Abrahamsen: Schnee review – magical sonorities and glittering reflections | Classical music


The dryly factual subtitle of Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, “10 canons for nine instruments”, hardly hints at the magical sonorities and glittering reflections explored in this 55-minute work, which was composed between 2006 and 2008. In the 1990s Abrahamsen wrote almost nothing, and he returned to composition tentatively, first with a series of orchestrations of both his own and other composers’ music, and then with a piano concerto in which he first explored the sound world he had reimagined for himself.

Abrahamsen: Schnee album cover
Abrahamsen: Schnee album cover

In Schnee that crystalline new world reached its definitive form, conjured from trios of strings and woodwind, together with two pianos and percussion. Its starting point was a series of arrangements of Bach canons that Abrahamsen had made in the early 1990s, but there’s nothing remotely Bachian about his response. The 10 canons of Schnee come in complementary pairs, each of which the composer likens to two versions of a painting in different colours. They are separated by more static intermezzos, while the canons become progressively shorter as the work goes on, with microtones regularly blurring the edges of their intricate plays of pitches. It proved to be the gateway to so much that has followed in Abrahamsen’s music – to the equally fragile soundscapes of the extraordinary song-cycle Let Me Tell You, and more explicitly to his Hans Christian Andersen opera The Snow Queen, first performed in 2019; the first of the canons in Schnee underpins the opening scene of the opera, while the torrential fourth provided the material for the Snow Queen’s sleigh ride through the snow.

Schnee is already available on disc, played by Ensemble Recherche, who originally commissioned it. But this performance from the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds, seems to capture both the rigour and feathery fragility of Abrahamsen’s instrumental writing far more bewitchingly, with tempi that are consistently faster than the earlier version. Alongside its delicacy and sense of wonder, the Recherche performance now seems rather matter-of-fact, and the glittering intricacies of Abrahamsen’s canons are never that.

This week’s other pick

A number of Harrison Birtwistle’s major scores, including two of his operas, have yet to appear on disc, but a collection from the Nash Ensemble on BIS does at least fill in some of the gaps among his gnarly chamber works. It concentrates on music from the past decade or so, though the origins of Pulse Sampler, for oboe and percussion, date back to 1981.

The most substantial piece is the 20-minute Duet for Eight Strings, written in 2018 for the viola player Lawrence Power and cellist Adrian Brendel, who play it here; they are joined by pianist Tim Horton for the 2011 Piano Trio, while Gareth Hulse is the oboist in the Oboe Quartet, which began life as a single movement for the great Heinz Holliger, but which Birtwistle expanded in 2010 at the request of the Nash.

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