Friday 4 June 2021

Nordic Reflections: The Carice Singers explore the choral songs of two contrasting 20th-century giants

Saimaa Canal, Finland (photo Ninara)

Nordic Reflections
- Elgar, Sibelius, Matthew Whittall; The Carice Singers, George Parris; Kings Place

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Choral songs by two contemporaries, contrasting 20th-century giants known more for their symphonic output

Jean Sibelius and Sir Edward Elgar were contemporaries, both known for their distinctive symphonic style, and yet the two seem to exist in rather different landscapes. They may have even met; in 1912 Sibelius conducted the British premiere of his Fourth Symphony in Birmingham and in the same concert Elgar conducted The Music Makers. Did they meet? We don't know, language would have been a problem, when RVW and Sibelius met they had to converse in French and schoolboy Latin! And certainly, there is no anecdote of the meeting.

For their concert Nordic Reflections at Kings Place on 3 June 2021, George Parris and The Carice Singers put together an intriguing programme of unaccompanied choral music by Elgar and Sibelius, a sequence of choral songs where each composer takes the part-song tradition from his own country and moves it into new and intriguing places. For both composers, the writing of choral songs runs alongside their larger-scale works throughout their careers, so that whilst Elgar was working on his Symphony No. 1 he produced his astonishing part-song Owls (An Epitaph).

As George Parris points out in his programme note, neither was very fond of explaining their music so having settings of words might give us hints, and in fact, both composers have a fondness for images of the natural world. But this wasn't an evening of purely atmospheric nature painting, both composers use images of the natural world and more to evoke more complex ideas. Works such as Elgar's Owls (setting his own text) and Sibelius' Venematka (The Boat Journey) move a long way from the purely descriptive, the Elgar is positively spooky (though the composer positively denied there was any subtext, whilst Sibelius' boat journey (setting a text from the Kalevala) is seems to be a metaphor for a deeper journey. 

Elgar's unaccompanied choral pieces are heavily influenced by the tradition of the well-made Victorian part-song and this part of his repertoire has kept alive thanks largely to the tradition of amateur choirs performing the music, for instance, the Four Part-songs of 1907 (from which Owls and O wild west wind! come) represent a satisfying yet achievable challenge to the amateur choir. Perhaps, though, it is this combination of part-song tradition and amateur performance which has kept the pieces from being better well known in the concert repertoire.

Certainly, time and again in the concert I came to appreciate how Elgar would take the traditional form (and some rather traditional texts) and move them in interesting directions whether it be the intriguing harmonic details of My love dwelt in a northern land, the lovely textures of Evening Scene (setting a pretty awful Coventry Patmore poem) or the intimate beauty of Love. Few of the works in the programme could be mistaken for those of a lesser, more conventional composer and whilst they are generically listed as part-songs, musically they are far more varied. 

Words were important to Elgar too, throughout the evening I rarely needed to consult the programme as the combination of the choir's diction and Elgar's deft setting meant that virtually all the words were comprehensible. For all my dismissal of some of his poetry choices, we should respect the fact that for Elgar the part-song genre was very much an expressive combination of poetry and music.

Pairing the Elgar with Sibelius' choral songs was a masterstroke as for all the commonalities, Sibelius' musical procedures are very different. During his lifetime Sibelius was renowned as a choral composer and in 1912 a massed choir of 1300 singers premiered his Men from plain and sea. Works like this and Rakastava (The Lover) are larger than the pure part-song, with Sibelius writing on a slightly bigger, more dramatic canvas. 

Sibelius was a Swedish-speaking Finn and he set both Swedish and Finnish. In the programme, we heard just one of his Swedish settings Män från slätten och havet (Men from plain and sea) so that it was his approach to the Finnish language that resonated intriguingly. When you listen to Sibelius' symphonic music you do not necessarily think of the 20th and 21st-century tradition of Baltic composers influenced by folk traditions, but listening to Sibelius' Finnish settings, particularly those taking texts from the Kalevala, made me immediately think of composers such as the Estonian Veljo Tormis and works such as his Jaanilaulud (St John's Day Songs). This was a Sibelius that we don't so much hear in the symphonies, taking an imaginative approach to setting the words and creating fascinating textures and rhythms. 

We ended with a contemporary piece, a setting by Matthew Whittall (the choir's associate composer) of a poem by Niilo Rauhala, Lauantaisauna (Saturday Sauna) which combined richly romantic harmonies with some extra-musical sounds evoking the hiss of the steam in the sauna.

The ensemble had 12 young singers and they had an engaging sense of connection with the music, bringing out contrasts and links between the works of the two composers. Both men wrote in a way that does not really leave much room for singers to hide, and the choir impressed here too, whilst George Parris showed a real feel this almost forgotten corner of early 20th-century music. A very imaginative programme, beautifully sung. 

Edward Elgar - My love dwelt in a northern land
Jean Sibelius - Min rastas raataa (‘What the thrush toils’)
Jean Sibelius - Män från slätten och havet (‘Men from plain and sea’)
Edward Elgar - Evening Scene
Edward Elgar - The Fountain
Jean Sibelius - Rakastava (‘The lover’)
Edward Elgar - Love
Edward Elgar - Serenade
Jean Sibelius - Sortunut ääni (‘The broken voice’)
Jean Sibelius - Saarella palaa (‘Fire on the island’)
Edward Elgar - Owls (An Epitaph)
Edward Elgar - O wild West Wind!
Jean Sibelius - Sydämeni laulu (‘Song of my heart’)
Jean Sibelius - Venematka (‘The boat journey’)
Matthew Whittall - Lauantaisauna (‘Saturday sauna’)

The concert is available on-line for 6 days via the Kings Place website.

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  1. I might have been rather too harsh on Coventry Patmore, George Parris suggest reading Patmore’s poem The River - as he's fairly certain that it may have been one of the main literary inspirations for Elgar's Owls.

  2. Spot-on. A wonderful evening of fine music and contrasts from these contemporaries, gloriously sung.
    Thanks for your, as ever, apposite comments.


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