JANSON The Wind Blows: Music for Choir
While the Norwegian music scene lingered in post-war crisis, attempting to absolve itself from too many wartime associations with Nazism by looking in every possible new direction from Darmstadt to New York, along came Alfred Janson. With a background in jazz, Janson set the cat among the pigeons with his Valse triste (1970): a long way from anything Nationally Romantic, it had a jazz quartet play along to a tape of a televised debate about culture.
The booklet note to this recording talks of Janson’s music being ‘in the spirit of the age’ but all the choral-instrumental works here feel timeless, refreshing and sincere, while many of them are notably bold. Their rigorous simplicity is often tied up in those things. Janson always uses a unison unless there is good reason not to. He borrows beats and grooves from vernacular traditions without the slightest sense of awkwardness or debasement. His larger structures radiate that rare feeling of the composer acting as nothing more than conduit: both Sarabande (1995) and Nocturne (1967) – each a masterpiece – weave their course with apparent inevitability. The former is the longest piece on the disc (12 minutes) but uses the shortest text (17 words) and there is simply no other way it would have worked; if you listen, you know why.
Every word on every track is crystal clear, whether sung in Norwegian, Swedish or English. There is no better example than Sonnet No 76, written for the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir. This is a lesson in how to write a complex musical setting of a text while allowing that text not just to remain unfettered but to flourish, dominate and give the impression of the music hardly being there at all. That ability brings Howard Skempton to mind as a point of comparison; Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen is there in the droll humour of settings such as This is a great time to live and in the ability to charge unassuming ingredients with overtones of profundity and complexity.
The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir have given us Sonnet No 76 before: it featured on their wonderful 2006 Shakespeare album and even gave it its title: ‘Telling what is told’ (Simax, 2/07). The performance here demonstrates the extra levels of finesse Grete Pedersen has cultivated in her ensemble in the past decade. Construction (after the composer’s signature work, Construction and Hymn for Orchestra, 1963) tells you why the choir is named as it is. As usual, blend is exquisite, intonation perfect and articulation superlative. The only higher praise is for Janson himself. What a surprise and delight to come across an 82-year-old with such an important, refreshing and honest voice.