Wednesday 12 April 2023

Filmic vividness: Bjørn Morten Christophersen's Darwin-inspired oratorio The Lapse of Time is a complex, large-scale piece of writing

Bjørn Morten Christophersen: The Lapse of Time; Ensemble 96, Telemark Chamber Orchestra, Ditte Marie Bræin, Frank Havrøy, Inger-Lise Ulsrud, Nina T. Karlsen, Per Kristian Skalstad; SIMAX CLASSICS
Bjørn Morten Christophersen: The Lapse of Time; Ensemble 96, Telemark Chamber Orchestra, Ditte Marie Bræin, Frank Havrøy, Inger-Lise Ulsrud, Nina T. Karlsen, Per Kristian Skalstad; SIMAX CLASSICS

A considerable achievement, Christophersen's large-scale oratorio sets his own poetic distillation of Darwin to music of thrilling and filmic scale

The Lapse of Time is Norwegian composer Bjørn Morten Christophersen's oratorio based on Charles Darwin's iconic 1859 book, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. On this new recording Nina T. Karlsen and Per Kristian Skalstad conduct Ensemble 96, Telemark Chamber Orchestra, soprano Ditte Marie Bræin, baritone Frank Havrøy, organist Inger-Lise Ulsrud on Simax Classics. The booklet does not make clear who conducts what, but as director of the choir, Ensemble 96, Nina T. Karlsen conducted the two unaccompanied movements.

Christophersen wrote the work in 2013 setting his own text which might be described as a poetic distillation of elements from Darwin's book. The work was premiered in 2013 in performances in Kristiansund and Ålesund by Ensemble Dali, Kristiansund Sinfonietta and Eirik Sørborg. Eight years were to elapse before Christophersen was able to find the finance for a further performance and after a year's delay because of the pandemic, it was performed and recorded at Frogner Church, Oslo.

The work is in seven sections, Watch the Sea at Work, Struggle for Life, Mistletoe, Change, Extinction, Bones! and Natura non Facit Saltum - Epilogue. Mistletoe and Bones! are labelled as interludes, the first focusing on the plant, mistletoe, the other on bones. For the other sections, the first deals with geological changes, the second the way each species has to struggle for life. Change deals with evolution and natural selection, the next part with extinction before the long final movement which summarises. Christophersen's English text is admirably poetic, remarkably so given the complexity of Darwin's prose.

It is thus perhaps a shame that this performance does not allow the text to come over. The choir (singing in what is probably at best the singers' second language) do not bring the text out, you definitely have to follow the printed text closely for its beauties to emerge.

The first section has a very filmic quality, the writing for choir and orchestra interweaving with each other and Christophersen's writing has quite an epic quality here. His music seems to be fundamentally tonal, but he uses a rich palate of colours and harmonies, there is nothing obvious or easy about his music and we should not be blind to the sheer complexity of the task of performing and recording it.

The second section begins with a striking passage for untuned percussion, with instruments and voices gradually gathering in vivid fashion, sonically striking, imaginative and yes, very filmic again, though a different narrative. Here animals are struggling for existence, and Christophersen's music suggests Africa, safaris and more. But there is more to it than that, his text brings in all sorts of references and the music develops remarkable power. At times, the combined forces of orchestra and organ almost overwhelm the singers. They, however, come into their own with the interlude focusing on Mistletoe which is unaccompanied, the soloists singing with choral accompaniment to striking effect, before the chorus takes over.

The fourth section, Change, is dramatic and vivid, with a strong sense of impetus for much of the movement. Christophersen's writing is colourful and imaginative, there is no sense of him settling on a style or texture and staying with it, what he gives us is a changing kaleidoscope reflecting the text. The fifth section, Extinction, slows us right down with a long unwinding melody that is almost passacaglia-like in the way the movement seems to unfold in and around this melody. The second interlude, Bones! is again unaccompanied and is something of a choral tour-de-force with lots of vocal and choral effects to vivid effect.

The final section consists of Natura non Facit Saltum (Nature Makes no Leap) and an Epilogue whose text begins 'Look! Watch! Admire!'. It begins with an exciting and large-scale orchestral section, with organ dominating to thrilling effect. Thereafter to music unfolds on a symphonic scale, rising to a suitable climax.

This recording is a terrific achievement. Christophersen's work is a complex, large-scale piece of writing that is clearly taxing for both singers and players. The resulting recording has a real immediacy and filmic vividness. 

The recording was nominated for 2022 Norwegian Spellemannsprisen in the TONO Composers’ Prize category.

Bjørn Morten Christophersen: The Lapse of Time (2013) [64:00]
Ensemble 96
Telemark Chamber Orchestra
Ditte Marie Bræin (soprano)
Frank Havrøy (baritone)
Inger-Lise Ulsrud (organist)
Recorded in Frogner Church, Oslo 12 & 13 February 2022

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