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US Magazine Fanfare 3. Review - The Lapland Chamber Orchestra is a crack ensemble, and it and conductor Clemens Schuldt respond to the music’s many challenges impressively.

August 14, 2015

Ronald E. Grames

NORDIC SOUND: Tribute to Axel Borup-Jørgensen  Clemens Schuldt, cond; Michala Petri (rcr); Lapland CO  OUR RECORDINGS 6.220613 (SACD 69:12)
SØRENSEN Whispering. GUDMUNDSEN-HOLMGREEN Music for 13 Strings—For Axel “Boje”. RASMUSSEN Winter Echoes. CHRISTENSEN Nordic Summer Scherzo. CLAUSEN Concertino for Recorder and Strings. BORUP-JØRGENSEN Sommasvit, op. 24

Though it is generally held that the essentially autodidactic Axel Borup-Jørgensen did not establish a school of composition, he was, as his country’s leading modernist composer, a central figure in the musical life of Denmark. His death in 2012 at the age of 87 has affected the circle of modernist composers in Denmark in much the way that the death of a parent affects a family. As Michala Petri reminisces in an associated interview, he was a frequent presence at concerts of others’ works, and a benevolent if highly demanding guide to the performance of his own pieces. There is a Ravel-like preoccupation with detail and polish in the composer’s music, whether larger-scale works like his orchestral masterpiece, Marin—its name an apt reminder of another early French influence—or the many smaller chamber and solo works. He was a perfectionist, always seeking the best way to what he needed to say. He was a pioneer who sampled what others had to offer—from the Nordic romanticists and Impressionism to German Expressionism to the Darmstadt experience—and then found his own paths from among the gathered possibilities. In the end, it was as much poetry—especially, we are told, the writings of avant-garde Finnish/Swedish poet Gunnar Björling—and the majesty and silences of Swedish nature, remembered from his youth, that informed his composition.
This tribute disc is documentation of what the notes describe as a Gedenkschrift, or commemorative publication, conceived by his daughter Elisabet Selin and OUR Recordings producer and co-founder Lars Hannibal, under the auspices of Edition Borup-Jørgensen. It is a gathering of five compositions commissioned from colleagues and friends, each with a distinctive character, as well as Sommasvit, an early orchestral composition by the honoree.
To extend the metaphor of family, close friend Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, eight years the junior, now finds himself in the position of younger brother taking over the patriarchal role. In his Music for 13 Strings—For Axel “Boje”—Boje being a family nickname— Gudmundsen-Holmgreen incorporates some of the older composer’s characteristic intervals and textures into an intensely dramatic work, at times mysterious, at others violent and unpredictable, occasionally lyric, but more often abrasive and angry with foot stomping and snarling tone clusters. It seems both tribute and declaration of independence.
Bent Sørensen, Sunleif Rasmussen, Mogens Christensen, and Thomas Clausen make up that next generation of Danish modernists. (Okay, Rasmussen is Faroese.) None are really young—Rasmussen at 54 is the youngest—and all approach their commission from differing perspectives born of many years of experience. Each includes a solo part for Michala Petri’s recorder. Sørensen, whose early work in Danish folk music has been subsumed into a modernist aesthetic not unlike spectralism in its emphasis on timbre, chooses Borup-Jørgensen’s partiality to silence as his inspiration, both for the title Whispering—the composer, late in life, tended to speak very softly—and for the primary characteristic of his own composition.
Sunleif Rasmussen has also been influenced by spectralism, and Tristan Murail in particular, though it is not clear that spectralist techniques are used in this work. Written in three continuous parts, each exploring a different part of the audio spectrum, from bass to high treble, it requires the soloist to move from the bass to sopranino recorders in a gradual ascent of the scale. In the end, the highest-pitched recorder is left to speak almost alone; the effect is of a hard-won escape from chaos, or to take a clue from the title, from a particularly fierce snowstorm.
Mogens Christensen has written a series of recorder pieces recreating his impressions of birdsong, one of which is Birds of a Midsummer Night. He revisits that concept in Nordic Summer Scherzo, in remembrance of Borup-Jørgensen’s fondness for Swedish culture and for the Swedish midnight sun. The recorder soloist and strings evoke birdsong and summer winds, the result having a gritty naturalism that is most appealing even if the language is decidedly modern.
Most accessible of the homages is jazz-composer Thomas Clausen’s four-movement neo-Baroque Concertino for Recorder and Strings. Petri is at pains, in our interview, to state that this is not pastiche. It is not, or at least no more so than Grieg's Holberg Suite or Stravinsky’s similar enterprises in modernizing Baroque forms. Despite some decidedly contemporary harmony and progressions, it retains much of the charm of its older models.
Throughout, soloist Michala Petri is called upon to accomplish amazing acts of virtuosity, both extraordinarily demanding passage work and extended techniques such as overblowing, multiphonics (including Petri’s now signature skill at playing and singing of different pitches simultaneously) and flutter tonguing. Christensen has her doing them all in bewildering rapidity. The Lapland Chamber Orchestra is a crack ensemble, and it and conductor Clemens Schuldt respond to the music’s many challenges impressively.
I must conclude, however, by saying that as interesting and entertaining as I found these tributes to the lost paterfamilias, none of the pieces, with the possible exception of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Music for 13 Strings, impressed me as much as the master’s own work, Sommasvit. A poignant evocation of a scenic Swedish forested lake from the composer’s boyhood, this wonderful bit of “nature mysticism” is saved for last on the disc. Leif Segerstam recorded it for Dacapo twenty years ago (now available only as a download) with breathtaking control of pacing, color, and balance. Schuldt is not quite that amazing, but this very fine performance is definitely the highlight of the disc. Ronald E. Grames