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Passion For John Donne

Notes & Reviews:

Personnel: Ketil Bjornstad (piano); Håkon Kornstad (vocals, flute, tenor saxophone); Birger Mistereggen (percussion).

Recording information: Oslo International Church Music Festival, Sofienberg Ki (03/2012).

A Passion for John Donne is pianist and composer Ketil Bjornstad's fourth recorded encounter with the English metaphysical poet's work. The first was on The Shadow ?in 1990, followed by Grace in 1999 and The Light in 2008. Bjornstad has found a lifelong inspiration in Donne, and here, more so than on the earlier volumes, it is illustrated with the command and vulnerability it deserves. Bjornstad is accompanied by percussionist Birger Mistereggen and noted tenor saxophonist Håkon Kornstad (formerly of Wibutee), who makes his debut recorded appearance as a tenor singer after three years of opera study. Fleshing out these musical settings is the Oslo Chamber Choir under the direction of Håkon Daniel Nystedt. This recording is the work's premiere performance at the Oslo International Church Festival in March of 2012. Bjornstad employs the full breadth of Donne's writings to create this passion. The poet lived a full and dramatic life; it was spent mostly in poverty and indulging as many carnal pleasures as spiritual devotions. Famous poems such as "Thou Hast Made Me," "Death Be Not Proud," and "Farewell to Love" are offered alongside lesser known works to reveal the complexity of the poet's psychology, and his generation of meaning amid the most turbulent emotional and spiritual states in everyday living. While largely a work of classical crossover, Kornstad's trademark tenor and flute soloing add just enough of the unruly and expressive spontaneity of jazz to add complexity and texture. His beautiful evocation of Sonny Rollins in "Thou Hast Made Me" is a gorgeous juxtaposition to the choral voices. The other side of his persona can be heard in the vocal solos on "A Fever" and "A Valediction, Forbidden Mourning," which are among the more bracing selections here. There are three instrumental interludes separating each section, the first of which finds Kornstad's spacious, flowing phrasing and granular tone atop an elegant, athletic Chopin-esque piano melody. The pace and intensity increase as the entire trio erupts into spirited improvisation. "A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy's Day" is the set's hinge piece. The saxophonist's tremulous solo atop Bjornstad's melodic statement introduces, alternately, the male and female sections of the chorus in trading verses. Elliptical piano and stately tom-toms add weight, with the saxophonist using tongue-slapped multiphonics for textured tension in its conclusion. "Since She Whom I Loved Hath Paid Her Last Debt" is an elegy performed a cappella by the chorus, though the harmonic setting makes it a near hymn to resurrection in expression. The languid "Oh, To Vex Me, Contraries Meet In" is emotionally transcendent, carried out by melodic improvisation between pianist and saxophonist. Ultimately, A Passion for John Donne is not only a celebration of the poet's life and work, but a major entry in Bjornstad's canon. It displays his gifts of restraint, elegance, and melodic invention without unnecessary indulgences, while simultaneously offering the full weight of aesthetic exposition and emotional depth. ~ Thom Jurek


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