Anne Sofie von Otter / Kent Nagano

Boldemann, Gefors, Hillborg

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If it were possible for a CD to receive a rating that's off the top of the scale of five stars, this one would deserve it. These three sets of orchestral songs by contemporary Swedish composers inspire superlatives: they are gloriously expressive, emotionally riveting, and orchestrally brilliant, with challenging but soaringly effective vocal writing. Each has immense musical integrity and is heartstoppingly beautiful. The remarkable performances of these extraordinary pieces, by Anne Sofie von Otter and Kent Nagano, leading the Gothenburg Symphony, make this an outstanding release.

Perhaps most astonishing and intense is Anders Hilborg's extended aria "...lontana in sonno...," a reflection on romantic passion and its loss, using sonnets by Petrarch written just before and just after the death of his beloved Laura. While Hilborg's writing is highly sophisticated, he uses the purest and most viscerally communicative language to express the poet's grief. The work begins with a striking vocal solo, accompanied for three minutes by a single drone note played on a glass harmonica. The drone is a recurring motif; the voice will emerge from a single instrumental sound, or a solo instrument may appear almost imperceptibly from under the voice, creating timbral shifts that are aurally subtle, but emotionally cataclysmic. The music builds in an intensity that's simultaneously chaste and passionate. While the vocal writing is not conventionally virtuosic in its coloratura demands, the sustained, sensuous lines require the kind of control that only the most disciplined singer can summon, and von Otter's performance is simply stunning.

Laci Boldemann's Four Epitaphs, a 1952 English setting of four poems from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, is a masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered. His text setting is exquisite, and the emotional depth (and tonal idiom) of the songs echoes the best of Samuel Barber's and foreshadows that of Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs written 50 years later. Lydias sånger by Hans Gefors is a setting of seven texts inspired by or related to the themes of the 1912 Swedish novel The Serious Game by Hjalmar Söderberg. In the context of this album, Gefors' piece suffers in comparison with the originality of Hilborg's work and the communicative directness of the Boldemann, but taken on its own it's a sensitive and imaginative cycle that has moments of brilliance, particularly the searing "En flammande brunn av eld" and "I nattens våld," and its ultimate effect is deeply moving.

Von Otter's performance is radiant and transcendent. She sings with unfailing purity and her voice is simultaneously warm and incisive. Her engagement with this music is absolute, and the conviction of her singing is palpable. Kent Nagano's beautifully nuanced readings allow the luminous orchestrations to shine without overshadowing von Otter. Deutsche Grammophon's sound is pristine: clean, warm, intimate, and brilliant.

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