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Mäntyjärvi - Choral Music

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The temptation is merely to write that Stephen Layton and his Trinity College choir have done it again. So accustomed are those of us who review choral music to enjoying flawless excellence from them (as well as the magnificent Hyperion engineering and production team) that we have come almost to take it for granted. But even with such high expectations from the outset, the very first item here transports us into an altogether higher realm of sublimity, while the first of the three Stuttgart Psalms presents choral singing of a brilliance which simply sets new standards. If there is anything to quibble about, apart from the slightly ugly but impressively low bass at the end of the Nunc Dimittis (in the Trinity Service), it is the raucous quality of the men in the second Stuttgart Psalm; but I suspect this is exactly what the composer wanted, and certainly it makes for a spine-tingling moment of climax, followed by a dramatically whispered conclusion. Any slight twinges of doubt are quickly dispelled by the incredible resonant depth they bring to the closing bars, and I defy anyone’s hair not to raise on the back of the neck with the magical chord at 13:02.

So, while I can do no more than say this is fabulous singing, brilliantly perceptive and communicative choral direction, and an outstanding recording, perhaps I might better use up my available words by talking about the composer and his music, neither of which are possibly as familiar to record collectors as they should be; this is, so far as I can make out, the first recording devoted exclusively to his music.

As Francis Pott writes in his extensive booklet notes – which provide a fascinating insight into the whole concept of sacred choral music from another composer’s viewpoint – Jaako Mäntyjärvi only came to composing after studying musicology, English philology and linguistics, becoming accredited as a translator, and studying choral conducting and being active as a choral singer. Pott quotes him as saying that “the choir is the instrument that I know from the I side”, and certainly this music shows a powerful affinity with the medium, achieving seemingly effortlessly a wholly idiomatic yet unique sound while avoiding any (what we might call) unconventional practices. This is straightforward, uncomplicated writing, rich in texture and wholly individual. Which is not to say that this inhabits just a single stylistic medium. Benedic anima mea Domino conveys a powerfully Medieval feel with its open fifth harmonies and speech-dictated rhythms, while Pulchra es simply oozes 19th century romanticism.

The most recent item on this recording is the Trinity Service, completed in 2019, which is actually a 10-section setting of the complete music for an Anglican evensong centred around the two canticle settings, the Magnificat momentarily calling to mind Geoffrey Burgon’s once immensely popular setting of the Nunc Dimittis but then venturing into a world of hauntingly beautiful musical features. Looking at the Trinity Service from a composer’s perspective, Pott writes about characteristic features of Mäntyjärvi style, but from a listener’s point of view, what is so striking about this is that, while every musical section – from Preces & Responses to Psalm chant and Anthem – is by a single composer, there is a vast wealth of musical interest here, linked only by a thorough understanding of the medium and a musical language which is immensely lovely.

Marc Rochester

Mäntyjärvi - Choral Music
Hyperion Records CDA68266