Finesse, Subtlety Shape Music On CDs Devoted To Danish Composers

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Hans Abrahamsen is one of three living Danish composers whose music is featured on new CDs. (Photo by Lars Skaaning)

Hans Abrahamsen: Left, Alone. Tamara Stefanovich, piano; WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln; Peter Rundel and Mariano Chiacchiarini, conductors. Winter & Winter 910 287-2. Total time 48:40.

Per Nørgård: Symphony No. 8; Three Nocturnal Movements. Peter Herresthal, violin; Jakob Kullberg, cello; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra; John Storgårds, conductor. BIS-2502. Total time 54:20.

Bent Sørensen: St Matthew Passion. Norwegian Soloists’ Choir and Ensemble Allegria; Grete Pedersen, conductor. BIS-2611. Total time 64:44.

DIGITAL REVIEW — A delicate sound world of shadows, silence, and pale light defines the music of many living Nordic composers. Music that is elusive, subtle, and ambiguous, but always persuasive — something of a contemporary shadow play on Sibelius and Nielsen. The European labels BIS and Winter & Winter are a treasure trove for music of this kind, the latter having released, in 2016, Hans Abrahamsen’s let me tell you, already praised as a 21st-century masterpiece. The albums reviewed here focus on recent releases on both labels by three notable Danish composers: Abrahamsen, Per Nørgård, and Bent Sørensen.  

Left, alone is the Winter & Winter label’s seventh release of works by Abrahamsen, who is among the most economical of composers. Listening to his music, you get the feeling that every note is just as it should be, no more, no less. This type of small-m minimalism figures in the early 10 Preludes (String Quartet No. 1; 1973), which Abrahamsen has reworked for baroque orchestra on the present recording, with conductor Peter Rundel leading the WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln. (The recording derives its title from the second work, a concerto for left hand and orchestra.)

The disc opens with 10 Sinfonias, a roundabout quest for a C major tonality, with the string parts of the new arrangement faithful to the original quartet version, and the addition of woodwinds, brass, and timpani. The expansion fleshes out the somewhat clinical original score, even if it still results in music of a pale complexion, save for the burbly last movement. The orchestration is best accomplished in the slow third and eighth movements, in the massed chordal melodies of the fourth, and in the relentless staccato low strings of the fifth, underpinning hazy musing on the violins.

The genius is in the gradual stylistic transition: Whereas the first movement opens with dissonant cascades of strings, cast in a tense, restless mood that gives no indication of the neo-Baroque shift that lies ahead, the finale fully asserts the tonal center that’s been teased before, with Handel-esque flourishes and oboes and bassoons doubling the strings.  

Left, alone is a delightful curiosity: a concerto for piano left hand that, unlike the famous Ravel work, is “not written for a pianist with only one hand, but rather by a composer who can only play with the left hand,” writes Abrahamsen, who was born with a partially functional right hand. Divided into two parts consisting of three segments each, it’s a slowly building concerto whose dark undertones are contrasted by various shades of color and pointillistic nuance.  

The concerto opens with dyspeptic rumblings on the low ends of the piano and orchestra, punctuated by a bass drum, in unpredictable rhythms that push against the meter. Piccolos inject high-strung lines that quickly evaporate, bringing back the initial mutterings. As the 20-minute concerto moves along, Abrahamsen integrates the piano — necessarily in the low register but still melodic — into the gauzy silkiness of his harmonies, which simmer and thicken until the music erupts in the more emphatic moments of the latter half. It’s fascinating to listen to that transition in the “Prestissimo tempestuoso” fifth movement or in the sparkling winds and pizzicato strings halfway through the finale, where the soloist — a wonderful Tamara Stefanovich, who recently performed the piece with the Oregon Symphony — is largely relegated to ensemble playing. Conductor Mariano Chiacchiarini leads the WDR with dexterity, paying attention to the special interplay between the subdued piano and the large orchestra. 

Per Nørgård, 91, a reinvented Sibelius for virtually the entire second half of the 20th century and now a good chunk of the 21st, is the most famous of the three composers, yet he continues to be woefully ignored by American orchestras. Composed nearly 60 years after his first symphony, Nørgård’s Symphony No. 8 (2011) alternates between austere and resplendent over three movements, with themes that are at first ambiguous but later undergo transformations that eventually begin to grab the ear. 

There are accelerating tempos, juxtaposed shifts in texture and orchestral effects; Nørgård works with a seemingly inexhaustible compositional toolkit. The polyphony of the first movement gives way to the main themes. Sections for glockenspiel, vibraphone, harp, and piano are particularly colorful. The second movement takes on what Kasper Rofelt calls in his notes a “tired, dreamlike state,” which breaks out into brazen splashes from the orchestra. As the finale progresses, the pitches are spread out to both extremes, from chirping piccolo and scintillating glockenspiel and vibraphone, to rapid-fire bongos and bass drum with a huffy tuba. 

Finnish conductor John Storgårds leads the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra with calm precision and confidence. He also conducts the Norwegian ensemble in Nørgård’s Three Nocturnal Movements for violin, cello, and orchestra (2015), a collaboration with cellist Jakob Kullberg, a fellow Dane who knows Nørgård’s music intimately. The piece is based on Nørgård’s first viola concerto, Remembering Child (1986), which in this version is structured as a cadenza flanked by two movements that more closely resemble the original. 

Remembering Child is here reimagined as a continuous dialogue between cello and violin. Kullberg and Norwegian violinist Peter Herresthal are the soloists — collaborators traveling through a winding, multicolored orchestral thicket that takes form from the polyphonic material in the beginning. The slower second movement is a double cadenza that applies extended techniques producing eerie sonorities, harmonics, and microtones — Kullberg’s creativity as a co-composer takes full flight here. The melody in the beginning of the mettlesome third movement suggests a pastoral landscape, only to be broken by twitchy orchestral effusions. The folkish tune returns, but by this point the outbursts have influenced the soloists, who assume a more strident character, accompanied by intrusive whacks on the bass drum and orchestral crescendos.  

The St Matthew Passion by Bent Sørensen, who studied composition with Nørgård, is a poignant work for chamber orchestra, choir, and four soloists. The 2019 piece gets its first recording here — a pristine performance by the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir and Ensemble Allegria, led by Grete Pedersen, who shapes Sørensen’s delicate score with utmost care. 

Sørensen sets to music snippets from the Gospel of Matthew that are interspersed with excerpts from five European poets and Emily Dickinson — all presented in English, with some Latin, in a libretto by Jakob Holtze — to evoke the mood of the word mist. With Bach’s St. Matthew Passion as his North Star, Sørensen creates a contemporary Passion that is sullen and introspective, with radiant climactic peaks that rise over the mist. 

Sørensen weaves hushed voices around his sparse, fragile orchestration, giving shape to gossamer textures that continuously fade in and out of focus. The muted brasses sometimes create a wah-wah effect that contrasts eerily with the ethereal choir, while tremulous strings float above the beat. The text is highly elliptical and fragmented, the excerpts seemingly disconnected one from the next. Male and female voices alternate and project softly — the soloists are Ditte Marie Bræin, Mari Askvik, Øystein Stensheim, and Halvor Festervoll Melien. “Into the Mist,” the peaceful last movement of this foggy choral haven pierced by shafts of light, goes out into a quiet world of its own with the soft rustling of wind. And then, silence.