Born in 1942, Swedish composer Sven- David Sandström first came to attention for his complex orchestral works. For 20 years, however, Sandström was a member of the Hägersten Motet Choir, near Stockholm. In that nurturing environment, the liner notes for this Channel Classics’ SACD explain, he could “study the choral instrument and repertoire from the inside,” and began a prolific production of choral music. A breakthrough composition was Agnus Dei, for 16-part choir, included on this recital of eight sacred a cappella works. After the first performance in 1981, audience members rushed the stage and grabbed the music from the stunned singers, so ecstatic was their reception of the piece.
Sandström is obviously a believer. Unlike Olivier Messiaen, however, his music is less an abstract consideration of the Holy Trinity’s wonders than a joyous act of creative expression, a spiritual elevation of the performers and audience. Sandström, we are told, is “convinced that musical renewal is central for the survival of the Church.” Sandström’s musical syntax is richly varied, at once highly innovative and immediately engaging. It’s tonally based but there are frequent excursions into harmonically ambiguous territory. References to earlier choral music abound, both implied and explicit. (Sandström has written his own version of Messiah, setting the same libretto as Handel used more than 275 years previously, and his allegiance to the spirit of J.S. Bach pervades his output.) Hear my prayer, O Lord begins with Henry Purcell’s unfinished work for eight-part chorus and continues seamlessly into Sandström’s own material, maintaining the exact mood of the earlier composition, then progressing to a dissonant climax before receding to a quiet C major chord. Likewise, Es ist genug uses a text from a Buxtehude cantata, and quotes the music of that Baroque composer. Sandström employs minimalist techniques as well— the delightful Lobet den Herrn sounds at first as if the disc is skipping—and “non- language sounds” appear in Laudamus Te. The latter piece also manifests another distinctive feature of the composer’s style, the subtle modulation of tempo and dynamics over long time-frames.
The Swedish Radio Choir is a 32-person professional ensemble whose identification with the music never flags. This is very demanding music and the level of vocal virtuosity that Peter Dijkstra elicits from the singers, collectively, is breathtaking. The conductor identifies a unique choral sonority which “thanks to enormous exactness in the intonation, is highly transparent and sonorous”—this is the “Nordic Sound” of the disc’s title.
The recording, engineered by the redoubtable Jared Sacks with producer Hein Dekker, captures all the subtlety and affective power of Sandström’s music. Thirty-two choristers singing full- out can be loud, and too many choral recordings seem to saturate the medium, even high-resolution ones, homogenizing the ensemble sonority into something not recognizable as a collection of unique human voices. Here, cogency is maintained at all dynamic levels. Sibilants are not distracting, a tribute to both vocal and recording technique. The singers are tangibly present, yet they exist in a relaxed and expansive acoustic (actually a Stockholm radio studio).