The Natural World of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen
18 December 2012
These a cappella choral song cycles by Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, born in 1932, were written at two periods in his life, the first in the late 1960s and the second since the turn of the millennium. The two earlier cycles are similar in style, tone, and harmonic vocabulary to the choral works by Arvo Pärt that helped define “holy minimalism,” but they were written at almost exactly the same time, so they are not likely to have been influenced by Pärt. Slow moving and understated, most of these pieces are entirely homophonic, or homophonic over a drone or ostinato. The more recent pieces, especially Igen (2006), Three Stages (2003), and Four Madrigals from the Natural World (2001), are even more interesting—they’re dazzling, in fact—in their inventiveness, originality, and startlingly fresh take on choral writing. They seem to be written entirely without inhibition and without undue concern for choral convention or the etiquette of the concert hall. In Three Stages and Four Madrigals, in particular, Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s use of howls, yelps, and whistles that imitate nature and animal sounds to create a surging, primal contrapuntal layering is shameless but disarming, and the sounds are part of a compelling, coherent musical structure that is totally beguiling; there is nothing quite like it in the repertoire. That being said, this is definitely not avant-garde music; Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s tonal language in the earlier works has a pared-down, Pärt-like modal simplicity, and most of the later pieces are warmly, even extravagantly, lush.
It’s easy to hear why the performances garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Choral Performance in 2010. The singing by Ars Nova Copenhagen, led by Paul Hillier, long an advocate of the composer’s music, is nothing short of breathtaking. Technically the singers are superb; the music is often wildly eccentric in its demands, but the performances are absolutely secure, and the sounds, even at their strangest, are never less than lovely. The sopranos deserve special commendation for their purity, focus, and intonation when they are called on (frequently) to linger on sustained notes stratospherically high above the staff for far longer than is reasonable to expect from mere mortals. The group performs with a nuanced musicality that animates the simpler works and makes sense of the more complex. The sound of Dacapo’s hybrid SACD is immaculate, detailed, natural, and warmly present. Highly recommended; Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s astonishing music commands the attention of anyone interested in contemporary choral music.