Folkjul - A Swedish Folk Christmas BIS

Déjà Review: this review was first published in December 2008 and the recording is still available.

Folkjul – A Swedish Folk Christmas
Sofia Karlsson, Emma Härdelin (vocals) 
Lisa Rydberg (violin)
Gunnar Idenstam (organ) 
St Jacobs Kammarkör/Gary Graden 
rec. 2007, Oscarskyrkan, Stockholm
Texts and English translations enclosed
BIS BISNLCD5031 [64]

Too many Christmas records plough through the same hackneyed songs in strict traditional settings or soaped up and happy-go-lucky arrangements. This disc is an altogether different proposition. Not that it shuns traditional material but there are no Jingle Bells or We Wish You a Merry Christmas within sight and apart from Silent Night, which is early 19th century, the melodies are early Baroque or late Renaissance or even older. This is basically no novelty either but the treatment of the songs is. Organist and arranger Gunnar Idenstam’s concept has been to intertwine the old melodies with folk music, either ‘real’ traditional or newly written in traditional styles. The choir quite often perform the songs in original settings while the folk music material is employed contrastively or contrapuntally. For this purpose Idenstam engaged Lisa Rydberg, who is uniquely trained as both a folk fiddle expert (riksspelman) and a baroque specialist. For the solo vocals he employed two young folk music singers, also schooled in the old traditions. The outcome of this is a programme that constantly juxtaposes the sacred and the profane worlds as well as joining an ‘academic’ and a ‘folksy’ way of creating music: dance rhythms mixing with strict chorales, cluster-like minimalism against improvisational or ‘straight’ tunes. Few of the sacred songs are Swedish; most of them are borrowed from Germany or in one or two cases from France. Whether one likes the concept or not is up to personal taste. When I got this disc it arrived too late to be reviewed before Christmas – and no one buys a Christmas disc in January. I played it through as in duty bound and felt unconcerned but returning to it now, in anticipation of the festive season, I was caught from the outset.

It sets out with an organ improvisation above a sustained bourdon, followed by a polska for violin and organ and then the choir sings a cappella the first verse of Bereden väg för Herran, probably the best known Advent hymn in Sweden – the melody is a German folksong from 1693 – and in the two following verses the hymn and the polska are combined. Towards the end descant parts are added. A new organ improvisation leads over to the next song, Ett barn är fött, a newly composed setting of the traditional text by Martin Luther, and then it is combined with the original melody, also of German origin.

This suite is followed by the beautiful Personent hodie from the 16th century Nordic hymnbook Piae Cantiones. It is arranged for violin and choir a cappella. The old German chorale Det är en ros utsprungen (Es ist ein Ros entsprungen) is here sung in its original version and intertwined with another polska – beautiful and fascinating with rhythmic shifts. As in Ett barn är fött Sofia Karlsson is soloist in an idiom that others probably like better than I do. It is skilful, it is musical but I can’t quite stomach the sound.

Gläd dig du Kristi brud is innovatively performed as a slow schottis and Idenstam employs the organ’s crumhorn to create a medieval effect. The springy rhythm is a fine illustration to the joyous theme of the text.

Then follow three songs about Staffan (S:t Stephen, the first martyr), a very popular figure in the Swedish Christmas and Lucia traditions. The first is a bouncy entrance song combined with a violin solo in the shape of a halling, a well known Norwegian dance, then comes one of the best known Staffan songs, sung a cappella and finally a swinging version , again a halling with gospel accompaniment.

En jungfru födde ett barn idag is a dancing melody in ¾ time and the interludes – violin and organ – are variations on the melody in baroque style. Father Bach would have nodded approvingly. Stilla natt is basically a simple song, according to tradition composed in no time at all just before Christmas and performed as a duet with guitar accompaniment, since rats had gnawed holes in the bellows of the organ. There is probably no other song in the Christmas tradition that has been subjected to such an amount of arrangements and re-writings. This is another example, where the simple melody is surrounded by or even entangled in a polska, causing the gentle flow of the tune to be limping. Fresh approach? Sure – and it is all so professionally done – but why couldn’t it remain the siciliano that Franz Gruber intended?

Frid på jord is quite another matter. The text is an old pietist hymn, the melody is Sofia Karlsson’s. It opens with Sophia playing a tin whistle and then she sings her composition backed by the choir in a very evocative minimalist piece of music. This is my cup of tea! And so is Grins Hans’ Jässpôdspolska, a tune after a fiddler from Rättvik in the province of Dalecarlia. It is purely instrumental with violin and organ gradually growing to a climax and then back to a very soft end. Great!

Emma Härdelin, fourth generation of folk musicians in a well known family, sings the medieval Världens frälsare and embellishes her solo the same way a folk fiddler would. The combined forces of choir, organ, violin and solo voice is grandiose. The concluding Veni, veni Emanuel is another medieval hymn, where the choir sings the melody with a contrapuntal fiddle tune and then, together with the organ and the two singers employing the ‘kulning’ technique, the programme is brought to a jubilant end. ‘Kulning’ may not be a well known phenomenon everywhere in the world so a short explanation is not out of place. It is a way of singing with a vibrato-less tone in the uppermost register of the female voice and the technique was used primarily to call the cows at the mountain pastures in Scandinavia. The sound can be heard at very long distances and may also have been used to send messages to other herdsmaids. The technique has been employed until quite recent times in the province of Dalecarlia and the tradition has been kept alive to this very day. The sound is impressive, especially outdoors where it belongs, but two maids at the same time, as here? It is exotic, trust my word, but hardly beautiful.

Don’t let this or any other of my dissenting opinions deter you from lending an ear to this different Christmas disc. It is refreshing after so many treacly Christmas songs one can’t protect oneself from in shopping malls and restaurants. New wine in old bottles, indeed. I appreciated so much of it – but I don’t think I will play the ‘kulning’ on Christmas Eve.

Göran Forsling

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1. Intro  
2. Bereden väg för Herran (Prepare Way for the Lord) 
3. Ett barn är fött (A Child is Born Upon This Day) 
4. Personent hodie 
5. Det är en ros utsprungen (Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming) 
6. Gläd dig du Kristi brud (O Bride of Christ, Rejoice) 
7. Staffans hälsningssång (Staffan’s Greeting Song) 
8. Staffansvisa (Staffan Ballad) 
9. Staffan Halling (Staffan, halling) 
10. En jungfru födde ett barn idag (A Virgin Bore Us a Child Today) 
11. Stilla natt (Silent Night) 
12. Frid på jord (Peace on Earth) 
13. Grins Hans’ Jässpôdspolska (‘Banquet Polska’ after Grins Hans) 
14. Världens Frälsare (Our Saviour Has Come)  
15. Veni, veni Emanuel