Grieg and Mendelssohn Psalms
Founded in 1982 by Terje Kvam, Oslo Cathedral Choir has quickly established itself as one of Norway's pre-eminent vocal ensembles. Having featured in the Nimbus recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Missa Solemnis with the Hanover Band, the choir now appears in its first a capella recording which culminates appropriately with the warlmy lyrical Psalms of Greig. This group of four religious songs constitute Grieg’s last major work. Under the direction of Terje Kvam, the choir is joined by Sweden’s leading baritone Håkan Hagegård.
Grieg's four sacred songs—he terms them 'psalms'—were his last compositions, written shortly before his death. Jeremy Siepmann has noted the ambivalence of his attitude towards matters of faith, reflected, he thinks, in the music. The songs are complementary, following, in their present order, a logical sequence of thought, which may well reveal something of the composer's state of mind when faced with the ultimate realities of life. Hvad est du dog skjön, with its tender, rocking theme, is a setting of a poem with overtones from the Song of Songs. It rises to a passionate, almost desperate climax, that perhaps only a Norwegian choir could have the empathy to interpret adequately. Perhaps it was just such an identification with Grieg's music that pushed the singers that fraction sharp. The second song has its roots fairly planted in Norwegian folksong; it ends, unequivocally, on a very positive note, despite the major/minor vacillation in the second verse. The last two songs are settings of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poems: the Ascension hymn, Jesus Kristus er opfaren, seems strangely quiet for such a glorious topic, but the last song, contemplating the joys of heaven, ends rapturously.
Mendelssohn's long-neglected psalms—real biblical ones, this time—seem at last to be coming into their own: this is the third recording I've heard in recent months. This Op. 78 collection pairs up well with the Grieg, and the large choir of mainly music students and young professionals, including eight well-matched soloists, succeeds in capturing the dramatic intensity of the music. One magical moment occurs in Psalm No. 2, when the soloists sing together as a group for the first time. Although I preferred them when they were on home ground, I shall listen eagerly for any future recordings by this choir, with its youthful tonequality and its flexibility.