One of the finest large-scale choral works during the whole post-war era.
SANDSTRÖM Messiah • Helmuth Rilling, cond; Robin Johannsen (sop); Roxana Eonstantinescu (alt); Timothy Fallon (ten); Michael Nagy (bar); Stuttgart Fest Ens • CARUS 83.453 (2 CDs: 90:22 Text and Translation)
Sven-David Sandström (born in 1942) isRead more perhaps the most important Swedish composer writing predominantly religious music today. His reputation in that area led the Oregon Bach Festival, in Eugene, to commission him to write a new setting of the libretto for Handel’s Messiah, and while the idea might sound like a gimmick, the result is far from that. The world premiere took place in Eugene in July 2009, and it was repeated a few months later in Stuttgart. It is dedicated to Helmuth Rilling, director of the Oregon Bach Festival and one of the most significant choral conductors in the world.
Sandström is an extremely imaginative composer with a fabulous ear for orchestral color and a strong sense of theater. His style is eclectic, and you will find in Messiah a huge range of styles: choral outbursts, harsh orchestral explosions, seemingly aleatoric passages, shrieks of anguish alongside lyrical melodies. At times it is unsettling to hear this new music to words we know so well (and it is composed to be sung in English). Sandström used the libretto of Handel’s work (written by Charles Jennen) with very little change, and he used instrumental forces similar to Handel’s, except for the addition of some instruments that were not in existence in Handel’s time (mainly percussion).
Describing this work is not easy, because of the breadth of stylistic influences (which is in no way to imply that it is a pastiche). There are moments that remind one of Orff, there are moments that have the flavor of the neoclassical Stravinsky, there are passages of remarkable lyrical beauty (the alto aria “Thou Art Gone up on High,” and the subsequent soprano-tenor duo “How Beautiful are the Feet of Them”), and there are moments of musical chaos. He has himself indicated that jazz and folk music are influences on his own work, and one can hear that.
A work with this kind of range could easily be a structural mess, whipping the listener from pillar to post without reason. That it is not is a tribute to the consistency of Sandström’s artistic vision, and the underlying sincerity of his setting of the text. Not all listeners will react positively, I am sure. Some will object to any revisiting of the original Messiah text, some will object to the alternation of passages of an almost violent nature with those of serenity. But it is precisely that range, and the composer’s ability to keep it all somehow unified, that I find attractive. It took more than one listening, but the truth is that each time I went through it I liked it more and more.
Certainly the astonishing performance is helpful to that end. Rilling clearly believes in this score, and he has conveyed his passion to his forces. The soloists are superb; the choral and orchestral forces perform as if they had the work in their blood, even though it was clearly brand new to them. The clean, natural sound and superb notes are only additional plusses.
Sandström’s Messiah is not background music, not music to be listened to while doing housework or office work. I wouldn’t be surprised if Handel’s Messiah serves that function for some, because it has become too well known. This is music that demands all of you. But if you invest your attention in it, you will be very thoroughly rewarded. You might even listen to Handel’s Messiah with different ears in the future.
Sandström set the same text as Handel did, which invites comparisons. It should be stressed, however, that Sandström’s aim was not to imitate Handel. His tonal language is distinctly his own...I was, naturally enough, very curious to see how I reacted to the music at this second encounter. Let me say at once that I was just as overwhelmed...the music never lost its grip until Worthy is the Lamb and the concluding Amen had faded away.
A little over two months ago I heard the Scandinavian premiere of Sven-David Sandström’s
Messiah in Gävle. The artists were: Stefan Parkman conducting choral forces from Uppsala, Gävle Symphony Orchestra and soloists including Timothy Fallon, as on this recording, in the tenor part. That concert was repeated in Uppsala two days later, which means that the provinces for once were ahead of the Capital. In Stockholm the first performance came a week later at the Berwald Hall, conducted by Herbert Blomstedt.
I was deeply moved by that performance ) and hoped that there would sooner or later appear a recording. I had my request granted sooner than I could have dreamt. The work was commissioned by the Bach festivals in Oregon and Stuttgart; the Oregon premiere was in July last year (2009); Stuttgart heard it two months later and this recording was made on that occasion.
Sandström set the same text as Handel did, which invites comparisons. It should be stressed, however, that Sandström’s aim was
not to imitate Handel. His tonal language is distinctly his own and though the words are exactly those Jennens delivered to Handel Sandström finds other solutions to how to set them. What is an aria in Handel’s work may be a chorus in Sandström’s, for instance. Sandström’s arias, are not da capo which means that Sandström’s work is shorter.
I was, naturally enough, very curious to see how I reacted to the music at this second encounter. Let me say at once that I was just as overwhelmed. The magnificent opening chorus
Comfort ye, by far the longest number in this
Messiah, at once had me caught and the music never lost its grip until
Worthy is the Lamb and the concluding
Amen had faded away.
As in Handel’s work it’s the choruses that carry the heaviest burden and Sandström knows exactly how to get the most out of the choral parts, himself having sung in choirs for many years. The orchestral writing is also extremely varied and colourful and there are numerous instrumental solos, not least from the woodwind. The rhythmic vitality is striking and the big percussion section has a field day.
Once again I marvelled at the chorus
For unto us a child, the beautiful soprano-alto duet
He shall feed his flock and the Ramirez-like chorus
This yoke is easy, a hit if there is any justice in this world. Even more the a cappella chorus
Lift up your hand is among the most breathlessly beautiful choral pieces ever. And what about the
Hallelujah chorus? Beginning hesitantly, as though the people are not quite sure that Lord God Omnipotent really reigneth. But gradually the truth dawns upon them, the music expands and becomes swinging and gospel-like. Joy permeates the crowd and the final bars are truly ecstatic.
The performance in Gävle was impressive, with overwhelming orchestral and choral contributions. But the work’s dedicatee Helmut Rilling and his Stuttgart forces had already performed the
Messiah at the world premiere in Oregon’s Hult Center and were even more inside the music during the two performances in Stuttgart and I can’t find anything that disappoints. The technical demands on the soloists are high; they have to execute quite a lot of coloratura, which they do with aplomb. The two female soloists in particular are very good and Robin Johannsen’s
Behold, a virgin shall conceive is masterly. In Gävle I thought that Timothy Fallon’s light tenor voice didn’t carry properly but there are no such problems here. Michael Nagy is expressive in his powerful declamations but his wide vibrato is sometimes too prominent for total enjoyment.
The recording is spacious and atmospheric and could just as well have been a studio production, bar the applause at the end, which could surely have been edited out. Sandström started out as downright avant-garde composer, but he has, step by step, become more approachable - without losing his personal tonal language. This new
Messiah is deeply communicative in an idiom that is modern but with a melodic and rhythmic beauty that should please even listeners who normally fight shy of contemporary music. In my mind this is one of the finest large-scale choral works during the whole post-war era.
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Messiahby Sven-David Sandström Performer:
Michael Nagy (Baritone),
Timothy Fallon (Tenor),
Robin Johannsen (Soprano),
Roxana Constantinescu (Alto)
Stuttgart Festival Ensemble
Period: 21st Century Written: 2009; Sweden Language: English
Average Customer Review: ( 2 Customer Reviews )
A GREAT & DEEPLY MOVING WORKApril 5, 2012By John Wood (Saxtons River, VT)See All My Reviews"Some of Sandstrom's earlier music did not touch me, but this is a work of such intense beauty and brilliance that I found myself constantly moved and touched by it. I bought it based on Arkiv's listening samples alone, but the full work is far more spectacular than those little snippetscan begin to suggest. Choral music is my greatest love--and my tastes are somewhat conservative (Elgar, Finzi, Howells, Vaughan Williams). But I think this is a real masterpiece."Report Abuse
Sandstrom's MessiahMarch 13, 2012By S. Johnson (Chesterfield, MO)See All My Reviews"Is this an attempt to "improve" or "update" a classic? It is a failure in the former and needless in the latter case. An abomination."Report Abuse