Salve regina [6'51]
Endless border [8'06]
The Swede Bo Hansson is a man of many talents: a guitarist, and a composer of a wide range of music in folk and jazz idioms. Choral music might be a relatively recent departure for him but its roots run deep, back to the days of his childhood when he sang as a treble in his local choir. He has observed that ‘the human voice is the closest you can come to your soul’ and in that search he writes music that demands much of its performers in its sustained intensity of sound, a penchant for a cappella and a fresh way with word-setting even in the most established of texts, as in the darting energy of the Gloria from the Missa brevis.
Rupert Gough and his Royal Holloway Choir are no strangers to Hyperion, having previously made waves in music by Baltic composers Miškinis and Dubra. Here’s yet another sign that he’s one of the most exciting choral conductors of his generation.
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For Bo Hansson the writing of classical choral music has come relatively late in life. His earlier career centred around music in folk and jazz style, both strong elements of Swedish musical culture, but a decision to write more contemporary classical choral music has brought his music to international prominence. His wide-ranging influences from outside the realms of more traditional choral culture, and church music, make for a fresh approach and one shaped by instrumental techniques and a love of melody.
Born in Kalmar, he sang as a treble in his local church choir, going on to study guitar at the Royal Academy of Music in Stockholm, graduating in 1978. By 1980 he was teaching guitar and chamber music at Södra Latins Gymnasium in Stockholm, a secondary school specializing in the training of future professional musicians. With the conductor Gary Graden he also developed composition workshops with children. His professional career has been varied and wide-ranging. As a guitarist he often works in collaboration with other artists, particularly the Dutch guitar player Eric Lammers in the ‘Lammers and Hansson Guitar Duo’. He is also interested in combining guitar and voice and for many years was a singer, guitarist and arranger for ‘Skogsfiol och flöjt’ a well-known group in Sweden. For a number of years he wrote choral arrangements of folk and popular songs, often with a role for the guitar. At the age of thirty-five Hansson became increasingly interested in musical composition and took some private lessons from Swedish composer Johan Hammerth. A desire to write in a more contemporary classical style ensued and led to the choral piece Som när handen, which won a major national composing competition in 1993. Since that time he has been regularly commissioned to write new choral works and has developed a close relationship with two choirs associated with Gary Graden, the St Jacob’s Chamber Choir and the Orpheus Vocal Ensemble.
Vocal music has long fascinated the composer and in these more recent choral works he has been keen to explore the expressive potential of choral voices. ‘The human voice’, he says, ‘is the nearest you can come to your soul.’ His scoring and manipulation of voices may be instrumental in character but there is a pervading lyricism and it is clear that his experience working with Swedish folksongs has had a strong influence on his melodic writing. His response to texts is often extremely expressive although at the same time Hansson is not afraid to take time over the development of phrases, playing with the musical sounds in an almost abstract way. Hansson uses the text to put a frame on his music: ‘The text is the boundary in which I have to move invisibly.’
Som när handen represents Hansson’s first major choral work. Composed in 1993, it was awarded first prize in the national Swedish composition competition. Hansson approached the piece very much as a personal musical exercise, a working out of harmonic ideas. The resultant colourful harmonies are constructed with particular use of seconds and fourths. The harmonic language emerging from this piece permeates later works and establishes the composer’s distinctive musical voice. Annika Hultman Löfvendahl’s text begins at daybreak and Hansson uses middle C almost like the point on the horizon from where the breaking sun will appear. The sound quickly expands into an exultant C major. Following this, ‘A journey is begun’ with repetitions in all parts like deliberate footsteps. The use of such ostinatos is to become another fingerprint of the composer’s style. To conclude, Hansson recalls the opening ‘As when the day dawns’ with pianissimo unison Cs from all voices.
Salve regina was commissioned by the Landesakademie für die musizierende Jugend in Baden-Württemberg and dedicated to the Orpheus Vocal Ensemble. There is a strong sense of plainsong modality from the outset and, as the piece progresses, fragments of chant-like melody are overlaid and manipulated like a musical collage. A fast 5/8 tempo gives way to a more lyrical compound time for ‘mater misericordiae’. The increasing opposition of rhythms lends urgency to the line ‘Ad te clamamus’ before subsiding into a moment of calm. Whilst the first half of the piece only alludes to plainchant (the fast 5/8 repetitions of ‘Salve regina’ in fact bearing the same outline as the Ambrosian chant), at the mid point ‘Eia ergo, advocata nostra’ Hansson introduces an unadorned quotation of the ferial version of the Gregorian chant. A single soprano voice sings the final tender line ‘o pia, o dulcis virgo Maria’ with the lyricism of the plainsong melody enriched with the purity and serenity of sustained C major chords beneath. The combination of rich and unresolved contemporary harmonies, with constant recollections of the plainsong antiphon, serves to create in this piece an atmosphere of prayer spanning the centuries.
Then I heard the singing was the result of a commission from Rupert Gough and The Choir of Royal Holloway to set a text by St Bridget of Sweden for the College’s annual carol service. St Bridget (Birgitta Birgersdotter) was born in the fourteenth century to an aristocratic family related to the kings of Sweden, was well travelled and later settled in Rome. Her hundreds of visions mostly concerned reform of the Church, and in many cases Christ and/or Mary gave Birgitta messages to be given to others. Shortly before her death, she described a vision which included a very visual description of the birth of Jesus. The image of the infant Jesus himself emitting light was to influence the way the Nativity was depicted in the Renaissance and Baroque era, painters frequently making this holy light the predominant source of illumination. Hansson takes an unhurried approach to this passage from St Bridget’s Revelations, pausing to reflect on key words using chords resonating with perfect fourths. Halfway through the piece the music changes key for the pivotal moment: ‘suddenly in a moment she gave birth’. From this moment the focus is on ‘light and splendour’ but these same shimmering chords return and hang in the air to bathe the end of the piece in ‘sweetness and beauty’.
For as the rain was composed for a festival of contemporary church music in Uppenbarelsekyrkan in Hägersten, Stockholm, in 2009. It was commissioned by the conductor Kerstin Börjesson, along with a new Missa brevis, for the main service in this festival. This choral postlude sets verses from Isaiah which were appointed for that particular Sunday between Epiphany and Lent, and was scored for the musical forces available: the main church choir (in six parts), a youth choir (three female voice parts) and organ. In the first section the ambiguous bitonal writing proves highly evocative with the two choirs echoing each other against the rippling organ accompaniment. For much of the piece the writing is more atonal than in earlier works, particularly in the organ part, and at the conclusion, with its riotous outburst ‘all the trees of the field shall clap their hands’, there is still a conflict between major and minor.
In 2000 Hansson again set a poem by Hultman Löfvendahl, Den plats bland träden (The place amongst the trees), this time for the Stockholm Musikgymnasiums Kammarkör. For this recording composer and poet collaborated to revise the work with an English version of the text. Little musical alteration was required and all the elements of word painting are every bit as vivid. The sense of the text can be interpreted fairly freely, ‘like absorbing a modern art painting’, says the composer. Essentially it comments on the speed of modern life and the all-too-transient human interaction that it increasingly affords. This is particularly summoned up by the final lines: ‘Breathlessly we will taste the words that never / Burned on our tongue.’ In this eight-part a cappella work there are elements of imitation, but more important is the creation of vocal textures through the layering of voices and musical fragments. This is very apparent at the beginning for ‘Slowly rises the narrow whirl of longing’. The sound wavers around a central pitch before breaking into a rising melodic figure with upward-inflected fragments emphasizing the word ‘longing’. Later in the work another interesting texture is established for ‘time that spins / All on its distaff’. The undisturbed pulse of repeated cluster chords and the rootless harmony allow time to stand still for a moment before ‘the ocean rises beneath the tempest’.
The Missa brevis is the composer’s first setting of a liturgical text. Composed for the same church music festival as For as the rain it employs the same scoring with a main choir of six voices (with subdivisions) placed at the West end of the church alongside the organ together with the addition of a female-voice descant choir in two to three parts situated in a gallery halfway down the church. A fragmented approach is evident right at the start where phrases are cut down into syllabic repetitions that gradually increase in length. The upward-rising ‘Kyrie’ adds a yearning sense to this plaint as does the constant repetition of the ‘Christe eleison’, with the harmonies ever contracting. Alongside, the organ plays an equal role, either developing the choral material (as in the opening) or providing contrasting melodic material (as in the central section of the movement).
The Gloria gives the impression of being more strongly rooted in early liturgical form with many lines of the text chanted in a manner akin to plainsong. A more fluid harmonic approach is taken for ‘Benedicimus te’, which is mirrored later in the section for ‘Qui sedes ad dexteram’. At the centre of the movement the magnitude of God is unveiled with powerful towering chords for ‘Domine Deus, Rex caelestis’, which then subside, leaving the descant choir ascending for the phrase ‘Qui tollis peccata mundi’. The conclusion of this movement, with its dancing triple-time rhythms and toccata-style organ writing, conjures up all the liturgical drama of the end of Mass. Hansson’s characteristic chords built on perfect fourths here resonate like a peal of bells.
The Sanctus begins as a reverential chant building up through all the voices until it is transformed into a great song of praise in C major, the 6/8 rhythm adding vigour. Against this compound-time backdrop, Hansson introduces a contrasting 3/4 lyrical melody for ‘Pleni sunt caeli’. The ‘Hosanna’ section, like the beginning, builds up from bass to soprano, each voice chanting in different layers. The Benedictus rises seamlessly from the end of this outburst using again the 3/4 melody heard earlier. Here it becomes a five-part canon between all the female voices leading to a more subdued chant of ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ to conclude.
The Agnus Dei takes a more atonal approach, weaving a tapestry combining colourful harmonies with more angular melodic writing. Hansson returns to C minor and material from the Kyrie for the end of the Mass, the ‘miserere’ being broken up and slowly recited by all voices until settling onto a final ‘nobis’ almost like a final gasp. For the final ‘Dona nobis pacem’ section a sense of calm is established with more ethereal writing for the upper voices.
Many of Hansson’s choral pieces have been inspired by Psalm texts. The way the Psalms relate to our personal experience of faith, with many contrasting emotions and often questioning tones, particularly interests the composer. Psalm 13, Lighten mine eyes, describes the desperation of the psalmist who is questioning how long God will make him suffer at the hands of his enemies. The voice of despair in the slow repetition of ‘How long’ from the lower voices contrasts markedly with the more agonized descending declamation from the upper voices. This playing out of emotions continues until the psalmist asks for enlightenment with the words ‘lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death’, set with four echoing soprano voices. This is a turning point, with lower voices reflecting on the words ‘But I have trusted in thy mercy’. Now a new texture begins rising confidently with soprano and alto cries of ‘my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation’. Hope and faith prevail and there is a very palpable sense of resolution and calm for the concluding line ‘because he hath dealt bountifully with me’, where the two choirs echo each other in an ecstatic and yet quiet song of redemption. The piece was composed for the Maria Magdalena Motet Choir and Ragnar Bohlin.
Endless border was written in 2007 for the Europa Cantat Singing Week in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and the German vocal ensemble Singer Pur. For this piece Hansson uses a more expansive vocal canvas to create a large aural spectacle. A semi-chorus of six soloists is surrounded by a rich ten-part chorus and every opportunity is taken to exploit this spread of voices. As in other works, the text reveals itself slowly. Varied vocal techniques are also employed, such as splitting syllables across different voices and spoken vocalizations. The text is a poem written in English by Swedish writer Sun Axelsson, who died shortly after the making of this recording. Hansson was inspired to set this poem for its explorations of temporal boundaries.
Rupert Gough © 2012