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Fanfare (US) 1. review

March 23, 2021

Phillip Scott

RASMUSSEN Territorial Songs1. Flow2. I3. Sorrow and Joy Fantasy. Winter Echoes4 • Michala Petri (rec); 1Aalborg SO; 1Henrik Vagn Christensen, cond; 2Esbjerg Ensemble; 3Danish National Vocal Ensemble; 3Stephen Layton, cond; 4Lapland CO; 4Clemens Schuldt cond • OUR SACD 6.220674 (72:31)

Sunlief Rasmussen (b. 1961) is from Sandoy, the “sand island” in the Faroe Islands: a rocky archipelago in the North Atlantic, situated between Iceland and Norway. The islands are self-governing but affiliated with Denmark, and renowned for being one of the safest places on earth. (That statement almost begs for the full Nordic Noir treatment.) Rasmussen has written a number of works specifically for Michala Petri, the internationally famous Danish recorder virtuoso. The earliest on this program is Territorial Songs, a substantial concerto in five movements. The composer’s knowledge of the instrument’s capabilities is on full display, plus his understanding of how to blend and contrast the recorder with orchestral sororities. The piece has appeared before, in the same performance, on another OUR CD, coupled with two other concertos: Moonchild’s Dream by Thomas Koppel and Chacun Son Son by Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgren. I reviewed that disc in Fanfare 39:2 back in 2015, where I described Rasmussen’s concerto as pastoral and atmospheric, and also wrote that “phenomenal technical virtuosity from the soloist is ... a consistent factor”. In the same issue, Ronald E. Grames called the concerto “masterful” and “unforgettable”. It is worth getting to know.
The other pieces by Rasmussen are for varied groups of instruments. Flow (2012), for string trio and recorder is in three movements, in a fast/slow/fast structure. While timbral contrast between the pure-toned recorder and deliberately rough textures from the stringed instruments is a prominent feature, I do not find the work as compelling as Territorial Songs. The first movement’s scale-based themes stray toward the vacuous despite the music’s neoclassical, chugging energy. The second movement (tranquillo) contains plenty of textural interest, particularly the soloist’s musings over a pizzicato accompaniment. Overall, however, the piece did not leave me with a strong impression. It was composed as a companion to Mozart’s D major Flute Quartet: The note writer Joshua Cheek hears both Mozart and Haydn in the music but any such influence escaped me, even after I read Cheek’s note. He also cites Stravinsky’s Pulcinella: Maybe, at a stretch.
More interesting, to my mind, is Rasmussen’s setting of the poem “I” by the Danish modernist poet Inger Christensen. For a start, his choral writing is clean and expressive (expertly performed here by the Danish National Vocal Ensemble under Stephen Layton), while Petri’s range of recorders from bass to soprano add distinctive, illustrative voices to the texture. The poem is a response to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, and the soprano recorder’s fragmented blackbird song at the close works beautifully. Sorrow and Joy Fantasy (2011) is a ten-minute set of variations on an ancient theme for solo recorder. Both the composer and Petri are at their most persuasive here, turning what could have been a mere exercise into an enjoyable showcase. Finally, the short Winter Echoes (2014) for various recorders and 13 solo strings is a single-movement work, written in homage to the late composer Axel Borup-Jorgensen. The relentless, rough-edged string writing of Flow makes a reappearance, but initially the result is more dynamic as the bass recorder doggedly attempts to escape from the clutches of the strings. Petri’s recorders again progress from low to high (or, as Cheek sensibly frames it, from “dark to light”), as the overlapping rhythms eventually thin out leaving the solo instrument alone and unsupported. It is an imaginative piece, tightly controlled despite its episodic nature, and one of the highlights of the program.
There is much to enjoy here, not least the artistry of Michala Petri. All the performers are excellent, and the sound quality is first class throughout. If it came to a choice, I would opt for the earlier release containing the three concertos, if only to have Koppel’s Moonchild’s Dream in my collection. Phillip Scott

Four stars: Recorder virtuosity from Petri and Rasmussen.

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