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Fanfare 2 (US)- "This release marks a major step forward in our understanding of Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924—2012), whose music has so impressed me over the course of a number of releases".

November 21, 2017

Colin Clarke

BORUP-JØRGENSEN MARIN—An Animated Fantasy. AXEL—A Portrait Film  Thomas Søndergård, cond; Danish Natl SO  OUR Recordings 2.110426 (DVD: 58:24 + SACD: 79:29) & Selections by Borup-Jørgensen taken from previous releases

This release marks a major step forward in our understanding of Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924—2012), whose music has so impressed me over the course of a number of releases. In Fanfare 40:4, I referred to a disc of his organ music as “a phenomenal release that rewards repeated listening” and placed it firmly on my 2017 Wants List, while a disc of guitar music in Fanfare 41:2 offered further cause for celebration.
Although presented in the order of the animated fantasy MARIN followed by the documentary Axel, one might perhaps suggest the order is reversed in practice. The background is vital in that one gains an appreciation of the importance of Marin the piece in Borup-Jørgensen’s output—it is his most extended orchestral work. The film portrait, AXEL, is both affectionate and informed, a veritable roll-call of Danish luminaries paying tribute to Borup-Jørgensen, from Michala Petri through to Per Nørgård, Ib Nørholm, Bent Sørensen and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen. Most of all, though, we take away an impression of a composer who was above all honest in intent. A quiet man, he was nevertheless uncompromising in what he wanted. Family members are important, too, from the composer’s niece to his daughter, Elisabet Selin (who, along with Edition Borup-Jørgensen, funded the entire project).
Glorious scenery makes up an important part of the imagery we see, as this was an important catalyst for the composer’s imagination, also: the op. 24 piece Sommasvit (1957), for example, was directly inspired by a lake. A description of Borup-Jørgensen as a “lyric expressionist” seems to hit the nail on the head. Insights are shown, too, on Borup-Jørgensen’s compositional processes, and his intensely visual nature. He was an artist, also, and apparently his analysis of Webern Variations was mainly pictorial in nature. So, whilst there is no denying the influence of Darmstadt Modernism on Borup-Jørgensen, one has to admire how he married this strong structural grasp with his lyricism (parallels to Alban Berg spring to mind); only at the very end of his life did he loosen this tightness of construction.
The film of Marin by Allan O. Lückow is inventive and, well, odd. Or, as I put it in my listening notes, “odd, odd, odd.” Basing the imagery on some of the composer’s own drawings, we enter an alternative, submarine universe inhabited by creatures called “marenes”; their doings are laid over Borup-Jørgensen’s score of Marin. This could be a futuristic world, but even that is left open: perhaps it is a parallel one?. Surreal and intensely beautiful, it is a must-watch, but not for repeated viewings. The gold is really in the score itself, and for that we have the orchestral performance on the SACD. Interestingly, when Petri is interviewed in the film AXEL, she invites us, the listeners, to use images to make sense of Borup-Jørgensen’s complex and individual world. Whether the MARIN experiment works I am finding is mainly one of mood: sometimes it seems like genius, sometimes frankly I’d rather be left alone with the music.
Both films were premiered on the same evening at the Danish Filminstitute May 30th 2017.
The SACD opens with Marin minus any images. There is something primal about the opening of Marin (“Sea piece” in Swedish, composed 1953—60). Whilst chthonic grumblings might seem to be an integral and rather hackneyed stock-in-trade of any self-respecting modernist, Borup-Jørgensen seems to take it a step further. Perhaps only Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s similar openings actually evoke these spaces. Premiered in 1970 by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under Herbert Blomstedt, the current performance is recorded in DXD format, allowing for maximal detail to come through. After Marin, the composer shied away from large orchestral pieces. Understandable given the sheer number of hours of work that went into this score, but something one regrets, nonetheless. The scoring is often deft and it is clear the composer knew exactly what he wanted. The performance is fabulous, attentive and expert, and climaxes rendered in bright, stunning sound.
Pieces related to the film AXEL appear thereafter, taken from both OUR Recordings and DaCapo catalogs. The focused flow of the Music for Percussion and Viola, op. 18, enhanced by Tim Frederiksen’s Bashmet-index power viola meeting the Percurama Percussion Ensemble under Gert Mortensen, offers during its course an alternative type of primitivism, with rhythms pounding away, their regularity and invitation to be subverted by other instruments.
While Für Cembalo und Orgel, op. 133/2 appears almost spooky in this performance (Mahan Esfahani ad Jens E. Christensen), perhaps part of that comes with it being in the shadow of Marin in the disc playing order. The composer’s daughter, Elisabet Selin, performs the ten-minute Nachtstück, op. 118/1 for tenor recorder of 1987. Use of breath through the instrument and multiphonics are superbly done. A rather harder-edged aspect of Borup-Jørgensen comes across in the pointillist Winter Pieces, op. 30b for piano of 1959, here performed by Erik Kaltoft. Jagged and forbidding, the score plays for only four minutes but nevertheless is actually quite exhausting to listen to. There is little respite.
The solo recorder piece Pergolato comes from that final period where control was being relaxed. The performer has significant choice about various parameters, and is performed here by Petri who, we are told in the documentary, ended up rehearsing for an upcoming performance of the piece with the composer in Petri’s car as it was the only time-slot they had. It is superbly, poignantly performed. And it is not the final offering, either: that is left to the 16-minute Coast of Sirens, op. 100 for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, guitar, piano, percussion and multivoice tape. Written between 1983 and 1985, it appears in a performance by the Aarhus Sinfonietta taken from the DaCapo release Carambolage. The vocal sounds on the tape are like a modernist version of Debussy’s “Sirènes.” There is a hypnotic element here that draws one in: a most beautiful piece.
This whole venture is clearly heart-based. It is also invaluable in our understanding of Axel Borup-Jørgensen. I wonder if OUR Recordings could be persuaded to produce a similar venture on related composers. Several years ago, I was knocked for six by a Proms performance of Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Incontri by the BBC Symphony under Thomas Dausgaard (it followed Langgaard’s Symphony No. 11, “Ixion,” both works receiving their UK premieres). Maybe Gudmundsen-Holmgreen could be next? In the meantime, let’s celebrate the magnificence of both this particular product and, especially, the magnificently fertile imagination of Axel Borup-Jørgensen. Colin Clarke, November the 22th, 2017