Examining Fagerlund’s “Stonework”

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STONEWORK / FAGERLUND: Drifts for Orchestra. Stonework for Orchestra. Transit, Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra / Ismo Eskelinen, gtr; Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra; Hannu Lintu, cond / Bis SACD-2295

Sebastian Fagerlund (1972 – ) is a Finnish composer who studied with Erkki Jokinen, graduating with a degree in composition in 2004. The notes tell us that he creates “musical dramas in which powerful expression is combined with intensity and vivid communication, as well as an openness towards different musical expressions.”

My impression of his music, from the low-level but dramatic percussion opening of Drifts through the six-movement guitar concerto Transit, is of a composer who works more within the tonal system than many of his compeers while still retaining a fairly high degree of modernity in structure and harmonies. It is music not too distant from that of Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Benjamin Britten and other composers of the 1940s and ‘50s who created similar pieces, yet he definitely has his own style and voice. He uses primarily dense orchestral textures, particularly with rich string writing, and his music has a clear structure using a great deal of legato and what, for lack of a better term, I would call “sweep.” At times he tends to be a bit melodramatic, exploding in sound at moments that call for a bit more reticence, but this is also a part of his style. In Drifts, wind and brass figures swirl wildly around the more lyrical strings and winds at key moments, which also creates a feeling of movement. His music thus communicates on two levels, that of highly organized themes and variants as well as on emotion. Towards the end of the piece, a strong rhythmic figure emerges underneath all the turmoil, which propels the music with even more energy towards the final section.

The notes also indicate that Fagerlund now considers Drifts, written in 2016-17, to be the second part of a trilogy, of which Stonework (2014-15) is the first part, but he has not yet finished writing that third piece. Considering this, I’m puzzled as to why the earlier piece follows the later one on this CD, but it is clearly cut from the same cloth. In this case, however, Stonework begins loudly, with a trumpet fanfare that leads into a thick, slow theme for cellos and basses, but then explodes in a riot of rapid brass (trumpets playing staccato figures on top, horns and trombones whooping it up above) that leads into a complex development section with counterpoint. Woodblocks and tympani rattle around in the background, ramping up the tension as the strings eventually play rising glissandi that lead into the stratosphere, and thence to a quieter and slower section in which winds and strings are scored much more sparsely. Slowly, however, an undercurrent of tension returns, buffeted by timpani outbursts as sustained string figures vacillate between peaceful and ominous. Occasional biting winds make a commentary on the musical progression; then quietude again, with pizzicato strings and winds, a whooping French horn, snare drum and then pounding drums adding to the mix. I cannot say enough for Hannu Lintu’s remarkable musical direction; he leads performances that are crystal-clear in texture as well as emotionally charged and lyrically effusive. Equally slowly, the volume of the piece also ramps up again, leading to a loud climax before a sustained high A on the trumpet pulls the others slowly into its vortex as the volume recedes once again, followed by a low rumble of timpani at the end.

The guitar concerto was a challenge for Fagerlund because he was not as well acquainted with the instrument and its limitations. He apparently wrote a solo guitar piece, Kromos, in 2011 as a forerunner of the concerto, which uses some of the same material. It is certainly not a guitar concerto that will appeal to those who love the more famous Spanish works of the past; its music is generally dark and atmospheric, with the guitar used as another solo voice in the full texture of the work. True, it dominates the movements, using such techniques as slapping the instrument, pulling on the strings and bending strings in addition to more conventional picking, but its music is far more dramatic than one is used to.

All in all, a thoroughly fascinating album and one that you will return to again to hear different layers of the music!

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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