A Danish breath from the choral summit

The Nordic Choir Expedition, Helsinki
Auli Särkiö, Rondo Classic
Tirsdag, 6. september Link

At Ritarihuone, a gathering of Nordic top choirs is underway, as The Nordic Choir Expedition arrived in Helsinki on Friday. The event is part of a series of festivals around the Nordic countries, in which professional choirs from Norway, Finland, Denmark and Sweden invite each other to perform. The Helsinki festival is also part of the annual festival profile of the Tenso network for professional choirs, and the first Tenso Days event in Finland.

In addition to the Helsinki Chamber Choir, which gives a concert today, the festival sees performances by the Tenso Europe Chamber Choir, Eric Ericssons Kammarkör, Det Norske Solistkor, and Ars Nova Copenhagen. The latter gave a concert yesterday under the direction of the distinguished master of vocal music, Paul Hillier. Hillier is renowned for combining early and contemporary music, as well as championing the music of Pärt, among others. He was a founding member of the Hilliard Ensemble and Theatre of Voices, and was for several years artistic director of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. Since 2003, he has also led the brilliant Danish vocal ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen, which shares Hillier’s interest in early music as well as contemporary works. The concert in Helsinki was a good example, containing both early polyphony and new Danish music.

Ars Nova is one of the most interesting Nordic choirs, and from an artistic perspective perhaps the best of them all. The 12 singers astonished the audience with translucent clarity of harmony, controlled voices and virtuosic precision combined with genuine and vivid expression. The renaissance polyphony was characterised by freshness in intonation and vivid colours as Hillier shaped the music with a very natural sense of emotion. The voices retained their sense of disciplined focus even as soloists, which gave the overall sound a polished and clear impression. The renaissance programme, built around a series of laments, became a comment on today’s conflicts and human suffering. The full renaissance sound of Jean Mouton’s motets was contrasted with 14th­15th century three­part polyphony, as well as a plain-chant dialogue on the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, in which the three sopranos took on the roles of the lamenting Rachel and her consolers with a sense of timeless urgency. 

The contemporary works were also acutely connected to society. Line Tjørnhøj’s six-movement work Vox Art Reportage ­ On Civilisation 2.0 (2014) [sic] was a clever study on the state of the world of today, focussing on web security leaks, the power of money and the position of the individual. The work mixed excerpts from the philosophic works of Elias Canetti with Wikipedia and press quotes as well as the female sufi mystic Rabi’ah al Adawiyya, handled by Tjørnhøj through complex and colorful textures ­ ranging from dry and objective recitation to sound collages and from rhythmic homophony to embellished, melodic outbursts. Ars Nova Copenhagen’s performance was refreshingly expressive and intense. Instead of delivering a mechanical and stern modernist performance, the choir revelled in musical details, intercommunication and vividly exaggerated colors. 

An even more memorable experience was their performance of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Three Stages (2003). Gudmundsen­Holmgreen, who passed away this summer, worked in collaboration with Ars Nova for many years, and the choir now gave an hypnotically authoritative rendition of his peculiar harmonic universe. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was interested in opposites and paradoxical simplicity. Three Stages starts with an entertaining concoction of street sounds, continues with a sonic impression of the woods, and finally fuses these two into some sort of synthesis. Playful quotations abound: in the first movement, a nod towards Berio’s The Cries of London can be heard, but also references to earlier street cry music. In the second movement, Janequin’s imitation of birdsong is intertwined, and the last movement includes text from a Shakespeare sonnet. 

This humorous sonic jungle was delivered with a sense of effortless rhythms, and to the listener’s astonishment, the various worlds ­ common street cries, renaissance melodies, naturalist imitation of birdsong and whispering speech ­ was fused into an organic, multifaceted sonic sphere, masterfully breathing and with a common pulse. 

The enthusiastic audience was rewarded with an encore in the form of Arvo Pärt’s relatively recent Drei Hirtenkinder aus Fátima. Ars Nova’s voices, capable of lean asceticism, were perfectly suited for the music of Pärt.

(Translated from Finnish by Mats Lillhannus)