Monday, January 3, 2011

Recordings: Barefoot Songs

Barefoot Songs
Monica Groop, mezzo-soprano
Cord Garben, piano
CPO 999 499-2

Although I will be reviewing a total of four recordings of this work here, this recording is the only one in which the original vocal-piano version is featured. As I will not be able to compare apples to apples, I’m not sure how much I’ll have to say about this one.

Not being a singer I am not entirely sure how much of a challenge these songs present for the soloist, but Monica Groop is a more than capable singer, and she seems quite comfortable and confident in this idiom. The pianist, however, faces very few technical challenges in this work and sometimes it seems to me as if Cord Garben is just sightreading his way through the recording. Perhaps the piano part does not demand any more assertiveness, and Mr. Garben is simply ensuring that the vocal line maintains prominence.

A few of the songs have been transposed, presumably to accommodate Ms. Groop’s vocal range, so for those of you out there with perfect pitch (like me) and the score in hand, you will find some songs just a little off-putting.

Apologies for this short review. I have a few more things to say about the recordings below, but I’ll admit I’m a little antsy to get to the meat-and-potatoes orchestral works.

8 Barefoot Songs (arr. Antal Doráti)
Nordic Chamber Orchestra
Anders Larsson, baritone
Christian Lindberg, conductor

After the phenomenally successful premiere of Pettersson’s 7th Symphony, Antal Doráti, then music director of the Stockholm Philharmonic, approached the composer with the idea that he orchestrate and arrange into a suite some of his Barefoot Songs. The composer declined, preferring instead to work on his 8th Symphony. Doráti, a composer himself, took up the task of preparing the orchestral suite discussed here.

Doráti apparently wasn’t interested in just orchestrating these songs, but in beefing them up a bit. Sometimes he repeats a simple gesture in succession, usually in a different orchestral guise and/or canonically. Doráti occasionally adds new contrapuntal lines, busying up the spare accompaniments found in the original. He was clearly a skilled orchestrator (perhaps even better than Pettersson???), but his shifting of orchestral colors and instrumental groups within vocal phrases can feel distracting. In the last song of the suite, En spelekarls himlafärd (A minstrel’s skyride, song number 11 in the original), Dorati nearly doubles the performance time of the original. He does add some  appropriate effects, given the song’s subject matter, such as the initial “tuning up” of the strings and the harmonics later on. However, I do find the orchestral flourish after the last vocal phrase rather ridiculous.

I personally do not find these arrangements to be entirely convincing. As you might have guessed, orchestrationally, they really do not sound like Pettersson. To give a vague example, Pettersson was not averse to using soft tam-tam strokes in his symphonies, but the way they are used throughout the suite just sounds out of place to me. I do realize that this is not an entirely fair argument, since the Barefoot Songs do not sound like mature Pettersson, so why would Doráti’s arrangement sound like Pettersson’s mature orchestrational style?

I think the premise of the Barefoot Songs is to present the rather heavy subject matter of Pettersson’s roots under the guise of musically simple vocal-piano music. To me, these arrangements give the impression of trying to make this music more than it is. I really wonder what these songs would sound like if Pettersson himself orchestrated them, but of course we will never know.

Having said all this, I am still grateful that this early work of Pettersson has found another avenue for performance. In fact, you can catch the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic playing this arrangement in spring 2011.

Suite from the Barefoot Songs (arr. E. Hemberg)
Stockholm University Chorus
Eskill Hemberg, conductor
Caprice CAP21359

Without access to the program notes (this release is available from the Naxos Music Library), I am not in a position to discuss the backstory of this arrangement. Compared to the Doráti suite, I find this choral suite from the Barefoot Songs to be far more effective, as they more closely capture (and in my opinion, enhance) the spirit and feel of the original. Overall, these choral arrangements follow the original score more literally, although some adjustments are made to registers.

I think this suite is a more viable alternative to the orchestral version discussed above. For example, the beautiful simplicity of Herren går på ängen is wonderfully captured in the choral arrangement; no embellishments are added. In Vännen i söndagslandet (The friend in Sundayland, song number 22 in the original), the piano accompaniment becomes this mystical, but rather distant humming (or vocalise? Not sure) while a solo soprano takes up the original vocal line. Or listen to the cheeky “na-na-na-na” of the male voices as they take up the piano left hand line in Du lögnar (You lie, song number 13 in the original).

Barefoot Songs, excerpts
Musica Vitae
Olle Persson, baritone
Petter Sundkvist, conductor
Caprice CAP21739

If I ever found myself in the situation where I had to choose my desert-island arrangement of the Barefoot Songs, this one would be it. This arrangement, even more so than the choral version described above, best captures the essence and character of these songs. Again, as I am listening to this version from the Naxos Music Library, I do not have access to the liner notes, so I can’t talk about the backstory or the arranger.

The orchestra employed here is a small strings-only band, and the transcriptions from the original are quite literal. The arrangements are done tastefully—full strings, solo strings, and pizzicato are used when musically appropriate. Occasionally the chordal textures are thickened up or violins moved to an upper register, adding emphasis for repeated phrases. The “tuning up” intro of the strings in En spelekarls himlafärd found in Doráti’s arrangement is also found here, making me wonder who came up with the idea first.

11 songs of the 24 are part of this arrangement. Baritone Olle Persson sings these selections with great care and sensitivity. I admit that I do not plan to come back to the Barefoot Songs often, but when I do, it will most likely be to this arrangement.

No comments:

Post a Comment