Ordet – A New Passion

Ordet – en passion [World premiere]

[Text derived from the Bible with additional texts by Katarina Frostenson]

Nina Stemme (soprano)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Susanne Resmark (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Weinius (tenor)
Johan Reuter (bass-baritone)

Swedish Radio Chorus
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir

Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Manfred Honeck

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 26 March, 2006
Venue: Berwald Hall, Stockholm, Sweden

Finding myself in Stockholm and always up to the challenge of hearing a new work by an unfamiliar composer led me to this world premiere performance at the Berwald Hall in Stockholm. Sven-David Sandström’s music is not familiar to the writer. Searching through various catalogues, it appears he has a substantial output, and much of it appears to be vocal or choral. So a concert involving an impressive line-up of soloists and two choruses of repute, not to mention Manfred Honeck and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, was a bit of a draw.

I should say at the outset that this was a fantastic evening and expectations were certainly met. The work is a traditional Passion, very much along the lines of Bach’s, with the biblical texts being supplemented by some striking poetry by Katarina Frostenson. These texts were sung by soloists, the quartet and the double chorus, and effectively became a commentary on the action or as expressive aria-type interventions by the protagonists. “Ordet” (The Word) was performed in Swedish, but an excellent translation was available in the programme.

Sandström’s work opened with a quiet orchestral chord, which, with telling use of a glass harmonica, gradually grew in intensity until the first vocal utterance of the Evangelist (Anne Sofie von Otter). All her (or should one say ‘his’?) music was underpinned by a supportive and sonorous cushion of sound, largely string-based, over which a lyrical conversational narrative was written. As the accompaniment was not too dense, every word could be heard and every nuance was ably expressed by Otter. It must have been written with her voice especially in mind as it seemed to suit her to perfection – she was able to shade-in the most exquisite pianissimos, and yet sing out when the need arose.

The choruses were also very much at the centre of the work, and the singers’ amazing dexterity and ability was displayed here in some fiendish ensemble which was delivered with considerable aplomb, and dynamic range. Particularly memorable was a section where there was a repetitive chattering phrase about the rooting out of those people disliked by the authorities, which rattled around the various parts of the chorus as a growing whisper, but then burgeoned out into a wonderfully ‘end of Gurrelieder-like’ paean to the sun. Marvellous singing.

Most of the work is very lyrical, with occasional and sparing use of dissonance as the story merited it – but at no point did the orchestra ever raise its volume to threaten the singers. The music was by turns dramatic and reflective, and kept up the momentum of the story. Susanne Resmark, a fine and fruity-voiced mezzo doubled in the parts of Mary Magdalene and Pilate’s wife and made a strong impression, not least when she sang a marvellous and impassioned lament with Nine Stemme’s Mary as Jesus was crucified. Stemme is familiar from her superb Isolde at Glyndebourne and her subsequent recording under Pappano. Here she appeared only in the second half of the work, but delivered some big-voiced dramatic singing in one of the most romantic moments of the score. Johan Reuter was seen recently as the Royal Opera House’s “Wozzeck”, and here confirmed the excellent impression he had made there. It is a solid voice and he has a way of shading and colouring the text that allows the full meaning to come alive. Pilate’s dilemma was vividly enacted.

The tenor, Michael Weinius, sang a lovely lyrical Peter, but seemed a little taxed by some of the writing – although this did bring an intensity to his utterances, so it may have been intended. Mention should be made of the solo quartet, apparently a group of singers from Stockholm’s opera school, who sang in close harmony and with excellent balance throughout. In particular, Sara Andersson displayed a lovely light top to her voice, which rang out beautifully over the other three voices.

The orchestra relished its myriad opportunities, the percussion section and the strings really put through their paces. Manfred Honeck was a very sympathetic and unobtrusive conductor, and allowed the drama to rest with the soloists and chorus.

The Berwald Hall was nearly full for this premiere performance and the concentration of the audience (I almost want to say congregation) was palpable, even after an interval, and gave the work a rousing reception. The premiere was broadcast on Swedish Radio, and also taped for the European Broadcast Union; a CD recording would be welcome. However, “Ordet” really should be heard live, and I believe, with these forces, it would be a fine work to showcase at the Proms. Let us pray!

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