dagur (2004)
Ola Gjeilo (b.1978)
Sanctus: London (2008)
Þóra Marteinsdóttir (b.1978)
Nú legg ég pér í lófa (2011)
Paul Mealor (b.1975)
Ubi caritas (2011)
Trad. arr. Hafsteinn Þórólfsson (b.1977)
Sofðu unga ástin mín
Björn Thorarensen (b.1962)
Sigurður Sævarsson (b.1963)
Ave verum corpus (2018)
Trad. arr. John Hearne (b.1937)
Fagurt er I Fjörðum (1969)
Pawel Łukaszewski (b.1968)
Nunc dimittis (2007)
Pärt Uusberg (b.1986)
In paradisum (2016)
Eric Whitacre (b.1970)