On record: Anders Hillborg: Sirens, Cold Heat, Beast Sampler (BIS)

Hillborg: Beast Sampler (2014); O dessa ögon (2011); Cold Heat (2010); Sirens (2011)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (Beast Sampler)

Hannah Holgersson (soprano), Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Sakari Oramo (O dessa ögon)

Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / David Zinman (Cold Heat)

Ida Falk Winland, Hannah Holgersson (sopranos); Eric Ericson Chamber Choir; Swedish Radio Choir; Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra / Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sirens);

Summary

BIS’s second disc devoted to the music of Anders Hillborg (b1954), currently the highest profile composer in Sweden, comprises two of his more recent orchestral works, together with Sirens, his most ambitious piece to date; directed by three leading interpreters.

What’s the music like?

The disc opens with Beast Sampler, a nine-minute evocation of the orchestra as a (to quote the composer) ‘‘sound animal’’ that draws on extended instrumental techniques as well as electronically influenced textures in music. It essentially translates Ligeti’s mid-1960s idiom (specifically Lontano) into a demonstratively post-modern context. Colourful and not uneventful, this is music dependent not on what is said but rather the effectiveness of how it is said. Judged solely as a curtain-raiser, moreover, this is entertaining enough – but no more.

The dichotomy between technique and substance is more acutely exposed in Cold Heat, a three-way commission between orchestras in Berlin, Helsinki and Zurich. Its cosmopolitan genesis is embodied in the range of its influences while culminating in that staple of present-day resolutions – the Sibelian apotheosis. The continued recourse to this evinces as limited an understanding of what the Finnish composer was doing comparable to those ‘advocates’ from the interwar era. Good for first impressions, though.

Of the two vocal items, O dessa ögon (Oh these eyes) is a brief setting of verse by Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf whose aura of distanced ecstasy is eloquently conveyed by soprano and strings. At just over four minutes, it is easily the most substantial composition on this disc.

Which duly puts into perspective the qualities of Sirens. Opulently realized for two sopranos, mixed choir and orchestra – and, at just over half-an-hour, Hillborg’s most ambitious work to date – it utilizes lines from Book XII of Homer’s Odyssey (albeit expanded by the composer) where Ulysses is being implored by the sirens to abandon his voyage and submit to their fatal entreaties.

Once again, the technical realization leaves little to chance – Hillborg summoning considerable elegance and finesse from his forces such as makes for undeniably pleasurable listening. Yet the sheer consistency of the mood being sustained engenders monotony well before the work is concluded, taking in an amorphous central climax before subsiding into a long postlude which seems little more than an extended fadeout as empty as it is enervating.

Does it all work?

On its own terms, undoubtedly. As mentioned, Hillborg is a consummate technician able to bring any number of stylistic traits into viable accord. Nor is there any doubting the overall excellence of response displayed by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra under its trio of renowned conductors, or the all-round depth and spaciousness of the sound. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the limitations of this music are evident: Hillborg is simply unable to offer much of substance to flesh out his dazzling surfaces or his enticing textures.

Is it recommended?

Yes, on the basis that Hillborg is undoubtedly a composer of the moment and this collection affords a representative overview of what his music is about. Admire it on a first and even second hearing, then ask yourself just how much more you need to listen to this in future.

Richard Whitehouse

Watch Kent Nagano conduct the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra in Beast Sampler below:

HILLBORG’S Beast Sampler – Kent Nagano from Göteborgs Symfoniker on Vimeo.

Have a listen on Spotify below, to see if you agree with Richard’s verdict!

On record: Dutilleux – Le Loup; early orchestral works (BIS)

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Pascal Rophé, leading exponent of modern French music, conducts this up-and-coming French orchestra in music by a composer whose centenary falls this year, and whose influence on the contemporary music scene is out of all proportion to his modest if fastidiously crafted output.

What’s the music like?

The suite from Henri Decoin’s film La Fille du Diable features six brief items whose elements of Ravel and Stravinsky hardly lessen its attractiveness. Trois Tableaux Symphoniques (1945) derives from a Paris staging of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights and is very different from Alfred Newman’s Hollywood score. Both pieces feature a prominent role for Ondes Martenot (made famous by Messiaen in his Turangalîla-Symphonie), its plangent tone to the fore in a haunting evocation of the Yorkshire moors then poignant depiction of the heroine’s demise.

Le Loup is a special case as though Dutilleux all but rejected the ballet, it occupies a crucial role in his evolution. The only previous complete recording – conducted by Pierre Bonneau in 1954 with co-author Jean Anouilh as narrator – has been restored to circulation (on Erato), but this new account (sans narration) is superior. Rophé finds a palpable momentum over its three tableaux, the influence of Prokofiev uppermost with that of Swiss-born Arthur Honegger – the most important younger French composer during the inter-war years – hardly less pervasive.

What is usually referred to as Deux poèmes de Jean Cassou initially comprised three sonnets by the wartime-resistance poet, these ruminations infused with pained nostalgia being joined by ‘Éloignez-vous’ for this more balanced sequence to which Vincent Le Texier responds in ample measure; his insight enhanced by luminous orchestration. More whimsical in manner, the Quatre Mélodies contains some of Dutilleux’s most appealing early inspirations, audibly increased in this resourceful orchestral version that remained unheard for over seven decades.

Does it all work?

Absolutely. From the outset Dutilleux possessed a technical finesse equalled by few of his peers, and while there is nothing on this disc to match his mature masterpieces, this music’s audible connection between its composer’s past and future makes for pleasurable listening.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Rophé secures keenly responsive playing which benefits from the immediate yet spacious SACD sound typical of BIS. Pierre Gervasconi contributes informative notes and this disc is a necessary acquisition, not least for those who think they know their Dutilleux.

 

Under the surface – Mendelssohn String Quartets

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Composer: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Nationality: German

What did he write? Mendelssohn was a child prodigy, a composer into his stride long before his teens were out. He wrote in most classical forms, and two of his five symphonies, the Italian and Scottish, are extremely popular. Almost singlehandedly responsible for the nineteenth century revival of Bach, Mendelssohn effectively showed his gratitude in the big sacred piece Elijah, an account of the Old Testament prophet’s life.

He wrote two concertos for piano and a celebrated example for the violin, while an impressive list of published works includes piano music, songs and chamber works, with two sonatas each for cello and violin. An organist as well as a pianist, Mendelssohn wrote for the instrument both on its own and as support for a large body of choral music.

What are the works on this new recording? This is the first volume of a three-part survey of Mendelssohn’s complete music for string quartet from the Escher String Quartet. They choose the first of his six numbered String Quartets, written when the composer was still only twenty. In the same key is a piece of juvenilia, a substantial unpublished quartet from the fourteen year old fledgling. Completing the disc is one of Mendelssohn’s quartet masterpieces, in E minor – part of a set of three published in 1837.

Why aren’t these works more popular? Mendelssohn quartets are heard quite often in the concert hall and have a decent recorded history, but are still not fully appreciated – those of Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart tend to get a lot more coverage.

What is the music like? The busy, purposeful early teenage quartet bears similarity with Haydn, but even at this early stage it is possible to detect Mendelssohn’s fluency as a composer. It flows easily from one idea to another.

The published E flat quartet is even more impressive in this regard, introducing more of a Beethoven influence but retaining its elegance also, but it is the E minor quartet that really shines on this disc. Brilliantly played by the Eschers, it shows how Mendelssohn can generate terrific energy in his string writing, the Scherzo playing out between the violins as though they are two butterflies in a dance. The slow movement reveals a more romantic beauty.

What’s the verdict? This is an ideal place to start for an introduction to Mendelssohn’s string quartets, because they are a great illustration of his craft as a composer. The Escher Quartet have clearly gone to great lengths to understand his methods, and their interpretations unfold as easily as the composer’s music, enjoying its subtle humour, digging in for the more serious sides and giving clean and very committed performances. As is so often the case, BIS provide a natural and very realistic recorded perspective.

You can listen to excerpts from this disc on the Escher String Quartet website

Under the surface – Ustvolskaya Chamber Works on ECM

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Composer: Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006)

Nationality: Russian

What did she write? Ustvolskaya wrote little published music, but her output still extends to five symphonies and a number of highly regarded chamber works.

Why isn’t she more popular? In general women classical composers have had an extremely raw deal over the centuries, but there are at least now a few contemporaries who are coming through to more prominent positions – among them Dame Judith Weir, now Master (Mistress!) of the Queen’s Music, Thea Musgrave and Sofia Gubaidulina. Ustvolskaya’s music is not perhaps as immediately as theirs, but she is arguably the most inventive and original.

What are the works on this new recording? Two works for violin and piano – the Sonata (1952) and Duet (1964) given characteristically sparse titles. They sandwich an earlier Trio for clarinet, violin and piano (1949), recorded for the second time by ECM.

What is the music like? Challenging. Not in a bad way, you understand!

The Duet is a fascinating piece, because there are some moments where it feels like the violin and piano are in open combat. The piercing high notes from the violin are haunting initially, but at about two and a half minutes in this cuts to some music that I can only describe as bloodthirsty, with violin and piano locked in battle.

There is a greater sense of togetherness between the instruments in the Sonata, where once again Kopatchinskaja and pianist Markus Hinterhäuser play with fearsome intensity. This work is where the influence of teacher Shostakovich is at its keenest, with a five-note motif on the violin that becomes obsessive and disconcerting. There are however some lovely slower moments of deep thought, where the violin makes bird-like calls over the soft piano.

The Trio is another dramatic work, its sonorities reminiscent of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, written for the same combination with cello. The music is especially effective when Ustvolskaya works the violin and clarinet together, effectively taking the bottom out of the music, while there is often a stronger sense of forward movement. Reto Bieri’s beautiful tone is notable in this performance.

What’s the verdict? If you’re willing to put the work in with Ustvolskaya’s music there are rewards to be had. She is a composer who seems never to waste a note, and although sometimes her writing is austere, it is packed with a deep-seated emotion.

Give this a try if you like… Shostakovich, Messiaen or Bartók

Spotify Playlist

An Ustvolskaya playlist is available on Spotify below, including the Trio and Violin Sonata detailed above, the highly regarded Octet and the Symphony no.5.

Under the surface – Stenhammar String Quartets

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Composer: Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927)

Nationality: Swedish

What did he write? Stenhammar was a pianist primarily, but enjoyed a real affinity with the string quartet, publishing six works in all. His two symphonies, piano concertos and a Serenade are also occasionally heard.

What are the works on this new recording? The String Quartet no.1 and String Quartet no.2. Both are in four movements and last about half an hour each. They are the last of the six to have been recorded by the Stenhammar Quartet for the Swedish record company BIS.

What is the music like? On reflection Stenhammar’s early string quartets have a relatively basic musical language but they feature attractive writing for strings, and are really well played in these affectionate performances.

In the String Quartet no.1 there is a nice falling motif that stands out in the second movement, while the fourth sets out with a strong sense of purpose, as if Stenhammar has been listening to Beethoven.

The String Quartet no.2 is a darker piece, with a shadow passing over the music at the end of the first movement in particular. Here too there is some tuneful music though, and the increasingly vigorous last movement has shades of Dvořák, especially in the pentatonic* ending.

What’s the verdict? These two works are by no means demanding but they make for very pleasant listening at either end of the day, even if the attention occasionally wanders. Very pleasant spring time music.

Give this a try if you like… Dvořák, Grieg or Mendelssohn

Spotify Playlist

A Stenhammar playlist is available on Spotify below, including a mature String Quartet no.4, the lovely Serenade, the Piano Concerto no.2 and the choral piece Midwinter.

Glossary

*pentatonic – a form of scale that only has five notes, as opposed to the most commonly used octave in Western music that has eight.