Refractions: Choral Works by Valen, Berg, Messiaen & Webern
This intriguing compilation contrasts the music of three composers with strong Germanic connections, all born in the 1880s, with works by Olivier Messiaen, born 20 years later and standing for very different musical concerns. In turn, the rapt spirituality of Messiaen’s early O sacrum convivium contrasts no less radically with his Cinq Rechants. This, despite its passing textual allusions to the intense erotic atmosphere of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, could hardly be less Wagnerian, or German, in style and spirit.
In resonant but clearly defined sound, the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir bring a marvellous mixture of earthiness and refinement to Messiaen’s vivid score. They then summon up more than enough late-Romantic fervour in four works by the now-neglected Fartein Valen, a Norwegian composer who studied with Max Bruch and whose early affinity with the likes of Reger and Zemlinsky is conspicuous in his opulent yet concentrated settings of Psalm 121 (1911) and Ave Maria (1915-21), heard here alongside a pair of short motets to Norwegian texts.
The disc offers a further rarity in Clytus Gottwald’s surprisingly effective arrangement for 16-strong chorus of Berg’s richly Romantic ‘Die Nachtigall’ – one of his Seven Early Songs for solo voice and piano (or orchestra). Then we have three brief choral pieces by Webern. With its warm contrapuntal texture, Enflieht auf leichten Kähnen is virtually a student exercise, while the Goethe settings from 1925 26 are among Webern’s earliest 12-note compositions. Even with their strangely exotic accompaniments, they are over almost before they begin and seem to have little or nothing to do with any of the other music on the disc. But that simply reinforces its appeal as an unusually diverse and unhackneyed 20th-century programme.