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The stylistic pluralism which informs so much contemporary choral writing pays rich dividends in the work of Jaakko Mäntyjärvi—a thrilling programme of some exciting, accessible, contemporary music.
Pärt had composed symphonically in an astringently dissonant modernist idiom before becoming fascinated by a kind of ‘vanishing point’ in composition: the point where, if pared down any further, the expressive message of such starkly ascetic music begins to be lost. The notion is demonstrably one of stripping away and laying bare, much as the sculptor works by reduction, ‘freeing’ the figure within from the prison of its block of marble.
Tavener in his sacred music sometimes effected a meeting point for sounds of the Greek Orthodox Church with the harmonic sensibility of a Western European past. Whitacre’s language derives partly from the sacred music of his compatriot, Morten Lauridsen—who in turn proclaims a debt to Stravinsky: notably Stravinsky’s Mass (1948), where homophonic unanimity of rhythm and text predominates. Divested of the potential for polyphonic imitation, instead the music extends its harmonic vocabulary. The polyphonic masters of the sixteenth century regarded many sounds as dissonant and, therefore, subject to a tripartite rule of ‘preparation, suspension and resolution’: in effect, setting a note in place, moving other harmony against it and forcing it to fall back into line after a moment of disagreement, to convey a seemingly tidal, recurrent gathering of tension and release. Stravinsky did away with this by regarding a far wider range of harmonic possibilities as concordant rather than discordant, thus eliminating need for the process just described. Consequently, the listener experiences an increased spectrum of harmonies as more nuanced foreground ‘events’ in themselves, not felicitous by-products of the linear interplay between voices.
No composer would rely solely on one or other of these approaches, and Stravinsky’s mastery of canonic processes remained an important aspect of his language. Nonetheless, imitative polyphony is the servant of movement, while homophony (‘sounding the same’) may still embody movement but also facilitates moments of contemplative stasis. An obvious instance of exuberant homophonic movement is provided (from a secular source) by Carl Orff’s choral writing in his Carmina Burana. In contrast, Pärt, Tavener and a long line of other composers for church or concert hall exemplify a rapt meditative stillness of the type implied by Schopenhauer in his observation that ‘when we enter the state of pure contemplation, we are raised for the moment above all willing, above all desires and cares; we are, so to speak, rid of ourselves’. Such an aesthetic operated already in iconic works from the Russian Orthodox liturgical tradition, such as Rachmaninov’s plainchant-based All-Night Vigil (1915). It is discernible too in contemporary sacred choral music from the three Baltic states—and in that of the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, who espouses both imitative polyphony and homophonic stasis but also much that lies between.
Born in Turku, Mäntyjärvi studied musicology, English philology and linguistics at Helsinki University, becoming professionally accredited in 1987 as an Authorized Translator but also studying choral conducting and the theory of music at the Sibelius Academy. A choral singer himself, he points to the evidence in his compositions of pragmatic insights gained from performing. Mäntyjärvi has sung with several Finnish choirs, including the Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir, Sibelius Academy Vocal Ensemble and Tapiola Chamber Choir. He conducted the Savolaisen Osakunnan Laulajat student choir from 1988 to 1993. From 1998 until 2004 he was deputy conductor of the Tapiola Chamber Choir. In 2013 Mäntyjärvi served as Artistic Director of the Tampere Vocal Music Festival in southern Finland. In 2015 he established his own group, Chamber Choir cc FREIA, one of whose aims is to promote Finnish music abroad.
Mäntyjärvi’s Four Shakespeare songs (1984) remain among his most popular works in an output fairly evenly divided between the sacred and the secular. He has commented that ‘the choir is the instrument that I know from the inside … My harmonic language is mainly very sonorous, not tonal but largely consonance-driven. I do use effects and other contemporary means if required for the text or atmosphere at hand. I used to avoid simple solutions but am less self-conscious about that nowadays. A musical idea does not need to be complex to be effective.’
Although counterpoint is by no means absent from Mäntyjärvi’s music, the informing instinct and technique are sometimes those of the orchestrator, who creates diversity of colour by judicious octave or sub-octave doublings to reinforce upper or inner lines, and whose ear is attuned to the variations in shading created by subtly differentiated vertical spacings within a given chord. When Mäntyjärvi describes his music as ‘not tonal but largely consonance-driven’, he acknowledges the technique of treating individual notes within a common chord as pivot points, facilitating elliptical changes of direction. ‘Added-note’ harmony, whereby common chords are spiced by fleeting incidental dissonances, is judged shrewdly and deployed relatively sparingly, never becoming subject to a law of diminishing returns.
The Ave Maria d’Aosta came about when Mäntyjärvi was teaching a course in choral composition at Aosta, in the northwestern corner of Italy. Students were asked to write pieces for the choir-in-residence, The Torino [Turin] Vocal Ensemble, to perform at the final concert. Mäntyjärvi’s Ave Maria emerged, he has said, as ‘a demonstration of a particular type of choral texture, with tonally oriented harmonies scored mainly in the low and middle ranges in eight parts and with plenty of octave doubling. As such, the texture bears more than a passing resemblance to the sounds of the Orthodox liturgy, in an ecumenical nod, as it were.’ The cool opulence of this brief setting arises from extensive division of all parts, with the basses required to plumb extreme depths, especially at the end. Just as academic forms of harmonic preparation, suspension and resolution are sometimes used, so too are incidental dissonances which enhance the triadic language without obfuscating it.
The Stuttgarter Psalmen were commissioned by the Internationale Bachakademie Stuttgart. Several composers were invited to write psalm settings for the 2009 bicentenary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth. The brief was to revisit those psalms set by Mendelssohn himself. Mäntyjärvi was assigned the text from Mendelssohn’s Opus 78, which consists of three separate psalm settings. Mäntyjärvi added the Hebrew original of ‘Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?’: ‘Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?’—in that form rather than the more common ‘lama sabakhtani’ because, as the composer points out, ‘it is the form in Luther’s Bible translation that was used in Bach’s St Matthew Passion, which Mendelssohn brought back to life’. Given free rein over musical content, Mäntyjärvi makes no allusion to Mendelssohn’s material. Rather, the detectable influences are from older composers, particularly Schütz and Handel, obliquely referenced through antiphonal writing and passages of polyphony.
The Stuttgarter Psalmen were first performed in Stuttgart by the Uppsala Academic Chamber Choir from Sweden, directed by Stefan Parkman. These expansive statements move away from the relative simplicity of the Ave Maria d’Aosta. The first deploys an immense range of expressive and textural effects, notable among them a passage of intense ‘orchestration’ featuring unison doubling of one choir’s sopranos with the other choir’s tenors (the latter climbing therefore to stratospheric heights).
The unison angularity of Psalm 2’s opening question recurs insistently throughout the setting of Warum toben die Heiden?. Having arranged his forces into two choirs, Mäntyjärvi progressively shortens the arresting silences that punctuate the antiphonal call-and-response process. Consequently the two choirs eventually achieve continuity—and then a sinewy free counterpoint as they overlap, before quick-fire alternation of semiquavers between the choirs, on and off the beat, makes daunting demands on the virtuosity of the singers. A more processional mood dominates the central stages. An uneasy calm is later achieved through synthesis of the two prevailing textures, when the first choir’s returning question from the opening is tempered by the second choir’s unruffled, consonant stillness. Here, instead of shortening silences, it is the first choir’s questioning that is progressively curtailed, until all that remains is the single word ‘warum?’ (‘why?’). As if in confirmation that this remains unanswerable, the music ends on what in another context would be seen as a ‘dominant seventh’: a harmony requiring resolution through an ensuing chord—but here receiving none.
Psalm 22 dispenses with antiphony, deploying the choir in SSAATTBB format instead. The ashen quality of the lamenting text Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen? elicits music of visionary intensity. Mäntyjärvi’s claim to be ‘largely consonance-driven’ requires some qualification here; for the harmony often implies resolutions hovering just beyond reach, yet regularly achieves arresting dissonances. Notable examples include the recurrent keening of the three uppermost parts, inconsolably repeating their ‘Eli, Eli, lama asabthani?’ as if they had continued unheard beneath all the intervening music; and also the startling plangency of the final Amen, after which ‘Eli, Eli …’ is heard one final time, seeming to fade beyond hearing, not actually cease. In the unsettlingly visceral fifteenth verse, harmony drains from the music as if it were ‘bleeding out’, leaving only stark octaves sung by half the choir against desiccated stage whispers of the text from the remainder. Seldom can ‘the dust of death’ have been so grimly evoked. In egregious contrast, the twenty-third verse calls forth direct allusion to the Venice-influenced music of Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672), which rises to the surface like buried script from some ancient palimpsest.
Tonally, Psalm 22 sits on a knife-edge, its attempts to find quietus in the tonal centre of D undermined by an alternating combination of the flattened second and seventh notes in the scale (reflecting Mäntyjärvi’s evident fondness for the Phrygian mode) and the sharpened (Lydian) fourth. The shorter Psalm 43, Richte mich, Gott, communicates more simply in performance, yet its score embodies considerable complexity despite the homophonic unanimity of many passages. Tonally anchored to B flat, its inner pendulum swings continually between major and minor modes, in the process finding many tonal side-doors into neighbouring territory. The dark heart of this remarkable triptych is Psalm 22; yet, crucially, this final setting possesses the weight and intensity necessary to balance the opening movement.
The compact six-part Benedic anima mea Domino re-invents medieval practice to vivid effect, making much of the organum flavour achieved by piling fifths and octave ‘overtones’ above the ‘fundamental’ notes of plainchant. Alternation of the three upper and three lower parts is balanced by exuberant passages for all six, just as the fluid contours of plainchant are tempered by a rhythmic energy evoking secular medieval consort music for instruments.
Pulchra es was written for the wedding of the composer’s son in October 2018. The simply distinctive downward sequence of its opening is subtly offset by foreshortening of the reiterations, and recurs after a brief canonic central episode, to complete a perfectly balanced and self-contained statement. Here, as elsewhere, the deployment of voices and consonant dignity of the music obliquely recall the sensibility of motets by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896).
Music constituting a complete Evensong for Trinity College—the Trinity Service—came about when Stephen Layton expressed a desire to record pieces by Mäntyjärvi not already available. This led to a new Magnificat and Nunc dimittis: something usable regularly by the Choir, rather than concert pieces difficult to accommodate within everyday worship. Mäntyjärvi’s Lord’s Prayer (2002) was an inclusion from the start, and gradually the idea evolved of setting the entire service, including introit, Responses (with the earlier Lord’s Prayer embedded), a psalm chant and an anthem. As the composer has remarked, ‘this would have been a daunting proposition if presented to me right at the start, but by that time I had been to quite a few Evensongs at Trinity and had sufficient feel for the place to be confident’. The result was an extensive commission from The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge.
Notable for listeners is the impact of vocal divisions in the setting of Psalm 128 and also in the Responses. The psalm chant combines plangent richness with haunting introspection by oscillating freely between chords of six notes and (through unison doubling) just three. After three iterations of the double chant (covering six verses), the psalm’s concluding seventh verse necessitates modified treatment through a single chant. Mäntyjärvi heightens the effect here through upward transposition of the chant’s opening by a whole tone. For the Gloria, the double chant returns at its original pitch. Mäntyjärvi’s palette includes frequent dividing of the basses, combined with low-lying bass registers evocative of music from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. The impact on ears attuned mainly to the Anglican tradition is vivid, fresh and unexpected, especially when complemented by elliptical ‘false-relation’ harmonies espoused in the past by free atonalists such as the Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974). Naturally, the more extended items are the canticle settings and the anthem. Ever the pragmatist, however, Mäntyjärvi heeds the diurnal pressures on rehearsal time for Evensong. The brief introit is a further Ave Maria setting, unexpectedly fleet of foot owing largely to the almost incessant quaver movement of its bass line. Creating a mood of expectancy, this integrates the music into Mäntyjärvi’s conception of the service as a complete, specific occasion.
The Magnificat is contemplative and ethereal, characterized by simplification of the rhythmic momentum. Similarly, the occasional challenge of unexpected harmonic directions (for example, at the phrase ‘the rich he hath sent empty away’) is mitigated by a high proportion of stepwise melodic motion, albeit without any hint of imaginative constraint. Here, and in the Nunc dimittis, one notes the insight of a composer who is a practising singer and conductor, able to conjure myriad nuances and elevations of his verbal text through subtle variations in the deployment of his musical materials. The end of the Nunc dimittis is marked by a startling bass descent which seems to reach the ocean floor as it settles on a ‘bottom’ A flat. This is given as an alternative ending in the score—but the composer was surprised to find no fewer than four Trinity basses equal to the task!
O lux beata Trinitas revisits the Phrygian modality favoured by the composer, with the flattened second note of its scale casting doubt that the sustained bass pedal octave beneath it is truly the tonal centre of gravity. This pedal note continues uninterrupted until liberation occurs with the words ‘Te mane laudum carmine, / Te deprecemur vespere’, whereupon the harmony acquires a new mobility, gradually blossoming forth. The pedal returns in the closing stages. Austere plainchant-like passages are offset by ethereal commentary from the upper parts, creating an impression of simultaneous earthbound and heavenly music.
Sitting outside the Trinity Service and bookending this recording by returning us to an earlier work, O magnum mysterium was commissioned by Dr James Jordan for the Williamson Voices at Westminster Choir College, Princeton, New Jersey, USA. Mäntyjärvi points out a direct antecedent for the motet’s opening: Izhe kheruvimy (‘Hymn of the Cherubim’) by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki (1933-2020), which begins with a similar melodic line for altos alone. Consciously or not, however, Mäntyjärvi’s piece generally embraces a more Gallic idiom, suggesting a nod at the motet O sacrum convivium by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992).
O magnum mysterium brings this recording full circle by reverting to eight parts. It provides a measured conclusion to a sequence of vividly dramatic music by a composer increasingly celebrated beyond his native shores. Despite Mäntyjärvi’s extensive setting of Latin texts, the informing aesthetic of this music is catholic with a small ‘c’: enriched and deepened by its breadth of stylistic allusion and yet wholly distinctive in its eclecticism.
Francis Pott © 2020