Copenhagen in late January: minus temperatures but brilliant sunshine; tourists milling about the brightly coloured waterside buildings at Nyhavn; the Royal Life Guards, in bearskins and blue uniforms, marching along Bredgade at midday; a heavy frost on the lawns of The King’s Garden, with Rosenborg Castle in the distance; and nestling among traditional Danish cafes, minimalist homeware stores and upscale restaurants, the imposing, brick-built Trinitatis Kirke with its adjoining round tower, originally built as an astronomical observatory.
This grand city church – the white plainness of its interior offset by the Baroque effusions of its altarpiece, pulpit and no less than three organs – was the venue for the first performance of Lys over Europa (‘Light over Europe’), a typically thought-provoking programme curated by Michael Emery, given by the DR VokalEnsemblet under the direction of Eamonn Dougan. Eamonn conducted The Sixteen and electric guitarist Tom Kerstens in the premiere of my Ave, Regina caelorum back in 2008 and it was good to be reacquainted with his quietly authoritative manner, his elegant sculpting of musical lines (always driven by the words), his rhythmic precision and his feeling for choral colour.
The DR VokalEnsemblet is the full-time professional chamber choir of Danish Radio. The group is quite small, just 18 singers (actually 19 for this programme) and they make a beautiful sound – less bright than English choirs, and not at all top-heavy, but clear and warm, beautifully blended and balanced with a lovely firm definition at the bottom of the texture. The presence of a lone countertenor – music to English ears but unusual on the Continent – adds a welcome hint of plangency to the alto line. Their unfussy mastery of a variety of musical languages -and six spoken languages – was very impressive.
Lys over Europa was a beautifully constructed meditation on World War One and its aftermath, with music about the war (either obliquely or overtly) or borne of it, featuring several composers whose countries only came into existence as a consequence of it. Framed by works in German by Max Reger (his faintly troubled Nachtlied, written on the eve of World War One) and myself, the core of the programme was centred on folksong, that quintessential expression of new nationhood: two of Szymanowski’s Kurpian Songs, rich elaborations of monophonic wedding tunes; Kodály’s earthy Mátra Pictures which were new to me; Martinů’s quirky Romance of the Dandelions, its extended soprano solo sung with rapturous spontaneity by Klaudia Kidon, followed by the rather cooler Nordic contours of Rakastava by Sibelius: a very illuminating look at just a little of the rich diversity of European folk melody, and something of the great variety of its possible treatments. And at the centre of the concert, Ravel’s Trois Chansons, by turns tenderly patriotic and thrillingly virtuosic, written while he was a wartime driver in the transport corps. With so many moments of exuberance earlier on, it was bold, and very telling, to end the programme on such a sombre note as Am Abend, my setting of Georg Trakl’s Grodek.
The following afternoon the programme was repeated in Helsingør, where Buxtehude spent six years as organist of Sct. Mariæ Kirke and where the massive Kronborg Castle (home to Hamlet) stands on a headland looking across the Øresund to Sweden. This second concert was in a very different kind of space – the Maritime Museum of Denmark, built into an old dry dock; the auditorium, all blond wood and a rakish (and raked!) stage area with sheer glass on either side, had a rather drier acoustic than the Trinitatis Kirke but the singers dealt with it very well and the sold-out audience,which included – yes! – some young people, was palpably moved by what they heard.
The DR VokalEnsemblet are not flashy, in fact they are rather modest, which makes them immensely likeable; their dedication and integrity throughout these richly imagined concerts made for something very special.