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CD Review: Shakespeare’s Sonnets By Bjørn Palmqvist & Co. A Triumph But For Whom? – (TCP)CHICAGO

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Sonnets Cover Art


Modern Music In Search Of An Audience In A Functionally Illiterate Westen Society


By Brian Sidler – Former music writer for Chicago Music Magazine

(TCP)Chicago Opinion – It’s been a while since I’ve had to work, so here I am at the keyboard and at it again. The rock world’s toughest music critic bid to take a stance regarding a submission. Isn’t it ridiculous how the media flits from one buzz to another? Much ado about a lot of things. The speed at which it’s purveyed is bewildering and somewhat blinding. Well, I’m just saying…Holy G-ds.

For this review let’s start with Oxford Universal Dictionary’s definition of the word, art:

Definition of art

1 [mass noun] the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power:the art of the Renaissance great art is concerned with moral imperfections she studied art in Paris
works produced by human creative skill and imagination:his collection of modern art [as modifier]:an art critic
creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture:she’s good at art

2 (the arts) the various branches of creative activity, such as painting, music, literature, and dance:the visual arts [in singular]:the art of photography

3 (arts) subjects of study primarily concerned with human creativity and social life, such as languages, literature, and history (as contrasted with scientific or technical subjects):the belief that the arts and sciences were incompatible the Faculty of Arts

4 a skill at doing a specified thing, typically one acquired through practice:the art of conversation

It’s not to be pendantic, it’s to be precise because this album is extraneously precise.

It’s only fitting to use Oxford, after all, the subject we’re taking on here deals with use of the english speaking world’s most heralded literature artists, Shakespeare. His sonnets in particular.

This is not an album for gross natured individuals, it’s an album for intellects. As well, this album works great for a fine natured long distance driver. It’s the kind of album you drop the needle on and just let spin.

Let’s dispense with the formalities, we emphatically support this work, so buy it at iTunes, or at Amazon. Now-then…

We were stymied when we received this submission, admittedly, because we’d never heard anything like it. We searched for other derivative works to compare it to but came up mostly empty. For this work to be given its due cause, research was a paramount issue. This is the kind of work usually funded for the sake of it, not for commercial value.

As for the definition of art, of course I agree with Oxford’s strict definition of the word and would seek to include, in terms of definition number two, “that stands the test of time.” That which causes emotional attachment to the object for its own sake, too, for one’s regard of its inherent qualities. Pleasant art lifts. Ugly art attacks and destroys.

Surely, Shakespeare stands the test of time. Who would deny it, except for those who hate The Bard’s work, either from lack of understanding, or from a general lack of refinement mixed well with stemming ignorance? Whether I like Willie, I can comfortably say I’m not distinguished enough to tear him apart. Anyone in today’s literatti aspiring of such distinction, who for credibility would’ve had to “give it a go” first before ascending THAT staircase would have to be mad, quite frankly. Obtusely bold might be more the measure. Certainly, none of our still living poet laureates would take to harshly criticizing Shakespeare. Not dramatists. Not playwrites.

In order for us to do a proper markup on this submission we had to let the album take its course in our imaginations, as all of us needed a lot of time to let the recordings by Bjørn Palmqvist & Co. do their thing. It was a challenging task. Which is why we agreed to it in the first place, for the challenge was part of the journey. Challenge, you say? Yes, and the challenge was to slow down and listen.

We don’t have a predisposition to pan things just out of hand. We do have the predisposition to pan things after a fair appraisal. Not criticism for its own sake but, where it’s deserved, someone’s going to get a thrashing. Everyone gets equal time.

Producer Bjørn Palmqvist gave us a run for our money. Breaking it down this way; we live in a world of pop culture, that by its very patina, something dummied down so far we find ourselves constantly carping about how bad its all become. We’ve also remarked many times how watered down and flooded the market for records is.

99% of everything that comes across our desk isn’t worth more than 15 seconds per tune, and rarely do we get beyond that point because as far as we’re concerned, it’s not “art” and has no intrinsic merit. It will not stand the test of time.

Which brings us to this point: How could we say Shakespeare won’t stand the test of time? Moreover, if this derivative work didn’t have Shakespeare as a foundation, would the music background on its own merit stand the test of time. The answer to the first question is obvious. The answer to the second question is not so obvious for the music is mated so closely to Shakespeare’s meter, as a whole, it would be unconscionable to divorce the two from each other, it’s meant as a complete work. The versatility and innovation inspired by Shakespeare’s works are legion. This album joins that throng.

That being said, if we were forced to separate the two, we’d say the music recordings were exquisite. The problem is, where’s the application in terms of today’s musical palettes? The adult market is at best, ambivalent. Surely, classical and jazz officianado’s could find something here, for all of it is an interesting fusion of the two genres. All of us really enjoyed them immensely. Released as a standalone work however they could not turn the lock on the door and reach for immortality like Shakespeare. Or, it would take one helluva publicist in today’s world to convince folks otherwise, and that’s because so few, except perhaps in the literary world, have the refinement of taste to appreciate what’s been done by this ensemble. How is one great publicist going to convince the world of pop culture to have good taste? We know it’s impossible, and I don’t like using that description so, I’ll pose the example; ask any publicist who works in classical or jazz releases how impossible it really is.

If people had good taste, in general, there wouldn’t be so much trash to sift through! Besides, the lay population was raised on trash. That’s by design, as seen through the eyes of today’s most successful commercial music and publishing corporations. The boards of directors are not concerned with “art.” They’re concerned with cash. Plus, they’re bad customers for their own manufacturing. They don’t buy the trash they publish, they find a niche of bad taste and cater to it. They’re NOT in the business of education.

Every member of this ensemble knows the nature and overall “sound” the market makes. They know how fraught with difficulty this was before ever attempting such a daring exploration. Putting Shakespeare Sonnet’s to music is like publishing a work that, in today’s parlance,  as rap is to the dumb crowd, this is, and would be, “rap” for the literatti.

Pretty tough road to hoe friends. What good would it do?

Leaving the market aside, this work is brilliant! Every once in a blue moon I get to apply that word correctly. All of us thought it!

As a recording, it’s a moody album. Slowing down to unwind is where this belongs. No such genre, “slow down to unwind.”  I guess for brevity it works in the mood music category. Some have used the phrase to describe it as progressive art music. For us that doesn’t quite cut it. It’s redundant. Spoken word gets it mixed up with others in the genre, and this album is beyond that because it’s Shakespeare. Shakespeare dramatised well.

Genre definitions aside, I’ll bet, one good column in The New York Times literature section could cause a stir. The work deserves to be reviewed by them. That’s where notice of this album belongs. A review belongs in the literature section of The Daily Mail on Sunday too.

Dare they try and tear this work up?

Bjorn Palmqvist

Thomas Magnussen

Linda Elvira. jpg

Linda Elvira

Bjørn Palmqvist

Bjørn Palmqvist


Vocalists, Linda Elvira and Thomas Magnussen breathe the drama intended. Bjørn Palmqvist’s music creates the most interesting songs we’ve heard in decades. That’s the point. Shakespeare’s Sonnets become song. That happy marriage of words to music so finely woven they lift spirit. That makes this album, “great art” in terms of definition number four above. We’d like to see it done live.

Imagine Palmqvist’s exploration on manuscript paper determing meters for passages. Every few bars or so there’s a time signature change. Navigating that as a composer is impressive. Oh, I’m sure there’s some classical chappies who could find a way to chafe, just because. Jazz folks too. However, in my humble view they’d be mistaken.

Entitling this as a “triumph” is no mere, ridiculous gush. I’m not saying it because of Willie’s rep. If it didn’t work well, I’d have left that part out, and you can trust we’d say so. It’s fact to this critic’s ears. I have never heard so fine a marriage for Shakespeare as this work. His words are jazz. His words are classical. Palmqvist and company dance the hedgerows of Shakespeare’s meters with excellent precision and sensibility. Not only is it original, it actually works.

I’m not a great student of these sonnets and would not spend too much time pursuing this lithe prose. Hearing them this way, for me, makes perfect sense. Comprised as such, I will be listening to this work for some time to come. Listening to sonnets without the type of music in this work I would find too tedious. I’d have to be in love with the tone of the vocalists speech to have any regard beyond a few minutes. There is not one actor or vocalist alive on this planet I could listen to. It would seem forever till the end, given the length of this album which clocks at about 49 minutes. Yet, the music bed suspends and carries the audience, and it’s beautiful. This accompaniament makes this album great art. I will keep this fresh in my collection for frequent visits. That’s my take.

Credit is equally due to the instrumentalists, Drums: Magnus Brandell, Bass: Morten Ankarfeldt, Guitar: Bjørn Palmqvist, Soprano: Janne Solvang, Tenor: Sten Sejr, Violin: Bjarke Falgren, Violin: Georgios Chrysanidis, Violin: Liisi Kedik, Cello: Andreas Broch, Cello: Tobias Van der Pals, Flute: Inge Kongsgaard Hansen. A very apt crew in the orchestra pit. Of special note, soprano, Jane Solvang is intoxicating.

Engineering – Mix and Mastering: Torben Lysholm. Superb!

As for commercial application, this album is quite suited for film backtracks where love and drama are the top objects.

As part of our diet for this dish, we’d also like to tip our hat to the album’s cover artist Mikkel Bech. It’s a wonderful rendering. Colors and composition compliment well the subject. It gives a perfect visual cue for all sonnets recorded, or as they say – en Italia, perfectto!

Briefly let’s turn to the composer, Bjørn Palmqvist. This man belongs somewhere in the pantheon of great modern composers. Not in a classical sense or a jazz sense strictly, much more in a “modern” sense and in both genres. These compositions are very modern. They take in a complexity and refinement especially suited for a modernists acute sense of hearing. To use the word “progressive” is absolutely backwards. In its modernist sense, the compositions have stark meter variations. One envisions clean lines of well made Danish furniture and of the finest woods. Every line has speciific purpose with no frills, yet plenty of flourish, and if there is such a thing, “no frills-yet flourish”, Palmqvist deserves to be lauded for having done both. We would exhort him to seek out Yo-Yo Ma. Perhaps he could find audience and patronage there. We would also ask him for a proper classical work to see if his mettle really has what it takes. There’s a great talent here, he needs a mentor from high above.

In the modern classical music world, patrons have their “pets” and they see to their public relations with a certain alacrity. Palmqvist deserves such sponsorship.

It is advised that when one goes to make a proper suffle, don’t bump the oven before it’s done or the dish will “fall.” Bjørn Palmqvist and friends knew how to make this suffle and clearly they had the talent, spent the patience to make it right.

I’m Brian Sidler and I write about music, et al.

If you like this review, you can join The Critical Post – Chicago on Facebook – here.


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