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Fantastic review of Territorial Songs in Music Web International

September 11, 2021

Richard Hanlon

As my colleague Hubert Culot has noted, the music of the Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen has become something of a staple for Dacapo and OUR recordings over the last decade and justifiably so; his ornate syntheses of local folksong sources and bracing Nordic modernity are singular and accessible. My interest in his music owes more than a little to my love of Orkney, an island group which occupies a similarly barren stretch of the North Sea as the Faroes, one of three archipelagos (the other is Shetland) which seem to constitute geographical and cultural stepping stones that somehow connect the British Isles to Scandinavia.

I share my colleague’s enthusiasm for this fine disc; he has already addressed the technical and structural components of the five pieces and so I will restrict myself to brief personal responses to them. FLOW was devised as a companion piece for Mozart’s D major flute quartet (K275) – its title may be a cheesy palindrome deriving from the first half of Mozart’s Christian name but the music is anything but cheesy and more than lives up to its name. In the witty opening bars, Michala Petri’s recorder and the Esjberg Ensemble seem to be operating in entirely contradictory harmonic areas. Yet Rasmussen’s skill lies in making these two elements complementary rather than conflicting. There is grace and real style in this music which deconstructs elements of the source and weaves them into a tripartite whole which is indubitably more Rasmussen than Mozart. He did something similar (albeit on a more expansive scale) with the little Faroese folk gestures and motifs which are concealed within the fabric of his first symphony Oceanic Days. FLOW is dominated by its quirky. mysterious central panel which seems to fuse primitive and mechanistic ideas. The performance has been wonderfully captured by the engineers and makes a vivid impression in its SACD surround guise.

The composer’s sleeve note introduction to his recorder music (as opposed to Joshua Cheek’s helpful and detailed booklet analyses of each piece) is as revealing as it is pithy. It elegantly connects the album’s title, Rasmussen’s selection of different members of the recorder family, the incorporation of ‘singing’ into the extended techniques Michala Petri applies to some of this music, and the nature of birdsong within a few brief, lucid paragraphs. “I” for recorders and choir is one of two pieces which overtly relates to birdsong, in this case in the sung text, a response by the late Danish poetess Inger Christensen to Wallace Stevens’ famous paean to the minutiae of existence “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. The choir emerges from a plaintive thread of bass recorder melody; Rasmussen writes beautifully for choir and is not bound the by easy diatonicism and velvet harmonies of certain contemporaries. I imagine a piece such as this is most rewarding to sing, not least in its lonely, piquant dissonances. The recorder accompaniment seems to ascend as choral textures increase in density of timbre and intensity of expression. The eighteen members of the Danish National Vocal Ensemble (under Stephen Layton’s expert direction) sing this tricky music with precision and palpable commitment – the clarity and cleanness of their sound is a wonder through two or five speakers. At the piece’s end their voices dissolve into a haunting soliloquy from Petri’s soprano recorder, a mirror of the work’s opening.

Sorrow and Joy is a set of 12 variations for solo recorder on a Northern European hymn tune for which Thomas Kingo, a doyen of Danish baroque poetry supplied the hymn text Sorrig og Glaede. This is the most conventional piece on the disc: it becomes more complicated as it proceeds and inevitably requires considerable levels of stamina and agility on the part of the soloist. Joshua Cheek points out the affinity between Rasmussen’s piece and the oeuvre of the 17th century Dutch recorder virtuoso Jacob van Eyck and it projects an aptly arcane spirit which is splendidly conveyed by Michala Petri.

One of the most outstanding examples of large-scale contemporary Danish orchestral music is Marin, a delicate yet substantial seascape penned by the late-lamented Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924-2012). In Winter Echoes, a spiky concerto for recorders and thirteen strings, Rasmussen pays tribute to him with a work whose focus on instrumental textures aptly reflects Jørgensen’s interest in nature, light and especially winter. The most obvious allusion to this is the shift from darkness to light as illustrated by Rasmussens’s progression through the gamut of recorders, from the murky depths of the bass to the ethereal strangeness of the sopranino. The grungey, primordial sounds in low strings which open the work seem to hamper the progress of the recorder; in due course it escapes and heads for the surface. The arc of the piece as a whole suggests a quest for lyricism on the part of the solo instrument which is frustrated at every turn by the dogged ostinati of the strings. A short-lived liberation is achieved about half-way though; this marks a change whereby the recorder settles for equal status with the string body. Intermittent pizzicati and glissandi suggest the arbitrary unpredictability of nature as the soloist begins to prevail against a resilient string drone. Lonely fragments of ascending sopranino melody and gesture constitute the final Echoes.

Territorial Songs is another concerto albeit on a much larger scale. Bells and brass dominate in the initial Misterioso segment whose colourful orchestration and fluent pulsings recalls the ‘infinity series’ derived procedures of Per Nørgård. The recorder spirals repeatedly in a self-perpetuating vortex; eventually this motion is taken up by the orchestra which duly swaps roles with the soloist. During a brief expressivo panel at the work’s core Rasmussen pits a flitting recorder against declamatory brass fanfares and marine harp and percussion prior to an ethereal drone in the violins. There follows a more pronounced change of mood in an extended Tranquillo movement where Petri’s limpid arabesques flow into the orchestral textures. She is then called upon to produce sounds rich in multiphonic effects to provide a bulwark against eerie strings and winds in a passage which strikes me as otherworldly in the extreme – this is a remarkable, unusual episode which yields to an even stranger conceit – the sounds of Petri singing through her instrument . An exciting, virtuosic Leggiero section draws all of these threads together by way of conclusion and incorporates a sequence of additional choral effects – presumably produced by the orchestral players, before a playful mini-cadenza points them toward a coda and a final blast on the recorder. Territorial Songs is a magnificent addition to the recorder concerto repertoire – it’s significant in the sense that Rasmussen employs an unusually large orchestra for the purpose which he never allows to overwhelm the soloist. The concerto is superbly performed – the spacious recording seems truly spectacular in the SACD surround option.

A disc of 72 minutes duration exclusively dedicated to the recorder works of a single contemporary composer may seem like a daunting prospect on paper but listeners can rest assured that in these five very different beasts Sunleif Rasmussen showcases his extraordinary versatility as well as a truly imaginative approach to instrumental timbre and formal architecture. Performances and recording are outstanding.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Hubert Culot

Recording details
November-December 2020 at Ribe Semenarium, Denmark (Flow, Sorrow and Joy); August 2011 at Christianskirken, Copenhagen, Denmark (I); February 2015 at Cultura House Korundi, Rovaniemi, Finland (Winter Echoes) and June 2014 at Musikkens Hus, Aalborg Denmark (Territorial Songs)