Wow! I had been tentative about buying this album, as the pieces I knew well (Finzi and Mussorgsky) I would normally prefer with a man singing, but I decided to give it a go. Again: wow!
The thing that is perhaps the most stunning about this album is the recording quality, which is simply astounding. I listen mostly to multichannel these days - on extremely high-quality equipment - and have some fabulous recordings. In my opinion, the very hardest things the record are piano, on the one hand, and voice (both solo and choral) on the other. Even in the very best of recordings, one imagines one can hear some hint of instability on really forceful piano music in the extreme upper register. Also, I don't believe I have ever really heard a powerful soprano voice - in high-octane delivery - outside of a live situation where the louder it gets the more effortless it sounds, with all the complex overtones creating an all-encompassing, overwhelming effect. Not even the very best recordings I have ever heard manage quite this sense of the "live" experience.
That changed last night when I played this recording. It is simply astounding in the rock-solid manner in which both 'instruments' are presented. The acoustic is reasonably dry, but with a bit of ring, and the perspective is pretty close. If this were a live concert it is where you would absolutely love to be, but often in a recording that is not quite the perfect perspective. Not here. Simply an amazing sound which opens and opens the stronger the dynamics, and I have to say that I have never heard a recording that really gets quite here. So, this is now officially (for me) the best recording I have ever heard.
Of course, all this would be just a little ho-hum if the performances were not up to an exceptional standard. Fortunately, they are. The pianist is great, but Kielland is simply stunning. The Mussorgsky will blow you away.
A truly, truly magnificent effort from all concerned. Bravo. I have given 5 stars on recordings here before. On that scale, this is an easy 6 stars. As as I said:
MusicWeb International - Recording of the Month
Do not be repelled by the album’s title or by the morbid picture on the front cover. This is not a gloomy collection of gruesome, death-obsessed music. This beautiful and diverse vocal music is, in particular, unified by reflections on death, the acknowledgment of its presence in - or after - our life. Only in the last song, Mussorgsky’s Field-Marshal is Death openly terrifying.
The “golden thread” of this program is Shakespeare’s poem Come Away, Death from The Twelfth Night. Out of more than twenty settings, three were chosen. All of them treat the text as a tragic renunciation - despite it being originally placed in the context of a merry comedy. These three short songs are like way-markers on the way through the album, separating three longer works.
The setting by Korngold opens proceedings. It is lyrical and almost operatic, with frequent switches between major and minor. The melody moves in slow, steady waves. The mood is close to Purcell’s Dido’s Lament: this is a calm acceptance of death, with bitter sorrow, but without protest. The setting by Sibelius is, I guess, in Swedish. It is stern and bare - the darkest of the three. The music conveys both dread and foreboding. Despite being very sparse, it leaves a feeling of heaviness, of a hard and cold tombstone. Finzi’s setting adopts the pace of a funeral cortege and the ceaseless slow swaying of a tolling bell. The melody is poignant, with distressing accents: here the hero is definitely not agreeing with his fate! This version is more theatrical, less personal than the other two: the music ascends like a thorn bird rising to the skies. It is also the most beautiful version, and the melody is haunting. It stayed with me for at least a fortnight.
Wolfgang Plagge set four poems by Edith Södergran. There is no explicit mention of death in the poems. However, they can be interpreted as pondering the subject. The music is boldly dissonant and creates a feeling of fragility and strength at the same time - as if depicting a strong yet emotional personality in a deep depression. The accompaniment is sparse and effective. These settings succeed in their aim to “reproduce and reinforce both the ascetic and the uninhibited aspects of Södergran’s incomparable language”, as the composer strove to do. Although very modern, the music grips and enthralls with its interplay of white light and delicate glass, of cold rain and warm wind. The match with the words is tight and delicate. Kielland’s dark velvety voice brings the songs to life - frightening, poignant, stirring. This is a very memorable and beautiful work.
HVIL is described by its creators as “the Earth’s plea to humankind”. There is no translation, and there probably cannot be any, for the Earth is speaks an eerie language, whispering and shouting out words in clusters. If you know Norwegian (and Latin) you’ll probably be able to decipher those long long words; the rest of us will need a translation, which is absent. I understand that a detailed explanation is not feasible - still, I would have expected to receive a little more information. As it is, I can only speak about the effect of the sounds, without really understanding the meaning of the words. The effect is spectacular. The piano part lies in the lowest and highest registers. In between, the voice cries out: a desperate plea, dark and intense, and at the same time fragile. The voice jerks and thrashes about as if in fever. The music descends to the lowest reachable areas. Kielland is a marvel; her voice is powerful in all the registers, and she shows great affinity with the work. This is the most persuasive advocacy for the Earth’s plea: I don’t understand what the singer is saying, but I feel that I totally agree with her. The music is atonal: the Earth does not care about our ridiculous conventions.
The program is closed by a strong, memorable performance of Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. Grammatically, in the Russian language, Death is feminine. Thus a woman’s voice is more suitable here than the customary bass or bass-baritone: we hear Death speaking, not someone retelling her words. And among the female voices, the lower one surely has a better claim to the work, due to its darker connotations. So, Kielland is already in a good starting position - but a good start is not enough. What she does, how she sings, what she makes out of these songs, is absolutely awesome. Lullaby, this female counterpart to Erlkönig, is a gem of the musical theatre, and Kielland sculpts each word as if she lives it, with absolute identification in all roles. This is one of the cases where it is borne home to the listener that music is not just about accurate note-rendering. If you have children, by the end you’ll be half-dead yourself.
The text of the Serenade is rather verbose, without the dense action that we encounter in the other three songs. Kielland compensates by giving us some magnificent opera singing. Her diction is very good, and the Russian pronunciation is praiseworthy. She conveys the feeling of restrained power, which finally uncovers itself in the explosion of the last notes. Trepak has the grim dare-devilry, which we know from some pages of Boris Godunov - especially the role of Varlaam and the Kromy scene. In the midst of the winds and blizzards whipped up by Osadchuk, Kielland sings with raw abandon. The ending is a soft consolation. The Field-Marshal puts a huge exclamation mark at the end of the recital. The images of the battlefield are shocking, and Death’s monologue is terrifying. Kielland’s voice is strong and cuts deep like a blade through butter. The ending is devastating.
Throughout the album, the contribution of the pianist Sergej Osadchuk is invaluable. The power and expressiveness of his playing match those of Marianne Beate Kielland’s singing. He has to handle difficult scores, and he does it boldly, yet his technique always serves dramatic purposes. In the liner-note, Kielland recounts the conception of the album. The works are described - by the creators where they are still living. We have bios of the performers, all this in English and Norwegian. Complete texts with English and Norwegian translations (where possible) are provided.
As usual for this label, the recording quality is exemplary. If something can persuade me to buy a Surround Sound system, at last, it is this album. I just want to hear what the “real thing” can be, if the plain reduction has such a feeling of space and presence. Kielland’s voice is captured most vividly and is presented as if a shining gem on a velvet bed.
There are experiences in life that you remember, although they may not be pleasant. Some of them are musical. They make you think, maybe even change. They clean the pipes of your soul. This album is one such experience: a work-out for the psyche. Our souls need exercising not less than our bodies do - especially in these times when we consume so much emotional junk food. And, just like the effort and the tension of sport the process does not necessarily induce an enjoyable feeling, but in the end, you are glad you did it … and so it is here. Unless even the mention of Death is taboo for you, consider hearing this album. There may be no joy in this enjoyment, but there is much beauty, sincerity, and high art. This album gave me one of the strongest musical experiences I have ever had.
HR Audio.Net -
When it comes to issuing unusual and thought-provoking repertoire in DSD and DXD, it would be hard to find a more imaginative and persuasive exponent of this policy than Morten Lindberg and his marvelous 2L label. Each new release is the start of a new musical adventure for the listener in which both the familiar and unfamiliar comfortably coexist in a carefully constructed programme. This release entitled ‘Come away Death’ is a perfect example of the 2L approach.
The mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland and her pianist Sergej Osadchuk have dared to compile a whole program of songs on the subject of death, yet anyone imagining 63 minutes of unrelenting gloom will be more than pleasantly surprised by the results heard on this recording.
The disc’s title is represented by three very different settings of the well-known poem from Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Jean Sibelius and Gerald Finzi. These make for fascinating comparisons in composing styles, particularly when performed so beautifully as here by Kielland and her partner.
The Korngold setting taken from his ‘Songs of a Clown’ Op.29 is, as one might expect, melodic and lyrical with a kinship to Mahler’s ‘Kindertotenlieder’ and like the Finzi is sung in English. The Sibelius, sung in Norwegian as ‘Kom og bli død’ and originally written with a guitar accompaniment, is more austere and declamatory in style while the Finzi, arguably the finest of the settings, begins each verse with a few bars suggesting a stately funeral march before the singer enters with a melody of poignant sadness.
Interleaved with these brief songs are three more substantial pieces.
Wolfgang Plagge’s ‘Södergran-sanger’ sets four poems by Edith Södergran (1892-1923). In Plagge’s own words, “ The musical language of these four set songs attempts to reproduce and reinforce both the ascetic and the uninhibited aspects of Södergran’s incomparable language – the songs are somewhere in between recitation and traditional through-composed songs.” These songs have a fragile beauty and emotional power that Kielland and Osadchuck express with great sensitivity.
HVIL (Rest) by Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje and Aasne Linnestrå is a virtuoso piece of avant-garde composition for both voice and piano and is certainly the most challenging work on this disc. The poem, untranslatable into English, is a plea from the earth to the humankind to slow down and be more aware of the earth’s fragility; its political message clearly related to the issues around climate change. The singer is required to whisper, speak, sing and declaim the words of the poem over a complex piano part that often uses the extreme registers of the instrument as well as encompassing a huge dynamic range. The Nordlande Musikkfestuke, Bodø, commissioned the 20-minute work in 2008 and as Marianne Beate Kielland gave the premiere there and the composer is co-producer for this recording one can safely assume that the performance given here is authoritative. It is not easy listening and I am not sure how often one would wish to return to this harrowing piece.
Kielland and Osadchuk complete their program with a moving and vividly characterized performance of Mussorgsky’s magnificent ‘Songs and Dances of Death’. Nowadays these four songs are more often heard in the version orchestrated by Shostakovich and sung by a bass or baritone but are equally effective in Mussorgsky’s original.
The sound quality of 2L’s 5.1 DXD recording made in Sofienberg Church in January 2009 is state-of-the-art. Those listening in multi-channel will be interested to see the two diagrams in the booklet notes that show the placements used for singer and piano (one for HVIL and one for the other tracks) relative to the microphones, and the very different aural results that emerge.
Presentation of the album is equally immaculate, with full texts, translations and notes on the music provided.
If the content appeals don’t hesitate to acquire this intriguing DSD and DXD release.