The eight-voice Edvard Grieg Kor offers impressive singing and some fine arrangements, of which Jonathan Rathbone’s reimagining of the Holberg Suite is this release’s chief selling point. Once you’ve circumnavigated the listing of arrangers and conductors you discover these professional singers are supported by eight more who join for Ave Maris Stella and the seldom-performed Fire Salmer (Four Psalms) – Grieg’s compositional swansong from 1906.
The latter are highly accomplished settings of Scandinavian devotional texts which make up almost all of Grieg’s contribution to sacred music and reflect his revelatory encounter with the theological movement Unitarianism in 1888. Until that moment Grieg had been intolerant of religious dogma and his loathing of Norwegian clergymen had been colourfully expressed in a letter to a friend: “I can’t swallow them. I vomit them up again and can never get rid of their repulsive, greasy and nauseating taste.”
Fire Salmer – more hymns than psalms – are remarkably affirmative works, their richly harmonised adaptation of indigenous folk-tunes a joy, and these performances compare favourably with those from the Danish Radio Choir (also Chandos) and the Oslo Cathedral Choir (Nimbus). That said, Audun Iversen’s fervent baritone sounds effortful at times, uncompromisingly monochrome for the certainties of faith expressed. Choral timbre is generously warm, and if dynamics had been intensified the music’s theological intensity might have been more persuasively caught.
If the Fire Salmer doesn’t consistently persuade, then the wordless arrangement of Holberg Suite does; the performers ravish the ear with light, flexible voices that sparkle with irrepressible vitality. The sopranos negotiate Rathbone’s elevated transposition (up a minor third) with ease and their articulation and intonation are second-to-none, so too the peerless luminosity of the ‘Air’.
The Suite’s arrival following David Lang’s anodyne Last Spring, written for EGK in 2015, comes as a breath of fresh Norwegian air. Since this issue is somewhat misleadingly entitled “Edvard Grieg Kor sings Grieg”, I wondered why the group didn’t at least consider including the composer’s companion piece to Ave Maris Stella, namely At the Grave of a Young Wife.
However, it is two other Norwegians who fill things out, as arranged by EGK’s Paul Robinson. There’s the violinist Ole Bull (1810-1880), considered by Robert Schumann to be the equal of Paganini, whose romantically inclined Sæterjentens Søndag (The Herdgirl’s Sunday) in its original form for violin and strings is one of seventy or so works completed by this revered and influential character. The reputation of Agathe Backer Grøndahl (1847-1907) rests largely on her piano pieces and songs of which Aftnen er stille (The evening is quiet) is a good example. Polished singing underlines a sincerity of expression, albeit sentimental.
Ralph Couzens has done a sterling job with the recorded sound, and the booklet embraces numerous photos (including one of Grieg) as well as texts and translations.