Wednesday 7 April 2021

60th birthday celebration: Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen's works for recorder player Michala Petri survyed in this engaging and imaginative disc.

Territorial Songs: works for recorder by Sunleif Rasmussen; Michala Petri, Esbjerg Ensemble, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Layton, Clemens Schuldt, Henrik Vagn Christensen; OUR Recordings

Territorial Songs
: works for recorder by Sunleif Rasmussen; Michala Petri, Esbjerg Ensemble, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, Lapland Chamber Orchestra, Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, Stephen Layton, Clemens Schuldt, Henrik Vagn Christensen; OUR Recordings

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 November 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
In celebration of the Faroese composer's 60th birthday, OUR Recordings assembles a disc of his complete recorder music in a terrific survey showcasing Rasmussen's imaginative range.

The Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen was 60 last month, and by way of celebration comes this new disc from OUR Recordings, Territorial Songs, featuring Sunleif Rasmussen's works for recorder performed by Michala Petri (for whom the pieces were written) with the Esbjerg Ensemble, the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, conductor Stephen Layton, Lapland Chamber Orchestra, conductor Clemens Schuldt, and Aalborg Symphony Orchestra, conductor Henrik Vagn Christensen.

Born on the Faroese island of Sandøy, Rasmussen initially studied in Norway, and at the Royal Danish Academy of Music where he studied composition with Ib Nørholm and electronic music with Ivar Frounberg. He is working on a monumental cycle of symphonies inspired by the elements, Water, Earth, Wind and Fire. Two have been completed, the first Oceanic Days won the  Nordic Council Music Prize in 2002, and the second, The Earth Anew received the Danish 'Carl Prisen Awards' for Classic Composer - Large Ensemble in 2016 and the Faroese Music Award for Best Composition in 2017.

The disc features five works for recording written over the period 2009 to 2014, and all for the recorder player Michala Petri.

Composer and performer seem to have had a close working relationship and Rasmussen's music explores a wide range of the advanced techniques that Petri uses on the recorder. The title track is Territorial Songs, a concerto for recorder and orchestra written in 2009 and inspired by a description of bird song in an Italo Calvino novel. Since then Rasmussen has written for solo recorder (Sorrow and joy fantasy), recorder and string trio (Flow), recorder and chamber choir (I), recorder and 13 solo strings (Winter Echoes). Flow and Sorrow and Joy are world premiere recordings, whilst the other recordings have been assembled together for this disc and appeared on previous OUR discs.

We beging with Flow which was written to deliberately echo Mozart's Flute Quartet, here performed by Petri with the Esbjerg Ensemble. The opening movement is a playful deconstruction of the Mozart, and introduction to a neo-classical sound-world which manages to be both contemporary and period. The long second movement is the heart of the piece, and here we leave the playfulness of the first movement behind. Essentially a classic ABA structure, Rasmussen creates music of real intensity and in the central section has Petri singing and playing, a technique which causes the recorder to create a remarkable new sound world. The final movement returns us to a playfully re-imagined world of Mozart.

Next comes I (Jeg), a setting for choir and recorder of the Danish modernist poet Inger Christensen's response to Wallace Stevens' Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Here performed by Petri with the Danish National Vocal Ensemble, conductor Stephen Layton. An intriguing piece, exploring a combination of recorder and choir which would not, at first, seem obvious. We start with just solo bass recorder in an evocative melody, and when the voices enter this evocative mood continues as voices (including two solos) weave together with the recorder. It is a thoughtful, intriguing piece with direct reference to the text in that a man, a woman and a blackbird are represented by two solo voices and recorder, but it is not a descriptive piece and weaves a fascinating sort of magic.

There is a similar complexity of construction to Sorry and Joy Fantasy for solo recorder. The work takes as its inspiration a 17th century hymn by Thomas Kingo, whose work is considered the high-point of Danish Baroque poetry. The music for the hymn was a traditional melody, which Rasmussen subjects to 12 variations, and the variations themselves are inspired by the work of the Dutch carillonneur and recorder virtuoso Jacob can Eyeck (1590-1657). The result is a seductive and dazzling 10 minutes of pure recorder joy.

Winter Echoes for recorder and 13 solo strings was commissioned as part of a musical tribute to the Danish composer Axel Borup-Jørgensen (1924-2012) and the winter of the title refers to Borup-Jørgensen's fondness for writing works with the word 'Winter' in the title. The work starts vividly and dramatically on the strings, and throughout Rasmussen gives us some terrific string writing. Initially Rasmussen has the recorder playing low, almost inaudible and only gradually emerging from the string texture. The work is continuous, but in sections including a cadenza, and throughout Rasmussen intrigues with his writing. By using 13 solo strings, the composer gives us some finely wrought counterpoint and an imaginative control of texture so that the recorder can emerge and recede, and finally the recorder is left on its own.

The final work on the disc is Rasmussen's recorder concerto, Territorial Songs, which was written in 2008/2009 for Michala Petri whilst Rasmussen was composer in residence with the South Jutland Orchestra. There are five, relatively short movements. The first, Leggiero contrasts tubular bells with vigorous string action and recorder figurations which, whilst clearly birdsong inspired, have a life of their own.  Misterioso, the second movement, continues with the bells but with evocative string harmonics and pizzicatos, and the textures develop and threaten to leave the Misterioso behind. There are parts of this when the recorder recedes from view, but Petri soon re-appears with mysterious textures and imaginative writing. Throughout the work, Rasmussen's imaginative solutions to potential balance problems are impressive and creative. Espressivo is full of tension and shimmering textures, whilst Tranquillo, the longest movement in the work, is dark and sensual pitting a tenor recorder against warm string harmonies, though this leads to an eerie passage where Rasmussen has Petri singing and playing to remarkable effect. The finale, features dramatic orchestral writing and vivid recorder effects, bringing things to a virtuoso conclusion.

This disc makes a fine birthday present for Rasmussen, bringing together all his recorder works for Petri in a terrific showcase which highlights the variety and imagination of his writing, along with the wonderfully creative solutions to the various intriguing combinations of performers. Throughout the performances are admirable and enable the music to speak for itself. Michala Petri's musicality and virtuosity are completely astonishing, even more so because the recordings are so clearly more about the music than about her.

Flow for recorder and string trio (2012)
I for recorder and chamber choir (2011)
Sorry and Joy fantasy for recorder solo (2011)
Winter Echoes: Hommage a Axel Borup-Jørgensen for recorder & 13 solo strings (2014)
Territorial Songs: concerto for recorder and orchestra (2009)
Michala Petri (recorders)
Esbjerg Ensemble
Danish NAtional Vocal Ensemble/Stephen Layton
Lapland Chamber Orchestra/Clemens  Schuldt
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra/Henrik Vagn Christensen
Recorded 30 November, 1 December 2020, Ribe Seminarium, Denmark; 11 August 2011, Christianskirken, Copenhagen, Denmark; 19 February 2015 in Cultura House Korundi, Rovaniemei, Lapland; 14 & 15 June 2014, Musikkens Hus, Aalborg Denmark
OUR RECORDINGS 6.220674 1CD [72.31]

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