Julens ljus The Light of Christmas Proprius

Déjà Review: this review was first published in December 2006 and the recording is still available.

Julens ljus – The Light of Christmas
Stockholms Studentsångare/Karin Oldgren
Gunilla Backman (soprano)
Johan Lindström (organ)
rec. 2006, Hölö Church, Sweden
Proprius PRSACD2035 [65]

The Swedish are a singing people and singing in choirs is regarded as one of the most important national movements. About 600,000 people are estimated to sing regularly in one or more choirs and considering the population is around nine million that’s quite a high percentage. The male choir tradition derives from the early 19th century, supposedly starting in Uppsala in October 1808 when students gathered to sing patriotic songs. It was in the academic world that singing blossomed, first in Uppsala and somewhat later in Lund. The tradition is still alive in those two cities, as it is in Stockholm, whose Student Singers were formed in November 1905. Judging from this brand new recording they are still in healthy voice after a full century. Their most legendary conductor was Einar Ralf, older brother of Torsten Ralf, who had an international career as Wagner tenor in the 1930s and 1940s. Einar Ralf took over the leadership in 1917 and stayed for fifty years. Several others have passed on the tradition and the present conductor, Karin Oldgren, has held her position since 1998. The choir today comprises around fifty singers.

We are more used to hearing Christmas songs performed by mixed choirs but there is a special attraction in the sound of a male choir – even in this repertoire. I am a bit biased of course, having been singing in choirs all my adult life and the first fifteen years or so in a male choir. A mixed choir has no doubt a broader palette of colours but a good male choir, like this one, has a homogeneity of sound that can send shivers down the spine when everything functions well. On this disc Praetorius’s classic Es ist ein Ros entsprungen has that tingle factor, just as Carl Nielsen’s Forunderligt at sige, originally also for mixed choir but Robert Sund’s arrangement fits like a glove; no wonder, he has been Principal Conductor of Orphei Drängar, arguably the most famous male choir in the country, for more than twenty years.

The whole programme gets a good start in an alert and springy Joy to the World, also arranged by Robert Sund, while his younger brother Håkan has sewn the male costume for När juldagsmorgon glimmar, an originally German Christmas song that many will recognize from Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. Former principal conductor of the Student Singers, Göte Widlund, has also contributed several arrangements besides Es ist ein Ros …, as has the present conductor.

As can be seen from the heading the programme is a mixture of songs from Scandinavia and the rest of Europe. From Finland comes Selim Palmgren, best known, I believe, through his piano music in an impressionist vein, and Sibelius, whom I suppose everybody knows. Both have set Swedish poems: Palmgren’s Hosiannah! is to a text by the late romantic Gustaf Fröding, who has retained his popularity through the years and attracted many composers to set his lyrics, Stenhammar and Rangström among them. Sibelius’s Christmas Song has become immensely popular in both Finland and Sweden. It is one of the five songs that constitute his Opus 1, to a text by 19th century poet Topelius, who was Finnish but wrote in Swedish. Originally a solo song it is here performed in the composer’s own arrangement for male choir. Norway is represented by a pretty folk melody and Denmark by Carl Nielsen. Morten Lauridsen, despite his Danish name, was born in Colfax, Washington, and has become one of the most frequently performed composers of choral music in our time, O magnum mysterium one of his greatest successes. It is serene, meditative music, immensely beautiful, a little Russian Orthodox in character.

Bereden väg för Herran (Make way for the Lord) is an old Swedish hymn, here performed to a tune from the rural tradition with the melodic line embellished in the manner of folk fiddlers. Nu tändas tusen juleljus is one of the most popular Swedish Christmas songs, sung without big gestures and the soprano solo done with disarming childish simplicity. We also get songs by early 20th century composers Ivar Widéen and Gustaf Nordqvist.

The Anglo-Saxon tradition is also well taken care of and personally I have a special fondness for Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day with its intricate rhythms, well executed here and with a bouncy organ accompaniment. From Germanic standard fare Johan Pejler’s arrangement of Silent Night has a certain likeness to Jan Sandström’s evocative treatment of Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (not on this disc) with the melody only gradually emerging out of a slightly dissonant static body of sounds and at a very slow tempo. Halfway through the piece, after some Christmas bells, it finally finds the speed we are used to. It is an intriguing composition and a thrilling alternative to more straightforward settings.

Both Ave Maria and Reger’s Marias Wiegenlied are performed as solo songs but with choir added and Folke Bohlin’s Look! Shepherds of Bethlehem is a solo with organ. Bohlin was leader of Lund’s Student Singers for many years. The soprano soloist, Gunilla Backman, is best known as a musical artist, singing several major roles in London’s West End, among them Ellen in Miss Saigon. She has a light lyrical voice with an easy top and she sings straightforwardly with warmth and affection – which means in this case that the listener shouldn’t be aware of the calculated “reading” behind the seemingly artless. Johan Lindström participates in some of the numbers with impassioned and acute organ accompaniments. The recording, as always with this company, is perfectly balanced in an agreeable acoustic, the surround sound giving extra fullness. The sung texts – and with translations, since there must be a large quantity of these songs that are unknown to international listeners – are unfortunately missing from the booklet, which however has notes on the music and profiles on the choir, conductor, soloist and organist.

I suspect that many listeners will make attractive ‘finds’ among these 24 songs and the execution of them leaves little extra to be desired.

Göran Forsling

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Lowell Mason (1792–1872) after George Friedrich Handel (1685–1759)
Joy to the World (arr. Robert Sund) [1:37]
Gustaf Nordqvist (1886–1949)
I juletid (arr. Göte Widlund) [1:41]
Swedish folk melody (arr. Göte Widlund)
Bereden väg [2:14]
George Friedrich Handel
Dotter Sion (arr. Karin Oldgren) [1:28]
Selim Palmgren (1878–1951)
Hosiannah! [3:06]
German folk melody (arr. Michael Praetorius; Adapt. Göte Widlund)
Det är en ros utsprungen [3:14]
Emmy Köhler (1858–1925)
Nu tändas tusen juleljus (arr. Göte Widlund) [1:49] *
Jean Sibelius (1865–1957)
Julvisa (Giv mig ej glans …) [2:46]
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Ave Maria (arr. Karin Oldgren) [5:42]*
Morten Lauridsen (b. 1943)
O magnum mysterium [5:29]
Norwegian folk melody (arr. Lars Søraas)
Mitt hjerte alltid vanker [1:53]
Carl Nielsen (1865–1931)
Forunderligt at sige (Adapt. Robert Sund) [2:33]
American folkmelody (taken down by John J Niles)
I Wonder as I Wander (arr. Benjamin Britten) [4:17] *
Richard S Willis (1819–1900)
It Came upon a Midnight Clear (arr. Noam Elkies) [1:42]
John Hopkins (1820–1891)
Three Kings of Orient (arr. Noam Elkies) [3:08]
Folke Bohlin (b. 1931)
Look! Shepherds of Bethlehem [2:49]*
English Christmas Carols (arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams)
God Rest You Merry Gentlemen [2:23]
I Saw Three Ships [1:08]
John Gardner (1917-2011)
Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day (arr. Karin Oldgren) [2:05]
German Christmas Carol (arr. Håkan Sund)
När juldagsmorgon glimmer [1:46]
Ivar Widéen (1871–1951)
På krubbans strå [1:43]
Max Reger (1873–1916)
Marias vaggsång (arr. Karin Oldgren) [2:37] *
Franz Gruber (1787–1863)
Stilla natt (arr. Johan Pejler) [4:27]
Gustaf Nordqvist
Jul, jul, strålande jul [2:50]