Mäntyjärvi - Choral Music - Music Web International

Over the last three decades or so there has been a significant enriching of the choral repertoire from a host of composers from Scandinavia and the Baltic States. Now, thanks to Stephen Layton and The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge I’ve been able to encounter the music of another such composer, whose output was previously unknown to me: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi.

From the composer’s website I leaned that he was born in Turku, Finland. At Helsinki University he studied English and Linguistics; he is an accredited Authorised Translator from Finnish to English and vice versa. He also studied theory of music and choir conducting at the Sibelius Academy.

The following excerpt from the biography on his website is relevant to the consideration of the music on this CD, I think. “As a composer, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi describes himself as an eclectic traditionalist: eclectic in that he adopts influences from a number of styles and periods, fusing them into his own idiom; traditionalist in the sense that his musical language is based on an awareness of tradition, continuity and communicativeness. Because he is himself active in making music, his music is very pragmatic; he is a choral singer, and thus most of his works are for choir.” There is, I think, an interesting parallel here with the music of another composer whose choral music I greatly admire: the Latvian, Ēriks Ešenvalds is also an experienced choral singer. In addition to his experience as a choir member, Mäntyjärvi has done a good deal of choral conducting. When he last updated the website biography, in 2016, he could claim over 100 published choral works. In view of this background, it’s scarcely surprising that all the music on this CD seems to be expertly written for voices.

The two most substantial works on Stephen Layton’s programme are very different from each other. The Stuttgarter Psalmen is a set of three psalm settings which Mäntyjärvi was invited to compose in 2009 to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Mendelssohn. The commission came from the Internationale Bachacademie Stuttgart; Mäntyjärvi was among a number of composers invited to compose settings of psalms for which Mendelssohn also had written music. German texts are used. First comes Psalm 2, ‘Warum toben die Heiden’ (Why do the heathen so furiously rage together). The music is laid out for two four-part choirs. Much of the music is jagged – it comes as a real contrast after the mellifluous Ave Maria d’Aosta with which the disc opens. Though Mäntyjärvi eventually introduces legato music it’s not long before the nature of the composition becomes arresting once more. In this piece the Trinity choir sings with impressive unanimity of attack. The longest of the three pieces comes next. It’s a setting of verses from Psalm 22, ‘Mein Gott, mein Gott, warum hast du mich verlassen?’ (My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?). This is for double choir and there’s also a crucial part for a trio of three female voices (two sopranos and an alto) who sing occasional interjections of the Hebrew translation of the psalm’s opening line (‘Eli, eli, lama asabthani?’ - Mäntyjärvi deliberately uses the variant of the Hebrew phrase that is found in Luther’s Bible.) The music is often subdued but it’s always very intense. Mäntyjärvi responds to the words of the psalm – and the emotions expressed – with music that is complex and dramatic. I found that the writing for the choir and the choral textures combine to make a compelling piece. In his notes Francis Pott tells us that, tonally, the music “sits on a knife-edge” and he adds that this piece is the “dark heart of this remarkable triptych”. I completely agree, especially with that latter comment. The set is completed by a double-choir setting of Psalm 43, ‘Richte mich, Gott’ (Give sentence with me, O God). This too contains arresting harmonies and textures. Each of the three settings ends with a subdued ‘Glory be’. These are similar but not, I think, identical. The Stuttgarter Psalmen is a powerful and original set of pieces and the Trinity College Choir performs them superbly.

As you will infer from the title, The Trinity Service was written for this choir. Faced with a request from Stephen Layton for some new music to record, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi initially had it in mind to compose a set of the Evening Canticles, the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis. However, the project evolved into a complete set of music for the service of Evensong. All the music was newly composed with the exception of the setting of the Lord’s Prayer. That was composed in 2002 and it fits in seamlessly with all the more recent music. The service is sung in English with the exception of the Introit and Anthem.

The service uses the choir in various divisions. Most of the music, including the ‘Mag’ and ‘Nunc’, is set for SSATBB but there are occasional departures from this disposition of forces, notably the concluding anthem. As a Finn, the liturgy of Evensong was probably not something with which Mäntyjärvi had had significant previous experience. He is quoted in the booklet thus: ‘[the commission] would have been a daunting proposition if presented to me right at the start, but by that time I had been to quite a few Evensongs at Trinity and had sufficient feel for the place to be confident.’ I would say that his Service is an outstanding success: the music is respectful of the Evensong tradition and it builds on that tradition in a refreshing and stimulating fashion. The Introit, ‘Ave Maria’ is interesting in that it is suitably reflective but at the same time the music consistently moves forward thanks to the use of quavers in the choral parts, especially in the bass line. The psalm is Psalm 128 and it’s very interesting to hear Mäntyjärvi’s take on Anglican chant. I like the Magnificat very much: the music rarely raises its voice and seemed to me to reflect the fact that this is a feminine canticle. The Nunc dimittis is no less successful; the performance is enhanced by the contribution of the light-toned yet firm bass soloist, Ben Mortishire-Smith. Towards the end of the service, I greatly admired the anthem, which is a seven-voice setting (SSATBarBB) of the Trinity hymn, ‘O lux beata Trinitas’. Jaakko Mäntyjärvi has made a significant addition to the liturgical repertoire of Trinity College Choir with this Service, but I’d like to think it might be more widely sung by other choirs.

Among the other offerings on this programme, Ave Maria d’Aosta is a lovely setting; the music is consonant and homophonic and I like the way that Mäntyjärvi uses octave doubling to enrich the choral textures. Francis Pott is right on the money when he refers to the “cool opulence” of this music. At the other end of the programme comes a setting for double choir of O magnum mysterium. It’s an ecstatic piece and once again I think Francis Pott unerringly puts his finger on the spot when he draws attention to the apparent French influence in this piece: I agree with his comparison with Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium; a memory of that exquisite piece came to my mind in the middle of Mäntyjärvi’s piece.

This is a very fine disc indeed. By now we’ve come to take for granted that any recording by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge will feature singing of the highest quality; that’s emphatically the case here. It must be an extraordinarily stimulating experience to be a member of this choir because not only does Stephen Layton demand and obtain the highest possible standards but also, he continually presents his young singers with the rewarding challenge of expanding their repertoire horizons, as he has done with this programme. The sessions were spread over three years and there were inevitable personnel changes in the choir over that time. However, so consistent is the sound of the choir that you might think the sessions had occupied just a few consecutive days.

That consistency extends also to the recorded sound. The sessions were safely in the experienced hands of engineer David Hinitt and producer Adrian Peacock. They work regularly with this choir and this venue; it shows. The recording of all the pieces is first rate. The production also benefits from excellent booklet notes by Francis Pott. It’s very illuminating to read the insights of one distinguished composer of choral works into the music of another.

I’m delighted that I’ve made the acquaintance of the music of Jaakko Mäntyjärvi through this outstanding CD. I noted earlier that he has had over 100 choral works published; I hope to hear more of them in the future.

John Quinn

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