This Dacapo release from 2010 is the debut CD of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, though this group has a long history under its previous name, the Danish National Radio Choir. We find a cappella works by seven Danish composers born throughout the 20th century: Herman D. Koppel (1908), Vagn Holmboe (1909), Jørgen Jersild (1913), Per Nørgård (1932), Bo Holten (1948), Poul Ruders (1949) and Peter Bruun (1968). I bought this disc while exploring the output of Holmboe, Nørgård and Ruders, so I'll limit my review to their works.
Vagn Holmboe wrote music that tastefully extends the Romantic and neo-classical traditions, drawing some inspiration from Bartok for spice and eventually engaging in a search for unbreakable thematic unity (the "metamorphosis" technique) after studying Sibelius. Yet for his somewhat conventional 20th century musical forebears, Holmboe had a very brief flirtation with mid-century modernism around 1960, and that is evident from his work on this disc. "Hymn to the Sun" op. 77 (1961) sets an unexpected text: a prayer written by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten over three thousand years ago. The three stanzas of the text, discussing day, night and daybrek anew, are split across three movements: I. Tempo giusto II. Parlando III. Tempo giusto. The outer movements will be easily recognized as Holmboe by fans of the composer, but the inner movement is just unusual enough from most of his output to surprise.
Per Nørgård's "Two Hans Christian Andersen Poems" (2004-05) set two very different verses by the classic author known mainly for his fairy tales. "The Native Land of Light" is an ecstatic tribute to poetry, saying that though it can be found in the smallest trifle, it is a heaven, a "golden Hindustan". The second poem, "Come Lift Me Up", addresses death and expresses Andersen's feeling that his time to leave this world has come. Nørgård's music for a cappella voices is excellent: there is the abstract musical drama of "interference" common to all his work, but the music can also be approached as conventional choral writing.
The "3 Motets" by Poul Ruders were originally written as separate pieces in 1981, 1988 and 1985 respectively. The first, a setting of Francis of Assisi's "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace" is a very simple setting that evokes Gregorian music, though it ocassionally shifts into polyphony. The second, a setting of St Paul, opens with hepcat jazz vocals before seguing into something more poignant. Finally, a setting of Psalm 86 returns us to traditional choral music, but with subtly dissonant conflict between the male and female voices.