This is proving some year for Bent Sørensen. His remarkable new Triple Concerto was premiered by Trio Con Brio and the Danish National Symphony Orchestra in January and this Dacapo release comes hot on the heels of its recording of his extraordinary ‘concerto for orchestra, choir, actors and audience’ Sounds Like You. Sørensen doesn’t identify himself as a ‘choral’ composer even though he’s best known outside Denmark for his complementary movements to Ockeghem’s unfinished Requiem (7/12). But he’s at work on a full Passion setting, and these pieces from 1985-2014 (some of which may turn up in said Passion) present an embracing overview of his distinctive way with unaccompanied voices.
It is, to my mind, a particularly fruitful medium for Sørensen, the thinking person’s neo-Romantic. Rarely does he ask voices to do anything other than sing long notes or shapely phrases (strangely refreshing these days). A constant tension pulls his music between the magnetic poles of warm, Romantic tonality and rich, Schoenbergian atonality with Renaissance polyphony often forming a structural underlay. Much of the music on this disc feels soaked in tears, with the occasional shot of searing Baltic pain. Sørensen’s hallmarks of fragmentation and decay are in evidence, as is his arm’s-length love for voices singing a simple, well-harmonised hymn or song (parts of ‘og solen går ned’ could be a Langgaard motet with the ink smudged).
We begin, in fact, with the lone voice of Adam Riis in Sørensen’s The Snowbell, a ‘composed’ folksong whose tune (and now divided verses) weaves its way in and out of the following eight-movement Snowbells, Sørensen deploying his favourite method of making the theme appear as if drifting past a closed window, just out of reach. The Three Motets are Sørensen classics but are here blessed with the blend, heft and continental glow of one of Europe’s most nuanced small-scale radio choirs. The Lacrimosa and Benedictus appeared on Ars Nova’s recording of the Sørensen/Ockeghem Requiem and both have a touch more tidal undertow and stillness from the DR Vocal Ensemble.
We end, appropriately enough, with Sørensen’s straight, ‘chaste’ (to borrow annotator Trine Boje Mortensen’s description) and wholly tonal setting of Hans Christian Andersen’s The sea stands so still and shining. Sometimes you notice the lower voices of the ensemble very occasionally singing off the note when Sørensen’s textures are at their most stepwise and homophonic, and sometimes the blend of the female voices curdles when they climb up high. Apart from that, all-round excellence and a disc that’s unusually moving in one sitting – a perfect preface to the silence Sørensen seems so acutely aware of and, sometimes, hesitant to fill.