Rolf Martinsson’s Exuberant Music

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MARTINSSON: Open Mind. Orchestral Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson.* A.S. in Memoriam. Concerto for Orchestra+ / *Lisa Larsson, sop; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra; Andrew Manze, +Sakari Oramo, cond / Bis 2133

The music of Rolf Martinsson—particularly the first selection on this CD, Open Mind—is brash and powerful, coming at you like a sledgehammer. But more importantly, it is well-written music, with a beginning, a development, and an ending.

I would think that most classical composers realize this before they put pen to paper, but you’d be surprised (well, maybe you wouldn’t be) how many modern compositions I hear that don’t seem to have a clue as to their identity, let alone direction. It is the bane of many modern composers that their music is so “diverse” in style that it isn’t even coherent; or, if it is coherent, it doesn’t say much of anything. Cheap effects that startle the ear seem to be all they have in mind.

Martinsson is different. Open Mind, after its brash opening, has lyrical episodes in a tonal style that contrast effectively with the more explosive and dramatic. He knows exactly what he is about and what he is trying to accomplish; his music reminds me, in many ways, of the kind of scores that such composers as Walter Piston and Easley Blackwood were writing in the 1950s: music that had modern harmonies but also had form and structure. In this respect, he may be heard as a retro-modern, if such a thing exists. Effect for its own sake is not his thing. It is music of great exuberance but not intended to be a continual assault on the senses. The composer himself describes his composing method as follows:

I use the piano as my initial sound source, never a computer. I write down the music by hand in short score and then enter the music into my computer, play it back and refine it as to form, time, timing and tempo. When the piece is complete I print out the musical file and use my pencil again in order to orchestrate the work by hand. For me, a computer mouse and “copy & paste” can never replace the sense of shaping each note by hand. When the handwritten score is complete, I enter everything into my computer adding dynamics, articulation and other important information. Then I print out the score for proof reading and extract the parts. This may seem an old-fashioned way of working but it is the only way in which I feel that I can maintain total control of my work at every stage.

I did, however, detect a certain sameness of approach in both Open Mind and the first of his Orchestral Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson. Soprano Lisa Larsson has a bright, high voice with an incipient wobble (too many singers today have this defect, lamentable because it is correctable), but her timbre is very pretty and her diction good in her middle and lower ranges. Above the staff, consonants disappear, which is a pity because her English diction isn’t all that bad. The song cycle is continuous, not divided into separate songs, and this I found quite interesting since it gave Martinsson the opportunity to write music that develops from song to song, based on similar material which interconnects. Yes, some of the songs can be performed by themselves outside of the cycle, but they gain immensely in interest when heard all together. With a better soprano—meaning one without a wobble and clearer diction, such as Anu Komsi, Tony Arnold or Danielle de Niese—this could easily become a repertoire staple. It’s that good. As the cycle progresses, Martinsson’s music becomes more diverse as well as more lyrical. He has an excellent feeling writing for the voice and knows what he is about. “A Soft Sea” and “If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking” are so beautiful that it could easily have been written by Samuel Barber in his prime. Yes, that is a compliment, as I consider Barber one of the greatest song composers of all time.

A.S. in Memoriam, written to commemorate Arnold Schoenberg and particularly his early masterpiece Verklärte Nacht, is remarkable in its ability to capture the spirit of the original piece while maintaining Martinsson’s own originality. First written for 15 strings, this full orchestral arrangement was dedicated to the great Neeme Järvi, who gave its world premiere with the Gothenburg Symphony. Happily, this piece has made the rounds with various conductors (among them Alan Gilbert, Andrew Manze and Mario Venzago) and orchestras (the Philharmonia, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic), as well it should.

The Concerto for Orchestra (2008) was composed for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and premiered by them with the conductor on this recording, Sakari Oramo. The first movement is very lyrical and resolutely tonal, written in a style that might almost be called neo-Romantic. It completely lacks the superficiality of many such compositions in that style nowadays, however; Martinsson puts real meat on his bones, so to speak, creating a work that seeps into the listener’s system as it progresses. At about the six-minute mark in the first movement, some Stravinskian neo-classism enters the picture, followed by powerful orchestral chords and a more stoic version of the original theme. The final section of this movement lives up to its title, “Con forza.” The second movement has considerable energy and emotion behind it, in the tradition (but not the exact style) of Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The middle section, quite fast, opens with energetic string tremolos before moving into swirling triplets. The slow third movement, “Amabile e dolcissimo,” has an ethereal sound to it, almost mysterious in feeling, before moving into the surprising “Tumultuoso” section at 6:26. This is built around more string tremolos, biting brass and pounding tympani. Martinsson also uses some unusual syncopated figures here, including (at one point) quarter note triplets over a standard 4 tempo.

This is clearly exceptional music, very well performed for the most part and excitingly recorded.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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