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Nordic Lamentations

available at Amazon
Lamentations (Victoria, Gesualdo, Palestrina, White), Nordic Voices

(released on September 29, 2009)
Chandos CHAN 0763 | 68'30"

Hear some excerpts
The outstanding vocal ensemble Nordic Voices was another discovery for me this year, at a concert reviewed for the Washington Post last month. Although that program focused on music by contemporary Norwegian composers, the group's recent CD, a compilation of 16th-century settings of the Lamentations (and other texts for Holy Week), has introduced me to the sextet's fine interpretations of Renaissance polyphony. The devastating text of the Lamentations is a recurring topic in these pages: in the Roman Catholic Divine Office, Jeremiah's anguished mourning for the destruction of Jerusalem was sung during the Triduum as an expression of the Church's loss at the death of Jesus. (In a semi-blasphemous way, Dante used the same imagery to describe his loss at the death of Beatrice.)

Rather than focusing on a complete setting of these many texts by a single composer (we have written about such sets by Tallis, Palestrina, Victoria, and others), this disc brings together polyphony of varying levels of intensity by four rather different composers -- Victoria, Palestrina, Robert White, and Gesualdo. Rather than focusing on the liturgical background, Nordic Voices approaches the texts in terms of modern warfare and its tragic losses: the photo featured on the cover, showing a singed shoe amid blasted rubble, was taken by a member of the U.S. Air Force near a Green Zone checkpoint in Baghdad. In the liner notes, Frank Havrøy draws comparisons between the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and modern horrors like the Holocaust, acts of terrorism, and wars. (The group has announced that a portion of their profits from the recording have been donated to UNICEF, an appropriate reaction to the verses about becoming orphans or fatherless.)

The singing is top-notch, with six voices balanced and harmonious. The settings by Victoria and Palestrina are everything one would expect of those composers, the musical equivalent in many ways of the symmetry and purity of Renaissance neoclassical architecture. It is the other selections that surprise, especially a six-part selection by Robert White (c. 1538-1574) -- not this five-part setting, but a reconstruction of the incomplete six-part setting -- in the, by this point, archaic and dense style of earlier composers like Taverner. Not surprisingly, two pieces by Gesualdo have the most exotic sounds, both examples of the composer's experimentation with distant chromatic relations. In Tristis est anima mea, there are lots of chromatic mediant progressions (E major to C major, for example), with a voice suspended through the chord changes, never quite resolving to a consonance, creating a series of dissonant chords. This expressive style is a perfect match for the texts of Holy Week.

1 comment:

cnb said...

This disc was my introduction to Nordic Voices, and, like you, I was very impressed by it.