The Natural World of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
01 July 2011
American Record Guide
As a young composer back in the 1960s, Denmark's Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b 1932) plighted his troth with complicated avant-gardists like Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Boulez. By the 70s, however, he had become an early exponent of minimalism, turning out choral works like ‘Examples'; six short songs where words are assigned note patterns that are maintained and sung whenever the word appears in the set. The annotator describes these austere harmonic patterns as "morsels of possibilities and techniques", which is a lot more flattering than the description I came up with my first time through. Still, by my third encounter, I grudgingly came to appreciate the cleverness of the 9-minute set, even if I couldn't help wondering whether simplicity-like most other things-is best taken in moderation. Where this program really makes its mark-and where this composer really doesn't sound like anyone you've ever heard-is in his later works. One of them is Three Stages (2003) where he appropriates an old favorite from our madrigal days-Clement Janequin's exhausting, tongue-twisting ‘Chant des Oiseaux'- and turns it every which way but loose in three surreal scenes. One takes place on the streets of Copenhagen, where shrimp, herring, Mazdas, wines, sushi, caramel potatoes and (I think) drugs are being sold with the vendors chirping as wildly as Janequin's out of control birds. The cacophony adjourns to the forest for the second song, and both locations come together with bits of Shakespeare added in as the set concludes ("Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore"). I won't pretend to have figured it all out, but Stages is a wild and crazy tour-de-force with Paul Hillier's singers doing amazing things to bring the different soundscapes to life.
Hillier adds some words of his own to the annotation, by the way, and they are very helpful in guiding the listener through the idiosyncratic terrain of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Natural World. (That's the title of the anthology.) For another distinctive experience, you'll want to encounter the 2001 Madrigals, where trumpeting elephants and the screeches of a bat's radar become part of a choral call of the wild. Again, you'll be amazed at what the singers do to gain entry into Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's world of pictorial, highly virtuosic sound. The hyperactivity is cut back in three songs inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes (with a high soprano tipping her cap to Allegri's ‘Miserere' every now and then); and in the Danish set, which is the most melodic thing here. The singers sound thrilled to be denizens of this Natural World and they have been recorded in lush SACD sound that flatters the composer's every intention. I won't claim to have been engaged by all the minimalism on display; but, at its best, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's music is a clever exercise in Danish Modern that could bring color and verve to a listening room.