CD Review: Ola Gjeilo


Norwegian-born composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo has released a new CD on the Decca Classics label (478 8689), Ola Gjeilo, featuring music for voices, piano and strings.

Now based in Manhattan, Gjeilo is increasingly popular in the US and the UK. His music hit a high in Sydney in 2014 with performances by Vox (Dark Night of the Soul), the Choir of St James King Street (Sunrise Mass) and the Sydney Chamber Choir (The Spheres).

This self-titled album contains 11 tracks which draw on the not dissimilar inspirations of sacred music, space and nature. Gjeilo’s style that is new, contemporary and rich in melody and harmony. On this recording, he is joined by an interesting and eclectic group of collaborators –  the two notable British vocal ensembles Voces8 and Tenebrae, who share the choral items between them, the Chamber Orchestra of London and cellist Matthew Sharp. Gjeilo himself plays the piano. As he explains in the liner notes, Gjeilo says he likes the combination of choir and string quartet as “the timbres reinforce each other and can sometimes create a texture that feels bigger and lusher than the sum of its parts.”

The sacred songs use Latin religious texts and reference several music styles. Unusually, Gjeilo plays his own improvised different-every-time accompaniment over Voces8 singing Ubi Caritas, which, along with Sanctus: London is written in the style of plainchant; Serenity (O Magnum Mysterium) and The Ground, based on the last movement of his Sunrise Mass are in the manner of a chorale. They, along with The Sphere, which is the first movement (Kyrie) from the Sunrise Mass, are infused with a sense of mysticism and reverence.

Gjeilo creates a distinctly rustic sound for the words of W B Yeats’ The Lake Isle with Kristian Kvaalvag’s  twanging acoustic guitar joined by swelling voices and a plaintive violin. Charles Anthony Silvestri’s poem Tundra recalls the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Gjeilo’s native Norway, with minimalist chords in the instrumental accompaniment anchoring a soaring vocal line.

Two instrumental items for piano and string quartet, The Crossing, an expansive cameo from Gjeilo’s multi-movement Dreamweaver and the delicately arpeggiated Reflections, vary the sequence of choral items. 

Gjeilo studied composition at The Juilliard School, and the Royal College of Music, London. Hi music has been recorded by the Choir of Trinity College Cambridge, The Choir of Royal Holloway, the Flemish Radio Choir and Voces8. The Choir of King’s College Cambridge performed Serenity (O Magnum Mysterium) at the 2015 BBC-televised Carols from King’s. Gjeilo is presently composer-in-residence for Voces8.

Ola Gjeilo was recorded at All Hallows’ Church in Hampstead, London, in April 2015. The CD liner contains the words of all the songs and insights from Gjeilo in English, French and German.

The singing from Voces8 and Tenebrae is exquisite. The string playing is supple and sensitive.  Ola Gjeilo is music of great serenity with a fresh and exciting sound.

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©


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