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Songs That Came Out of the Cold: Ensemble 96

by on 18 January 2017

Ensemble 96

Richmond Concert Society at St Mary’s Church, Twickenham, 17th January

Review by Mark Aspen

Arctic Cathedral … now there’s a concept to inspire awe! I used to work in Norway, and last night’s concert by the Norwegian choir, Ensemble 96, educed many connections with that country of grandeur and mystery.   The Arctic “Cathedral” stands several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle and is a wonderful modern building in concrete and aluminium that resembles an iceberg turning on edge. It is actually a parish church, whilst Tromsø Cathedral is a few miles away in the centre of the town. This is an elegant early eighteenth century building almost contemporaneous with the nave of Twickenham Parish Church, where our concert took place. Apart from the dedication to St Mary, which they share, both have long histories stretching back to mediaeval times.

With these thoughts in mind of comfortable blends of modern with traditional and of nature with spirituality, I approached a concert which billed Stockhausen and Cage with nine Norwegian composers also of the twentieth century, contemporary but with strong folk music roots. The choir has twenty-four singers, of a wide spread of ages and vocal ranges. They come many from the Oslo area, a long way from Tromsø, but this only served to underline the oneness of Norway as a country with the oneness of this outstanding ensemble. The other Norwegian trait that came across very strongly was the friendliness and openness of the group that brought the group immediately to the audience, who remained totally engaged throughout. The choir was conducted by the energetic Nina Therese Karlsen, and was joined on this occasion by violinist Mari Skeie Ljones. She normally plays the Hardingerfele, a folk fiddle with a short neck and sympathetic (ie resonating) strings. Classically trained Ljones prefers to call all her instruments fiddles, as a tribute to the folk inspiration of her style.

Ensemble 96 brought a freshness and scintillating clarity to singing that was as innovative and inspiring as it was intricate and interwoven.


Photograph by Anna-Julia Granberg


The choir assembled in a broad spacious arc and opened with … silence , then soft sustained notes, which revealed a vista that was mesmerizingly beautifully plaintive before developing into a more and more folksy dance style.   This piece, Bysjan, Bysjan Lite Bån (Sleepy-byes, Sleepy-byes, Little Baby), a folk song by Frank Havrøy, set the style of intriguing works that were full of surprises.  This was a lullaby and the general theme of the concert was love, but love painted with a broad brush to encompass love of children, romantic love and the love of God.

By contrast, in Per Nørgård’s Wiigen-Lied (Cradle Song) from Wie ein Kind (Like a Child) the reality of a child’s life is more apparent, as being told off or having nightmares also feature. The choir, interjected by the fiddle, started with a series of whoops and shouts, which merged into an almost lyrical middle section and faded gradually into phrasing with a nasal timbre.  Did I detect a toy-drum and a bird in there somewhere? … intriguing.

American composer, John Cage once said “Music is an affirmation of life” and in his piece, Story, Ensemble 96 gave us just that, a life story that starts with “Once upon a time” in which time and the progression of a life are illustrated in an inventive piece that used a series of whistles, hisses and buzzes, in different inflections, to portray the tick-tocking of the clock of life.

Romantic love (and a more conventional approach) came to the fore in Torbjørn Dyrud’s Med en Bukett (With a Bouquet), which uses words from a poem by Henrik Wergeland. Sung in close harmony, the touching tranquillity of this piece reminded me in sentiment of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lea.  More romanticism surprisingly came from the pen of Karlheinz Stockhausen in a distinctly atypical early piece, Armer Junger Hirt (Poor Young Shepherd), which he had dedicated to his first wife.  The bashful playfulness of this song comes across in the use of words such as äffen (make a gaff) and the choir made the most of this in devices such as hanging on to the word Küssen (kisses) with continuing echoes.

… And so to dance cheek-to-cheek with a waltz, Solistvals by Grete Pederson and Gjermund Larsen.   Ljones fiddle led into soaring, joyful and rhythmic song, although the composers’ tempo would have made it rather difficult for most couples to dance their side-together-sides.  Maybe that is why it is called Solo Waltz?

Innocent romanticism develops into sublimated eroticism with a poem by Arthur Rimbaud (of course), set to music by Frank Havrøy, Rêve pour l’hiver (Dream of Winter).  The mood of this piece was subtly interpreted by the singers, “finding the beast”, the little kiss that had run across her neck like a “scared spider”. This sort of thing should properly lead to a wedding.  Wedding marches are very popular with Norwegian composers, we were told, and Ensemble 96 gave us Bjorn Andor Drage’s exhilarating Wedding March from Sorfold, one that spoke of the north.  Its initial feel was one of awakening, which blossomed into a fiddle-led Celtic-like theme, before expanding into the full blown march itself.

Romantic love as an allergy for spiritual love is epitomised in the Song of Solomon and this was the inspiration for two of the concert’s pieces. The first was from Jean-Yves Daniel-Lesur’s Le Cantique des Cantiques. Daniel-Lesur, who cut his teeth as a composer with organ pieces for the Benedictines in Paris, was director of L’Opera National de Paris until his death in 2002, and both these influences were clear in the passage that we heard, La Voix du Bien-aimé. This was a complex piece, delivered with passion.  Ensemble 96 seemed to work together like an orchestra, with the different characteristics, timbres and vocal ranges complementing each other like different instruments.  The piece wove itself like a rich tapestry of sound as it grew.  Later, we were again treated to a passage from Daniel-Lesur’s Le Cantique des Cantiques, a contrasting piece, Dialogue, reverberant and hinting at plain-chant.  Another interpretation of the Song of Solomon was Lovesong 2 by Torbjørn Dyrud, sung in Latin.  Again, in the hands of Ensemble 96, this was a remarkable piece with a plangent opening, clear as a bell, or rather a carillon, as each singer worked as part of a whole.  A sense of urgent beauty suffused the piece, and every mood was expressed perfectly.  In “awake, O north wind, and come thou south, blow upon my garden” one could hear the breezes, gently aspirated by the singers.

Pure spirituality came with Knut Nystedt’s Peace I Leave with You, its warm and gentle harmonies richly developing through counterpointed rounds, and culminated with Martin Ødegaard’s Love Me. This is based on Thomas Tallis’ If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments, with the unlikely blending with folk music from the Norwegian and Laplander traditions.  Solo soprano and alto interjection built on a balancing bass undercurrent to give a piece of affecting beauty.  Its final development used an unusual throaty attack, which added a sense of melancholy within the gorgeous triumph of the piece.

By way of a coda, the lively work of Grete Pederson and Gjermund Larsen returned with Gropen (Hollows), a crescendo of wild fiddle and folksy singing that equalled fun writ large.  A hugely enthusiastic audience would not let Ensemble 96 go that easily, and a bonus piece took the form of an interpretation of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, by Torbjørn Dyrud, a wide canter through the choir’s virtuosity, whereas a second encore, a piece by Frank Havrøy, was another joyous Celtic romp of fiddle and song that left all the audience with a broad grin.

So what was the connection with Tromsøysund kirke, the Arctic “Cathedral”? This church is often called the opera house of Norway and indeed has a remarkable acoustic quality (probably enhanced by the cold air). We saw at St Mary’s Twickenham how well Ensemble 96 can work with the acoustics in ecclesiastical buildings.  One had the impression that the building itself became the twenty-seventh member of the group.  The Arctic “Cathedral”, like Ensemble 96 seems a little incongruous, but then one realises that both can induce a sense of oneness: spirituality with nature, invention with tradition, modernity with the past. On another plane, Ensemble 96’s warmth and joyousness made one feel that here was a place to come out of the cold: a great idea on a frosty January evening, even in Twickenham.

Mark Aspen

January 2017



From → Music, Reviews

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