Classical Music Home

Welcome to Naxos Records

Keyword Search
 Classical Music Home > Naxos Album Reviews

Album Reviews

See latest reviews of other albums...

Stephen Eddins, January 2012

Igen (2006), Three Stages (2003), and Four Madrigals from the Natural World (2001), are…interesting—they’re dazzling, in fact—in their inventiveness, originality, and startlingly fresh take on choral writing. In Three Stages and Four Madrigals, in particular, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s use of howls, yelps, and whistles that imitate nature and animal sounds to create a surging, primal contrapuntal layering is shameless but disarming, and the sounds are part of a compelling, coherent musical structure that is totally beguiling; there is nothing quite like it in the repertoire. That being said, this is definitely not avant-garde music…

It’s easy to hear why the performances garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Choral Performance in 2010. The singing by Ars Nova Copenhagen, led by Paul Hillier…is nothing short of breathtaking. Technically the singers are superb; the music is often wildly eccentric in its demands, but the performances are absolutely secure, and the sounds, even at their strangest, are never less than lovely. The sopranos deserve special commendation for their purity, focus, and intonation… The sound of Dacapo’s hybrid SACD is immaculate, detailed, natural, and warmly present. Highly recommended; Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s astonishing music commands the attention of anyone interested in contemporary choral music. © 2012 Read complete review

Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International, September 2011

The cool, somewhat bleached sound of this choir is typical of the breed. In the texts of Examples Gudmundsen-Holmgreen captures the prevailing zeitgeist—the work was written in 1970—encompassing preoccupations with gender in ‘Not only she’, and the drowsy narcissism of the age in ‘Morning’; meanwhile, in the gnomic texts of ‘Children encounter superiority’ we surely have a nod towards e e cummings. And, in keeping with the pseudo-mystical tendencies of the time, the texts are sometimes mere fragments (‘On the tree is a leaf’).

Ars Nova’s sound is rarefied and superbly focused; while they’re well caught I did wish for a little more air in this recording. That said, it sounds just fine in both the Red Book and Super Audio layers, high-lying passages emerging with astonishing naturalness and clarity. That’s particularly true of the writing in Again, based on Biblical texts, where the voices circle and twine most artfully, the gentle breath of ‘Time to…’ a marking of the passage of life itself. This is music of rare skill and beauty, magnificently sung.

I must confess that on first hearing I felt somewhat distanced by both the sound of this choir and Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s slow-moving vocal lines, but there’s an inner richness and complexity to the writing that reveals itself on repeated hearings. A deeply contemplative core, if you like, and really rather moving as well. And despite its title, the Six Danish Songs finds a remarkably poignant spirit in small things, from the love and loss of ‘Sleeping girl’ to the repeated cadences of ‘Poem with [the word] not’ (insertion mine). The latter is lightly sprung and airily sung—a real joy to hear.

In Statements we return to the composer’s earlier style, with its trendy texts and more experimental touches; here the women’s long, winding lines are literally punctuated by short plosives from the men. It’s very effective, although it gets a little repetitive after a while. Those small misgivings aside, there’s no doubting the commitment of these singers—their intonation and blend is simply astonishing. Three stages is much earthier in sound and sentiment, a veritable shopping list of capitalist clichés and consumerist cravings; for instance, in a circling antiphon the men and women engage in the strangest dialogues—‘Money, money/Buy, buy/Toyota! Mazda! CO2! CO2!’ and ‘Get! To! Heck! Barseback!’

It gets rather more explicit, but it’s essayed with such glee and good humour that I doubt anyone could be offended. Well crafted and weirdly entertaining, Three stages makes a perfect foil for the more ‘serious’ pieces in this collection. But whatever the mood or musical demands, Ars Nova and Paul Hillier never fail to please. And, as you might imagine, the choir has great fun with the ‘Bat’s ultrasound’ and assorted calls of the wild in the aptly named Five Madrigals from the Natural World. Not only is this clever, it’s also discreetly done. As a concert closer it’s guaranteed to leave the audience in the best of moods.

A slow burner this, so I’d implore you to persevere. Just get a feel for the composer’s unusual—and eclectic—idiom, and then listen again with the texts. It really is a very rewarding anthology and, as always, the liner-notes and general presentation are as good as I’ve come to expect from Dacapo.

If you’re after something different, don’t hesitate.

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, July 2011

As a young composer back in the 1960s, Denmark’s Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b 1932) plighted his troth with complicated avant-gardists like Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Boulez. By the 70s, however, he had become an early exponent of minimalism, turning out choral works like ‘Examples’; six short songs where words are assigned note patterns that are maintained and sung whenever the word appears in the set. The annotator describes these austere harmonic patterns as “morsels of possibilities and techniques”, which is a lot more flattering than the description I came up with my first time through. Still, by my third encounter, I grudgingly came to appreciate the cleverness of the 9-minute set, even if I couldn’t help wondering whether simplicity—like most other things—is best taken in moderation.

Where this program really makes its mark—and where this composer really doesn’t sound like anyone you’ve ever heard—is in his later works. One of them is Three Stages (2003) where he appropriates an old favorite from our madrigal days—Clement Janequin’s exhausting, tongue-twisting ‘Chant des Oiseaux’—and turns it every which way but loose in three surreal scenes. One takes place on the streets of Copenhagen, where shrimp, herring, Mazdas, wines, sushi, caramel potatoes and (I think) drugs are being sold with the vendors chirping as wildly as Janequin’s out of control birds. The cacophony adjourns to the forest for the second song, and both locations come together with bits of Shakespeare added in as the set concludes (“Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore”). I won’t pretend to have figured it all out, but Stages is a wild and crazy tour-de-force with Paul Hillier’s singers doing amazing things to bring the different soundscapes to life. Hillier adds some words of his own to the annotation, by the way, and they are very helpful in guiding the listener through the idiosyncratic terrain of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Natural World. (That’s the title of the anthology.) For another distinctive experience, you’ll want to encounter the 2001 Madrigals, where trumpeting elephants and the screeches of a bat’s radar become part of a choral call of the wild. Again, you’ll be amazed at what the singers do to gain entry into Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s world of pictorial, highly virtuosic sound.

The hyperactivity is cut back in three songs inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes (with a high soprano tipping her cap to Allegri’s ‘Miserere’ every now and then); and in the Danish set, which is the most melodic thing here. The singers sound thrilled to be denizens of this Natural World and they have been recorded in lush SACD sound that flatters the composer’s every intention. I won’t claim to have been engaged by all the minimalism on display; but, at its best, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music is a clever exercise in Danish Modern that could bring color and verve to a listening room.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, January 2011

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen has never sought the comfort of joining a school of composition, but has chosen to follow his own musical instincts. As many other composers have discovered, such a path does not win establishment approval. Born in Denmark in 1932, he was an outspoken critic of Danish musical conservatism that would not sustain or understand his creativity. I suppose to many, including myself, he will remain an enigma, at one moment easily appreciated, while in the next he is in the intangible experimental mode that we find in Examples, where clashing harmonies and soprano lines sear into the stratospheres.That came from 1970, only one year after Statements, a score that would not unduly trouble conservative ears. Turn the clock forward to 2001 and we have Four Madrigals from the Natural World, singers producing strange animal noises overlaid on a type of madrigal from yesteryear. Nothing could then be more different the following year when he composed the uncomplicated and charming 6 Simple Danish Songs. One year further Three Stages is a fun piece resembling folk music gone slightly mad, and three years ago in Again he is now employing highly fashionable ethereal tones. Reaction to his music will be a personal response that I would hate to influence. That Paul Hillier is a passionate adherent is clear from his programme notes, Ars Nova Copenhagen singing very difficult music with total assurance, even if the high sopranos cannot hide the fact that they are sometimes exceedingly taxed. Good sound quality.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group