LASSE THORESEN: “Himmelkvad” (Vocal Sextet, Op. 42 and Helligkvad, Op. 19) – Berit Opheim Versto, vocalist/ Nordic Voices – 2L 75 (Audio-only Blu-ray + SACD), 72:51 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
Himmelkvad means Heavenly Sounds and is the title of this disc, not the pieces. In fact there are two compositions, about 20 years apart more or less, that are interspersed on this recital. Why I am not sure, as the notes don’t refer to it and no precise reason for the mixture is offered. The earlier Op. 19 is Sacred Songs’ – six Bahá’i prayers, done for soprano/folk artist Berit Opheim Versto unaccompanied, while the Op. 42 Vocal Sextet was designed explicitly for the fabulous Norwegian vocal ensemble Nordic Voices.
Fabulous they are as well; there is some exquisite vocalizing going on in these four compositions, dealing with unbelievable modulations that include an aggressive microtonal system that makes the music rigorously difficult to perform, and in fact the ensemble itself, according to the notes by composer Thoresen, took a number of years to perfect this new technique. The casual listener should not be put off by this though—even though we are all familiar with the experiments in microtonality offered by avant-garde years gone by, this is nothing like that. The microtones are so weaved into the very fabric of the music that it sounds no more offensive to the ear than a jazz singer bending a blue note. The four pieces, “Sun Prayer”, “Funeral Hymn”, “Heavenly Father”, and “Dual Tune” have basically Christian texts though not at all conformable to any kind of liturgical setting or structure (“Dual Tune” is wordless). Each piece is significantly wedded to the emotive meaning of the texts, though the tone of a couple might surprise you.
Helligkvad, as mentioned, is unaccompanied vocalism at the highest level, set to a series of Bahá’i texts. Versto is a superb cross-trained soprano who holds the measure of each individual syllable in the palm of her hand and is able to present it in a fashion that draws us into the inner meaning of the words. Speaking of which, full texts and English translations are given in the superb booklet.
Thoresen won the 2012 Nordic Council Music Prize, adding to a host of accolades garnered since the late seventies. As in the previous 2L release I reviewed,  the SACD is maybe just a little warmer sounding, but not enough to write home about. The sound is simply fabulous—this company is really striking gold with its High-Def releases, and you can also download the FLAC file from its website, as well as an MP3 series from Amazon (but why bother with that…)
Involving and affective music that probes the soul and prods the emotions.
Steven Ritter