Valjetessa - Harju Chamber Choir
Alba Records NCD 40
Sibelius, Liimola, Komulainen, Rautavaara, Kaski, Hannikainen, Klemetti
Harju Chamber Choir
Heikki Liimola (conductor)
Jan Lehtola (organ)
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Kaski, Heino: Mökit nukkuu lumiset (The Snowy Cottages Are Sleeping)
Piae Cantiones: Salve flos et decor Ecclesiae (Hail Thee, Flower And Adornment Of Church)
Komulainen, Juhani: Jesu Christe pie (Holy Jesus Christ)
Hannikainen, P. J., Haapalainen, T. Ilmari (arr./sov.): Jouluaattona (On Christmas Eve)
Haapalainen, T. Ilmari (arr./sov.): Joulupuu on rakennettu (The Christmas Tree Is Decorated)
Liimola, Heikki: Jeesuslapsen joululahjat (The Christmas Presents of Baby Jesus)
Palmgren, Selim: Rauhanruhtinas (The Prince of Peace)
Piae Cantiones: Psallat scholarum concio (Gathered Here Sings The Host Of Schools)
Klemetti, Heikki (arr./sov.): Psallat scholarum concio (Gathered Here Sings The Host Of Schools)
Liimola, Heikki: Joululaulu (Christmas Carol)
Hela, Martti: Hiljainen joululaulu (Quiet Christmas Carol)
Liimola, Heikki: Tuikkeessa joulukynttiläin (In The Twinkle Of The Christmas Candles), Valjetessa (At Dawn)
Linjama, Jouko: Jouluilta (Christmas Evening)
Hannikainen, Ilmari: Joululaulu (Christmas Carol - Sweet Baby Jesus)
Liimola, Heikki: Sydämeni joulu (The Christmas Of My Heart)
Piae Cantiones: Ave maris stella (Hail, Ocean Star)
Komulainen, Juhani: Ave maris stella
Rautavaara, Einojuhani: Joulun virsi (The Hymn Of Christmas)
Marjatan jouluvirsi (Marjatta’s Christmas Hymn)
Sibelius, Jean: Nu står jul vid snöig port (Christmas Comes To The Snowy Gate), Nu så kommer julen (Yuletide Is Coming), Det mörknar ute (It Is Getting Dark Outside), Giv mig ej glans, ej guld, ej prakt (I Seek No Might Nor Splendour) On hanget korkeat, nietokset (The Snow Has Fallen Deep And Wide)
Review by John Miller - February 25, 2015
Through the ages, Christians have celebrated the Christmastide festival with music. At first with chants, litanies and hymns (some of which are still used, mainly in Church services), then in the early Middle Ages the French devised a circle dance called a carol, which was voiced and danced mainly by the laity. This form spread out across Italy, through France and then into Germany. From there it spread slowly into the Baltic countries, as did Christianity.
Leading choral conductor and composer Heikki Liimola founded of the mixed voice Harju Chamber Choir in 1996. The Choir has won many awards and it has gained world-wide praise for its wide-ranged repertoire, particularly in 'a cappella' music of the C20th by composers such as Rautavaara and Kokkonen. Liimola has devised a clever sequence of Finland's Christmas music, from Advent to the end of Christmas Day. As you can see from the track list, quite a few pieces are composed or arranged by Liimola himself, and some by well-known Finnish composers such as Selim Palmgren, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Jean Sibelius. Most of the carols or hymns are sung 'a cappella', others have an organ accompaniment played by Jan Lehtola, one of the upper echelon of Finnish organists.
Religious texts are partly taken from biblical sources, particularly the Psalms of the introductory 'Introit for Adven't, and their music is a combination of ancient chants sung in unison and melded with fully harmonized modern melodic lyricism, their styles being much more on the Romantic side than the modern dissonant one. The beauty of the melodies reflects to some degree the lilting Finnish speech rhythms. Many of the carol texts come from Finnish poets and deal with both secular and spiritual matters in an intimate and effective way. These carol texts thus inspire the composers to use descriptive music which conveys strong impressions and emotions to the listener. As might be expected, the fact that Christmas in Finland invariably occurs at the snowy peak of Winter is a constant theme of the hybrid carols. Thankfully, the texts are in Latin or Finnish and have effective English translations.
Sibelius' five Christmas Carols are still popular in Finland. The composer himself was not deeply religious, but went to church at least once a year, on Christmas Day. He had a large family gathering for Christmas celebrations in his country homes, with lots of music, centred on father Sibelius playing the piano. Christmas, however, apart from his family, was not particularly cared for. “The darkest weeks of the year from my birthday [December 8] until Christmas, when the sun is at its lowest, are always a difficult time for me,” he told his secretary. He added “Immediately after Christmas is over, things improve and life is fun once more.”
In 1915, Sibelius compiled five hymn/carols, composed between 1897 and 1913, to a set named 'Christmas Songs Opus 1'. Texts came from Kustavi Lounasheimo (The Hymn of Christmas) and the rest from Zacharias Topelius except for 'Marjatta's Christmas Hymn, which Sibelius sifted from the Finnish Kalevala folk poetry volumes. The fact that he tinkered with these essentially very simple songs for years shows that he held great affection for them. Sibelius lovers will recognise his fingerprint on many of their melodies. It is recorded that when "he played ‘High are the snowdrifts,’ he played very loud, with the pedal down, as if he were playing the organ. It was as if he would have liked to have had an orchestra there as well". Sibelius commented "We sang this song (“High are the snowdrifts”) and then we sang ‘Give me no splendour, gold or pomp.’ This was all very jolly. It wasn’t pious or gloomy at all.” On this disc, as exemplars of music for Christmas Day, the Sibelius Op.1 songs delightfully complete Heikki Liimola's survey of Finnish Christmas Music. Sibelius lovers will recognise his fingerprint on many of its melodies.
The Harju Chamber Choir has 35 members and their performances under Heikki Liimola could hardly be bettered. They have a wide tonal and dynamic range, lively rhythms and clear affection for the music and texts. The fervent voices blend superbly, and engineer Mika Koivusalo's 5.0 multichannel recording conjures the listener into the ambience of a small church which was used for most of the tracks, clearly focussed so that the characters of each voice are audible. The tracks with organ were recorded in the Tampere Cathedral; Lehtola's choices from its 69 stops providing added colour. In order to link the two venues, Koivusalo foregoes silent gaps between tracks for a continuous low-level capture of pneumatic background sounds of the Aitolahti Old Church's organ, so the change of ambience between venues is hardly noticeable.
This is quite a unique but compelling approach to Christmas music, in its drama and superb musicianship. I venture to say that listening without bothering about the origin of the track sequence and its carefully-chosen poetic texts is in itself very enjoyable, so infectious is the choir's manifold expression of joy. However, the personalised account of the anticipation of Christmas, its integration with Winter experiences and bringing joy of a religious or secular nature is best revealed by following the music with the texts.
'Valjetessa' (At Dawn, i.e. Christmas Morning) is not just one of those recordings only brought out at Christmastide; it gives great satisfaction at any time of the year! Aside, I hope that Alba will record some more of the stunning Harju Chamber Choir. Highly recommended.
Copyright © 2015 John Miller and HRAudio.net