Magnum Mysterium – Grex Vocalis/Carl Høgset 2L
Magnum Mysterium – Grex Vocalis/Carl Høgset 2L [distributed by Musikkoperatørene] 2L26 Multichannel SACD, 55:43 ***:
Existing as a chant for over a thousand years, the text for O Magnum Mysterium is drawn from many sources in the Bible, and is traditionally sung in monasteries before dawn during the Matins service on Christmas Day. In this compilation the text is presented in several familiar settings (Lauridsen, De Victoria, Palestrina, Poulenc, and Busto), and is interspersed with other seasonal favorites. This is a concept already employed by some very fine entries on disc, but these are also coupled with some interesting Norwegian Christmas carols.
It is strange that Høgset chose not to include the glorious original chant, especially since the singers are bathed in warm and resonant acoustics that would serve chant well. The group presents these works with well-executed ensemble and commendable blend.
The remaining pieces are a sort of Norwegian Many Moods of Christmas, encompassing Christmas warhorses such as “Silent Night”, “Away in a Manger”, and “Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming” (sung in Norwegian). Those sung in other languages betray only occasional local colorations in pronunciation, and in any case are sung with understanding and commitment. The greatest finds on the disc are the Norwegian carols (rarely represented elsewhere), although the choral tone deteriorates noticeably in these items, which are presumably very familiar to the ensemble.
The intonation is the most noticeable blemish, as the women occasionally push the pitch north while the lower men hang resolutely south. The resulting breach is noticeable in the polyphonic sections and with the initiations of new verses in the carols; it often sounds as if the pitch were corrected in between verses, which were then digitally spliced. The organ simply sounds as if it employs an alternate tuning system. None of this is to any degree alarming, and this would not have normally risen to receive extended criticism, but as the liner notes are effusive about the ensemble’s excellent tuning I feel compelled to comment on it.
The SACD 5.0 option fills the room with a delightful “you are there” aesthetic, perfectly capturing the reverberant acoustics and balances them with the choir – no cute quadraphonic tricks here – just great capture and mastering: kudos to recording producer Morten Lindberg of 2L. I’ll be looking for more of his excellent work. The CD layer is still quite good, yet to my ear overwhelms the choir with reverberation just a bit.
In all, this disc is a musical presentation of a well-worn concept. Stiff competition is afforded by the very similar offering of the fabulous Tiffany Consort (MSR Classics MS1108) using one voice per part, and the legendary Robert Shaw recording (Telarc CD-80531). However, as this is the only available SACD of this program, it may be of interest to audiophiles who wish to have all of these titles on one disc, and to those who would like a sophisticated and balanced program of Christmas music. Recommended.
— Randy Haldeman