RASMUSSEN: Flow.1 “I”.2 Sorrow and Joy Fantasy. Winter Echoes.3 Territorial Songs, Concerto for Recorder & String Orchestra 4 / Michala Petri, rec; 1Esbjerg String Trio; 2Danish National Vocal Ens.; 3Lapland Chamber Orch., cond. Clemens Schuldt; 4Aalborg Symphony Orch., cond. Henrik Vagn Christensen / OUR Recordings 6.220674
One of the things I love about famed recorder player Michala Petri is that she has devoted a large part of her career to playing contemporary music. Oh yes, of course she loves J.S. and C.P.E. Bach – who doesn’t? – but sticking to Baroque composers has never been her thing.
Here she presents five works by Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen (1961 – ) written specifically for her, and they are utterly fascinating as well as original in style. The very first piece, Flow for recorder and string trio, features dance-like rhythms around a harmonically moving (and fluid) line for the recorder, creating an integrated piece in which the strings act more as percussive accompaniment than the standard legato-flow style. This sets the piece up as a quirky rhythmic ride which slows down near the end of the first movement, leading to the “Tranquillo” section…again with the strings playing rhythmic figures, this time in a soft pizzicato. Maybe the fact that Rasmussen hails from the Faroe Islands, a strange little group that lies halfway between Norway and Iceland, yet is an autonomous territory of Denmark, has something to do with it (he is certainly the first major classical composer I’ve ever seen or heard of from that part of the world), but in any case this music is très strange. Rasmussen clearly has his own thing going on here; his style owes more to Nordic folk tunes and yodeling songs than to the Prescribed Edgy Modern Music Formula pushed by all the music conservatories today.
And Petri, on this album anyway, is clearly acting as his “vocalist,” singing these weird and well-developed songs with her rich, full recorder tone. Rasmussen is very lucky in this respect; he couldn’t have found a better interpreter for his music.
The third-movement “Rondeau” departs significantly from the folk feeling of the previous two movements. Here, the string trio’s harmonies are edgier and the rhythms stronger and more driving; Petri continues to play a somewhat melodic but modern top line, but she, too plays here with louder volume and in a strong rhythmic manner. There’s an odd stop in the music just before the two-minute mark where the meter changes a bit, but the music here remains asymmetric in meter and clearly outside of normal tonality, though it “touches base” now and then.
Territorial Songs for recorder and chamber choir, based on a poem by Inger Christensen, opens with Petri playing in the recorder’s low register. When the chorus enters, they are singing a bitonal melody which, again, uses unusual rhythms and meter. The text of the poem published in the booklet runs as follows:
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
You and a blackbird’s wing
Singing eveningtree jewel
The man’s camouflage in the bird
The bird’s clear vision in him
Natural flight Consciousness
I am the one who is watching
Twilight of bliss
Man and blackbird defeated
The drive at rest in both
Drinking with one heart
Singing with one beak
Closeup of entrenchment
I am the one who is outside
Blackbird’s play and your voice
Relationship’s echo and evening
Listening to the man’s song
Grasping the bird’s speech
Calling Am I a woman
I am the one who is open
Since he is writing here for voices, Rasmussen uses a more legato style but does not entirely abandon his penchant for strong rhythms, and he is clever enough to contrast the rhythms of the chorus with the rhythms played by the recorder soloist. There’s a touch of both Stravinsky and Harry Partch in this work…unintentional, perhaps, but present just the same. And because of his unusual writing style, the music completely avoids the cloying, goopy sort of choral writing that is accepted formula in the classical establishment.
The Sorrow and Joy Fantasy for recorder solo begins as a surprisingly simple but haunting melody in D minor that resembles both a folk tune and a movement in a Baroque sonata. Perhaps this was Rasmussen’s intention, but in any case as the music develops and becomes more complex it sounds more and more Baroque. Baroque but happy! By the seven-minute mark, the music is so complex that Petri sounds as if she was playing two recorders simultaneously, and the following chorus is a real tour-de-force using tricky chromatic passages. Petri clearly shows why she is the world’s leading virtuoso of the recorder.
We next hear Winter Echoes for recorder and 13 solo strings, opening in a very edgy fashion as the basses grumble loudly, the upper strings carp with their sharp attacks and the recorder sort of meanders through it all, again in the low register. This is yet again in a very different style from any of the preceding works, and for that I give Rasmussen a lot of credit. It’s not easy nowadays to establish yourself as a noted composer and NOT stick to one style of composition as a sort of trademark, but Rasmussen has done this. He refuses to be boxed into just one style of composition. As the piece continues, we move into the higher strings, the basses disappear, the music becomes more rhythmic (but very asymmetrical) and the recorder continues to interject its little circular motifs on the evolving web of sound. A little before the six-minute mark, we drop to the cellos as well as dropping in tempo from allegro to moderato. It is here that the recorder part becomes somewhat more complex, developing its theme in unusual ways while lugubrious basses and celli and pizzicato violas and violins accompany it.
The final piece on this disc, Territorial Songs, is described as a concerto for recorder and orchestra. It opens with the sound of bells before the orchestra suddenly explodes in a brief but spirited atonal outburst, followed by the solo recorder playing its own little thing. Here again, Rasmussen has found yet another style and “voice” in which to compose. The music develops in quite complex ways, particularly in the subdued but important orchestral background which morphs and shifts continuously behind the recorder, suddenly assuming center stage around the 2:20 mark and building in intensity with staccato trumpets and slurring trombones inside a complex web of strings and winds. We then move without pause into the second movement, “Misterioso,” which sounded to me more complex and frenetic than mysterious.
In the next movement, “Espressivo,” Rasmussen uses staccato trumpets in the manner of a big band arranger. The basses grumble menacingly while the middle strings and winds roil around behind the now-staccato interjections of the solo recorder. But it is the next movement, “Tranquillo,” which is the strangest piece yet on the album, a sort of fragmented rhythmic romp for the recorder, part of which sounds distorted as if she were playing it into an electronic device. This is followed by “Leggiero” which is anything but: a violent outburst by the strings in a ferocious-sounding rhythmic assault on one’s nervous system. (I wonder if they’re dropping some bad acid in the Faroe Islands, ha ha!)
All of the pieces on this CD are fascinating, well-written and highly original works covering a range of styles and moods. Both FLOW and the Sorrow and Joy Fantasy are world premiere recordings. This is one of those discs you’ll listen to over and over again.
—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley
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