Notes and Editorial Reviews
I can’t remember when a contemporary composition made such a deep impression – and the performance is absolutely superb.
Daniel Börtz must be counted among the foremost Swedish composers of the post-war generation. He has an impressive list of works, including eleven symphonies, chamber music, concertos and operas, of which The Bacchae (1988-89), directed by Ingmar Bergman and also presented in a TV-production, was a success. It is also available on CD with Sylvia Lindenstrand and a very young Peter Mattei in the leading roles (Caprice CAP 22028:1-2).
His first composition teacher was Hilding Rosenberg, who was a cousin of his father, and later he studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with Karl-Birger Blomdahl and Ingvar Lidholm. He has also been a broadcaster, for some years the host for Nya timmen, a request programme for modern music. This reveals that he is a communicative person. That he is firmly established as a leading force in Swedish music life is further underlined by the fact that the annual composer festival at the Concert Hall in Stockholm in 1992 was devoted to him.
The step from Euripides to Aeschylus seems logical. It was Ingmar Bergman who guided Börtz to director Olof Molander’s versions of the Oresteia trilogy, which he had performed at the Swedish National Theatre in the early 1950s, where he had incorporated the three tragedies into a single entity. Initially Börtz had contemplated an opera but was unable to see how the theme of reconciliation could be expressed on stage. In the end an oratorio was the solution, where the music has the leading part. Börtz further reduced Molander’s concept to a narrative in two parts:
‘Clytemnestra and her daughter Electra are living in Argos with Agamemnon’s cousin Aegisthus. She has sent Orestes, her son by Agamemnon, to be raised elsewhere. Agamemnon, with the prophetess Cassandra as part of his booty, returns from the Trojan War. Cassandra foretells the murder of Agamemnon. Clytemnestra slays Agamemnon (and Cassandra) to avenge the death of her daughter Iphigenia whom Agamemnon had sacrificed to the gods in the expectation of their support in battle. In the second part of the narrative, Orestes returns to Argos in disguise and murders Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. The furies demand that Orestes be punished for the murders but in the concluding trial, Pallas Athene exhorts them to moderate their demands and Orestes is freed.’
The central roles in the drama are those of the leader of the choir, who is the narrator, and the choir, who comment and express their feelings in the classic Greek tradition. The orchestra are fundamental. Through the course of the drama these three elements work together to create a unity that is at the same time topical and timeless.
The music is as many-facetted as the drama and ranges from strident clusters and shattering eruptions from percussion and brass to inward lyricism. There’s even a folksong atmosphere in the prologue, where a shepherd plays his flute before he sings his tale of the herdsman who ‘took to his home / a little, suckling lion cup / and he fed and cared for it …’ And everyone liked it. ‘But when the lion was fully grown / its predatory nature prevailed / bringing alarm and death / to the terrified folk of the farm.’ The tale recurs as an epilogue and is sung in both cases with beautiful androgynous tone by Adrian Dolata.
Listeners unaccustomed to contemporary music may at first feel a bit alienated by some of the writing here but in the main this is accessible music that is rooted in tonality. Börtz writes with great understanding of the human voice. For the most part the vocal solos – they are not exactly arias – are eminently singable. That also goes for the choral parts, but on the other hand this virtuoso choir can sing almost anything, however complicated. What impresses me most of all is Börtz’s skilful handling of the orchestra: colourful but restrained, maybe economical is the best word, saving the big outbreaks for the climaxes where they are so much more telling. His discriminating choice of voice-type and character for each role is another asset. He designated the role of Aegisthus to the high baritone of Olle Persson, one of the most versatile singers in the country, but he hardly sings a tone. Instead he employs practically all the means of expression that are within the scope of a human voice – and to superb effect. This is one of the most formidable non-singing roles I have heard a classically schooled singer perform.
But the whole cast are magnificent: the hoch-dramatische soprano of Annalena Persson cuts with Birgit Nilsson like steely brilliance through the orchestra in Electra’s role; Ingrid Tobiasson’s Clytemnestra is a trial of strength, superbly executed. Marianne Eklöf is a Pallas Athena of real stature, while Anna Larsson is a noble and impressive Cassandra, to compare with her Erda in the recent Stockholm Ring.
Apart from Electra there are no high female voices and significantly there is no tenor in the cast either. Anders Larsson has steadily developed to a splendid Italianate baritone and he is a sonorous and expressive Orestes. Esa Ruuttunen seemed cut out for the role of Agamemnon – he has long been one of the great singing-actors in the Nordic countries. He is certainly expressive but his voice is drier than I have heard him before.
But it is Anita Björk, one of the most legendary Swedish actors during the last sixty-five (!) years, who carries the greatest burden as leader of the choir and narrator. She does it magnificently. Deeply involved, with burning intensity and – in the last resort – a kind of objective distance, she is the hub around which everything rotates. There is another hub of course: Alan Gilbert, whom the Stockholm Philharmonic will lose next year when he will become music director of the New York Philharmonic. Here he has a firm grip on the proceedings and with state-of-the-art recording – as we have come to expect from BIS – this is both a sonic feast and a deep tragedy, mercilessly unfolded until in the last scene resolution is obtained.
The substantial ‘filler’, the concerto for recorder and orchestra entitled A Joker’s Tales is a tour de force for Dan Laurin, who is certainly one of the leading instrumentalists in the world. He is at home in contemporary music as well as in the ancient past – where most of the instrument’s repertoire is to be found. Börtz has, as always, a fine ear for orchestral colour and also for rhythm. This concerto was released a couple of years ago on a disc with more contemporary music for recorder. I refer readers to the enthusiastic review by my colleague Dominy Clements.
Let me just add that I am indebted to Göran Bergendal’s liner-notes for much of the information on Börtz and the work and also the summary of the plot.
I have heard a lot of music by Daniel Börtz through the years and the Royal Stockholm Opera’s The Bacchae, more than fifteen years ago, was a deeply moving experience. I believe that Orestes ranks even higher. At least that is what I feel right now. As a matter of fact I can’t remember when a composition of this kind made such a deep impression.
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International