Thursday 14 December 2023

Arctic saxophone: three imaginative & engaging new concertos from Ola Asdahl Rokkones, Arktisk Filharmoni & Per Kristian Skalstad

Alexander Aarøen: The Heart, It Soars; Alexander Manotskov - Seven Portraits; Terje Bjørklund: Arctic Lines; Ola Asdahl Rokkones, Arktisk Filharmoni, Per Kristian Skalstad; LAWO

Alexander Aarøen: The Heart, It Soars, Alexander Manotskov: Seven Portraits, Terje Bjørklund: Arctic Lines; Ola Asdahl Rokkones, Arktisk Filharmoni, Per Kristian Skalstad; LAWO
Reviewed 13 December 2023

Three new saxophone concertos with Arctic inspirations from soloist and orchestra based in the region, terrific, engaging, imaginative new music in fine performances

Ola Asdahl Rokkones is a saxophonist based in the city of Tromsø in North Norway, about 500 km north of the Arctic Circle and about 2000 km south of the North Pole. For this disc from LAWO Classics, Rokkones has collaborated with the Tromsø-based Arktisk Filharmoni (the Arctic Philharmonic), and conductor Per Kristian Skalstad, for disc of concertos for saxophone and orchestra. The three concertos were all commissioned by Rokkones and have Artic links, two composers are Norwegian, Alexander Aarøen and Terje Bjørklund, both originating from Northern Norway, and the third composer is Russian, Alexander Manotskov, and took his inspiration from the Russian city of Arkhangelsk.

In his booklet note, Rokkones explains that the disc is directly a result of COVID, with the cancelling of events and the clearing of diaries, they were able to spend five intensive days in April 2021, rehearsing and recording the music on the disc in Grønnåsen church in Tromsø.

They begin with The Heart, It Soars, a three-movement work by Alexander Aarøen, who is from Balsfjorden, just outside Tromsø. Aarøen began as a rock pianist before studying jazz piano and composing, then doing a master's in film music. In 2018, Aarøen was awarded the prestigious Steve Kaplan-prize from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for his work with the Hollywood Studio Orchestra at 20th Century Fox in Los Angeles.

The three movements have evocative, if tantalising, names - The Autumn of ChildhoodSpringAll Seasons Must Pass. The composer describes it as "a portrayal of growing up, where the music puts an autumnal frame to the inevitable end of the childhood. The listener is carried through a cascade of feelings and moods, a voyage from darkness to light, and from melancholia to acceptance." The first movement begins with strings on their own in writing which pays a nod to Nordic string orchestral works of the past, then the saxophone gives us a solo meditation on this, leading to a richly romantic main section of saxophone and strings. The melodic invention of the solo line is complemented by the warm string writing with its continuing nods to Grieg and other Nordic composers.

The second movement, Spring, is fast with a dance-like feel that moves between a jig-like country dance and something more jazz-inspired. Grieg and Svendsen seem also to be influences in the string writing. Yet Aarøen makes the mix his own, and is unashamed in the melodic inspiration and appealing harmonies, but this is never simple music, it is tricky to play and wonderfully engaging to listen to. A long saxophone cadenza leads to a change of mood at the very end. Taking us neatly into the third movement All Seasons Must Pass with its yearning violin solo at the opening. The saxophone repeats the melody with warm strings to create something tender and a little bit romantic.

Russian composer Alexander Manotskov was born in St Petersburg and studied both anthropology and composition, and his studies have included various national musical traditions from the Middle East, Central Africa, the Don region, the Caribbean and southern India (Carnatik) music. After the start of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, he left Russia and is currently based in Düsseldorf, Germany. His work Seven Portraits is inspired by the North-Western Russian city of the city of Arkhangelsk (also known as Archangel). As there are seven archangels in the Eastern Orthodox Church, this served as a frame for seven movements, Michael, Jegudiel, Gabriel, Barachiel, Sealtiel, Raphael, and Uriel.

Michael is inspired by Russian chant, sober yet appealing, the sound world of strings and saxophone bringing us out of the church somewhat. The solo line is not spotlit but weaves in and out of the strings, whilst saxophone multiphonics introduce an element of complexity over the multi-layered music. In Jegudiel the saxophone is using slap tongue which combines with the strings pizzicato and col legno to create a strong sense of texture, but there is also a cheekily jazzy tune as well. Gabriel has the saxophone overblowing and the strings adding harmonics, with harmonies that remain static even as the music's tempo picks up and Indian influences are apparent here. Barachiel features quite dense yet rhythmic string writing with a saxophone flowing over it, perhaps like the angel flying above us. After the definiteness of the earlier movements, here the music has more uncertainty to it. Sealtiel has strong rhythms in strings and solo, jagged lines with the two interacting with each other. Manotskov's phrases are of different lengths creating a lovely unevenness in the polyphonic writing. The sixth movement, Raphael uses an old folk melody, but its sound world comes from the saxophone being played like a trumpet, without the usual mouthpiece. The result is completely haunting, the sound here is gentle and intriguing.  Uriel was central to central to the neo-gnostic Bulgarian bogomilism of the 11th century and so in this movement, Manotskov uses several different odd meters that are typical of Bulgarian folk music. So natural does it feel that the fast and engaging music whisks you away in the dance.

Terje Bjørklund is originally from Narvik, just a few hours’ drive south of Tromsø. After an extensive career as a jazz pianist, he established the jazz department at the Conservatory in Trondheim in 1979, and from 1980 he started writing more classical music. Although Bjørklund has performed together with some of the greatest jazz saxophonists of our time, such as Jan Garbarek and Dexter Gordon, prior to writing Arctic Lines in 2019 he had not previously written for classical saxophone.

The work is in six short movements, Short Sami Song, Arctic Winds, Arctic Landscapes, Fighting with the Polar Bear, Arctic November, Sami Song and as can be seen from the titles, takes its inspiration directly from the Arctic.

The first movement, Short Sami Song, uses a joik-like melody inspired by Sami music with the saxophone supported by the strings. Arctic Winds is faster and edgier, the music nervy and vigorous, and the composer's use of tonguing techniques and innovative string writing create striking textures. Arctic Landscapes takes us into bleaker territory, but with warm string writing and saxophone keening over them, but the music gradually takes on more movement, leading to a cadenza. In Fighting with the Polar Bear we are in edgier, faster territory, the saxophone solo coming in short, yet unrelenting bursts, the strings responding sometimes in like fashion. This is vivid music. Arctic November brings us pizzicato strings with a solo part that rolls onward and onward, unrelenting but joyful, and leading back into the final movement which returns to the opening material in a longer format.

Recording session - Ola Asdahl Rokkones, Arktisk Filharmoni, Per Kristian Skalstad (Photo: Lasse Jangas)
Recording session - Ola Asdahl Rokkones, Arktisk Filharmoni, Per Kristian Skalstad (Photo: Lasse Jangås)

I had never come across these three composers before, and I loved the way each took a different approach in evoking the disc's Arctic heritage whilst at the same time solving the challenges of writing for classical saxophone today. All three concertos have plenty to engage, intrigue and challenge and I would gladly welcome any of them in a concert. Performances here are terrific, no hints of any of the challenges under which they were made. Throughout, Ola Asdahl Rokkones  makes a wonderfully engaging guide, deftly playing the technically challenging passages and making each movement a story. And he finely partnered by Per Kristian Skalstad and the orchestra.

Alexander Aarøen (b. 1993) - The Heart, It Soars (2019)
Alexander Manotskov (b. 1972) - Seven Portraits (2011)
Terje Bjørklund (b. 1945) - Arctic Lines (2020)
Ola Asdahl Rokkones (alto saxophone)
Per Kristian Skalstad (conductor)
Arktisk Filharmoni
Recorded in Grønnåsen Church, Tromsø, 26-30 April 2021
LAWO Classics LWC1263 1CD [76:30]

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