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Fanfare (US) 2. review 5 stars (Max)

March 30, 2021

Ken Meltzer

5 stars: Michala Petri’s brilliant performances of recorder works by Sunleif Rasmussen

RASMUSSEN Flow for recorder and string trio1. “I” for recorder and chamber choir2. Sorrow and Joy Fantasy for recorder solo. Winter Echoes, Hommage à Axel Borup-Jorgensen for recorder & 13 solo strings3. Territorial Songs, Concerto for recorder and orchestra4  Michala Petri (rec); 1Esbjerg Ensemble; 2Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Stephen Layton, cond; 3Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Clemens Schuldt, cond; 4Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, Henrik Vagn Christensen, cond  OUR RECORDINGS 6.220764 (72:29)

“Territorial Songs” is the title of both a new release from Our Recordings and its final work, a concerto for recorder and orchestra by the Faroese (b. Sandoy, 1961) composer Sunleif Rasmussen. The disc comprises music “composed for/played by” the superb Danish recorder virtuoso Michala Petri. In his commentary (included with the disc), Rasmussen recalls how, while working on Territorial Songs, “I met with Michala and she introduced me to various sound possibilities and techniques one could use on a recorder, including playing and singing at the same time. This opened up a totally new view on the instrument for me.” Rasmussen also acknowledges: “I think in very specific terms about which type of recorder I will choose to accomplish my musical goals. The bass-recorder is a very mysterious sounding instrument; the tenor is lyrical; the alto is powerful and sometimes melancholic; the soprano and sopranino are very powerful, glittering instruments, but can also be lyrical.” Both of these techniques play a major role in the featured works on “Territorial Songs.” But there are many other elements as well. Sunleif Rasmussen is a composer whose music is deeply informed by his heritage, manifested by such elements as the celebration of the mysteries, power, and beauties of nature, as well as Faroese folk music and legend. Rasmussen is also a quite eclectic composer, someone who draws upon a wide range of international musical influences, including jazz, electroacoustic music, and serialism. Rasmussen also demonstrates the magical ability to conjure an image of the solitary voice in the wilderness, very much in the spirit of another Northern European composer, Sibelius. Each of the works on “Territorial Songs” has a keen, individual profile, and are all meticulously and effectively constructed.
Rasmussen’s Flow (2012), for recorder and string trio, was conceived as “a companion piece” to the Mozart Flute Quartet, K. 285. Rasmussen views that genre, and Mozart, through the prism of a modern aesthetic. There is also a wonderfully puckish sense of humor in the fleet outer movements. In his liner notes, Joshua Creek suggests (aptly, I think) an affinity between Flow and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Flow is in three movements. The broad second movement Tranquillo is both the structural and emotional center of the work. Here, the music is introspective and quite affecting. In the Tranquillo, Rasmussen makes striking use of the aforementioned playing and singing recorder technique. “I” (2011) is Rasmussen’s setting for recorder and chamber choir of Inger Christensen’s “confessional response to Wallace Stevens’ ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’.” “I” is a marvelous realization of the poet’s exploration of the tension between multiplicity and unity. The 9-minute work features rich and complex choral writing, in conjunction with a haunting and soulful obbligato recorder (the piece ends with a striking example of Rasmussen’s “voice in the wilderness”). Sorrow and Joy Fantasy (Sorrig og Glaede Fantasi) (2011), for solo recorder, is in theme and variations form. The principal melody is a hymn by the 17th century clergyman and poet Thomas Kingo. There are 12 variations in all that become ever more virtuoso in nature. Rasmussen maintains the character of the hymn throughout. As such, this work is the most harmonically traditional among the 5, and might serve as a good starting point for those who approach contemporary music with some trepidation. Winter Echoes, Hommage à Aexel Borup-Jørgensen (2014), a tribute to the contemporary Danish composer, is an 11-minute work comprising three sections, played without pause. Winter Echoes charts a journey from darkness to light, reflected both in the writing for the 13 solo strings, and the progression of the featured recorders (bass, tenor, alto, sopranino). Once again at work’s close, the recorder emerges a solitary presence. The concerto for recorder and orchestra, Territorial Songs (2009), is in five movements. The title refers to birdsongs and their dual functions: “to defend a territory and to attract a male.” The suggestion of birdsongs is prevalent throughout. The notion of staking out territory is further manifested by episodes in which sections of the orchestra play independent of the conductor’s direction. The tolling of bells also plays an important role. Once again, Rasmussen uses different kinds of recorders, and gives Petri the opportunity to showcase her playing/singing technique. The writing for the recorder includes several virtuoso episodes.
Michala Petri is a brilliant advocate for Rasmussen’s musical creations. Petri’s scintillating technique, remarkable breath control, gorgeous phrasing, and kaleidoscope of instrumental colors are stunning in their cumulative impact. All of the collaborating musicians on the various recordings are first-rate as well. Indeed, each performance is notable for an impressive sense of partnership between Petri and the ensembles. All of the recordings are excellent, providing a realistic concert perspective, and admirable balance between Petri and the other musicians. In addition to Rasmussen’s commentary and Cheek’s liner notes, the booklet includes Susanna Nied’s English translation of the Christensen poem set in “I” (but not the original text), and artist bios. How wonderful it is to hear imaginative, expressive, and superbly constructed new music performed with such devotion and flair. I recommend this disc with the greatest enthusiasm, and look forward to more encounters with the music of Sunleif Rasmussen.

Ken Meltzer
5 stars: Michala Petri’s brilliant performances of recorder works by Sunleif Rasmussen