Mäntyjärvi Four Shakespeare Songs, with Shakespeare settings by Matthew Harris, Frank Martin, Steven Sametz, Nils Lindberg, Dominick Argento, Alan Murray and Ralph Vaughan Williams
Phoenix Bach Choir, cond. Charles Bruffy
Chandos CHSA 5031 (56 minutes)
Mäntyjärvi Four Shakespeare Songs: No. 1, ‘Come Away, Death’, with Shakespeare settings by Alfred Hanson, Nils Lindberg, Sven-Eric Johanson, Frank Martin, Søren Barfoed and Håkon Berge
The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir, cond. Grete Petersen
Simax PSC 1298 (51 minutes)
As often as not, the name you’ll see accredited as translator of the Finnish in CD booklets is that of Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963). But Mäntyjärvi is rather more than a professional translator: he is also the composer of a substantial corpus of music, the vast bulk of it for chorus. And he has been slowly insinuating himself in the world’s concert programmes, not because insistent publishers have been bending conductors’ ears or sudden success in some high-profile competition but because singers like singing him: the music has been its own ambassador.
The work that seems to be doing the international diplomacy is Mäntyjärvi’s Four Shakespeare Songs of 1984, one of his earliest surviving works (he withdrew several earlier scores), and as soon as one encounters its opening number, ‘Come Away, Death’, one understands why: it has that rare capacity in a piece of music of making you think you must always have known it.
The Norwegian Soloists’ Choir offer only ‘Come Away, Death’ in a programme of Shakespeare settings by other Nordic composers (the honourable exception being Frank Martin); the Phoenix Bach Choir also present Nils Lindberg’s version of Sonnet XVIII, ‘Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day’, and the Martin Songs of Ariel but otherwise offer a more international programme in the company of American and British composers, the selection from the several books of Shakespeare Songs of the New York-based Matthew Harris (b. 1956) matching Mäntyjärvi’s in catchy memorability.
Both discs are beautifully sung.