Great review of "Territorial Songs - Recorder Music by Sunleif Rasmussen" in Music Web International

April 27, 2021

Hubert Culot

Sunleif Rasmussens's music has already been repeatedly reviewed here, as his ever-growing output is regularly committed to disc. The red thread here is Michala Petri and the works that he has composed for her over the last few years. Three of these have already been recorded earlier and appeared on different labels, whereas two of them (FLOW and Sorrow and Joy Fantasy) are new to the catalogue.

FLOW for recorder and string trio was composed as a companion piece to Mozart's Flute Quartet in D major K.285 and one might be forgiven for suspecting that it is some sort of pastiche, but such fears - if such there are - are quickly dispelled from the very beginning onwards. True, allusions to Mozart's music may be spotted here and there but they are filtered through Rasmussen's own appropriation of it. There are no direct quotes as such. The outer movements do certainly allude to Mozart albeit indirectly as, for example, in the “chugging rhythms and four-square melodies” in the opening of the first movement, but as it unfolds the music tends to de-construct itself preparing for the central movement, which is by far the longest, weightiest and most striking of the entire piece. It opens with cello harmonics over pizzicati on violin and viola, creating what the annotator likens to the “sublime melancholy slow movements that Haydn penned near the end of his life”. The opening of the second movement is indeed very beautiful but is again without any hint of pastiche, and it soon develops into something more personal when the soloist is requested to sing while playing, which creates the impression of counterpoint and of several instruments playing simultaneously. This is nothing particularly new, for many composers do use similar techniques, but it works remarkably well here although some might find the movement a tad too long for its own good. The material of the opening is reprised but this time with the viola in harmonics over pizzicati on violin and cello. The third movement is a short Rondeau, much in the same vein as the first movement, which concludes this very fine work in high spirits.

“I” for recorder and chamber choir is a short, beautiful setting of a poem by Inger Christensen which is the poet's “confessional response to Wallace Stevens's Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”, something that I for one will take for granted. However, this fairly short piece is superbly done and Rasmussen's setting abounds with telling choral touches, with the recorders adding their colour and sometimes “translating”, so to say, words (not always clear to me) into music of telling imagination to which I respond most heartily. As far as I am concerned, this beautifully realised work is one of the gems in this selection.

Sorrow and Joy Fantasy for recorder solo is probably the most straightforward work here, which does not mean that it is the easiest one - far from it, as the recorder's part is often quite fiendishly difficult. It is roughly cast as a theme and variations capped by a brilliant coda on a hymn tune by Thomas Kingo (1634 – 1703) which exists in many countries, such as France, Scotland, Norway, Faroe Islands and Denmark. The Faroese Rasmussen has chosen the Danish version of the melody.

Winter Echoes, subtitled Hommage à Axel Borup-Jørgensen, was commissioned as part of a musical tribute to the late Danish modernist composer. This recording is available on OUR Recordings 6.220613 “Nordic Sound” released a few years ago. The present annotator mentions that the title of this piece refers both to the “tightly overlapping imitative and contrapuntal textures that form the basis of the work's structure” while reminding one that “winter” refers to Borup-Jørgensen's own aesthetic predilection for crafting works with the word “winter” in the title; so there is nothing descriptive or programmatic in this piece except perhaps some allusions to elements such as the 'echoes' suggested in the title. The piece falls into three sections played without a break. The first part is a forceful Toccata opening with the furious roar of the lower strings “dominating the texture with hocket-like phrases” (the echoes of the title)” out of which the recorder struggles to be heard. A short cadenza leads into the second section. Another short cadenza (alto recorder this time) leads into the final section in which the music becomes increasingly static until the recorder is left with its own unanswered question. To my mind Winter Echoes is this release's other gem, as this compact, concise and often gripping work succeeds in saying (or at least suggesting) much without any undue fuzz.

Territorial Songs is the earliest work in this selection. Its title might well be somewhat misleading because one might think that the territorial songs of the title refer to some folk-song derived material often to be found in Rasmussen's music, although it is most often deeply embedded into the music's fabric. “The idea for the piece came from the singing of birds. In nature, bird song has two main functions: to defend a territory and to attract a mate. Rasmussen extended the idea of territorial space to the orchestra as well, letting some sections play independent of the conductor, making their own territory within the orchestral landscapes”. I think that these words aptly describe the process at work here although – make no mistake – do not expect Messiaen-like bird songs here. Again, there is nothing descriptive or programmatic in this music which nevertheless brilliantly and often beautifully suggests ever-changing musical landscapes. Territorial Songs is a substantial addition to the repertoire of concertos for recorder and orchestra already much enriched thanks to Michala Petri's immaculate artistry and unfailing championing of it.

These often quite beautiful works benefit from committed performances in very fine recordings, while providing for a varied and ear-opening portrait of the both the composer and the performer. Mention must also be made of Joshua Cheek's excellent and informative notes from which I have unashamedly quoted.

Again, this generously filled release confirms the importance of Sunleif Rasmussen's unmistakable musical voice in his country and beyond. This is definitely not to be missed. Hubert Culot 28.april 2021