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Sunleif RASMUSSEN (born 1961)
Surrounded (2000)1
Arktis (1998)a
Mozaik/Miniature (1999)
Tilegnelse (1995)a
Trauer und Freude (1999)
Helene Gjerris (mezzo-soprano)a; Caput Ensemble; Guđmundur ”li Gunnarsson1; Guđni Franzson
Recorded: Salurinn Kópavogur, Iceland, August 2001 (Surrounded) and March 2002
BIS CD-1278 [60:36]


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Until quite recently, the Faroe Islands were much better-known as a remote archipelago lost in the icy Arctic waters rather than a musical nation. Some may recall a Faroese tune used by Grainger in Letís Dance in Green Meadows for piano duet and by Nielsen in his atmospheric, though rather slight An Imaginary Journey to the Faroes. Now, thanks to the tireless vitality of a Mighty Handful of Faroese composers (Kristian Blak, Atli Petersen, Pauli Ū Sandagerđi, Edvard Debess and Sunleif Rasmussen) whose music placed the Faroes on the contemporary musical map, things have changed considerably.

With some background in jazz and improvised music, Sunleif Rasmussen went to Copenhagen and studied with Ib Nørholm and Ivar Frounberg, and later at IRCAM in Paris where he got in touch with some "spectral" composers such as Tristan Murail and Ė presumably Ė the late Gérard Grisey. Rasmussenís early works were still influenced directly by Faroese folk music which he used in his own way, whereas his more recent output, of which the present release presents a fairly comprehensive survey, displays a more wide ranging palette incorporating some modern techniques, such as spectral harmonies, while still borrowing from Faroese folk music and hymns, often used as a basic idea transformed beyond recognition. Some of his music has already been available in commercial recordings, such as his beautiful Landiđ for soprano and orchestra (on TUTL FKT 7) and his wind quintet Cantus Borealis (on BIS CD-1086). His recent, large-scale First Symphony Oceanic Days (the first Faroese symphony ever), that still awaits its first recording, was awarded the Nordic Councilís music prize in 2002 and may be considered as the most ambitious synthesis of Rasmussenís musical thinking so far.

The pieces recorded here are all fairly recent and clearly belong to Rasmussenís maturity. In spite of their diversity, they all are clearly from the same pen and share many common characteristics. Also noteworthy in Rasmussenís musical make-up is the importance of the writings of William Heinesen (1900 Ė 1991). The title of the First Symphony is actually taken from a poem by Heinesen, whereas both vocal pieces recorded here, actually movements from an 8-movement work-in-progress, are settings of poems by Heinesen. Tilegnelse ("Dedication") and Arktis are quite beautiful, atmospheric, imaginatively scored pieces for mezzo-soprano and small ensemble that augur well for the rest of the forthcoming cycle that will hopefully be completed soon. It is interesting to note that some material in Tilegnelse is the reworking of some material from a symphonic work The Song of the Sea (this is heard in the seascape music of the introduction).

Mozaik/Miniature (flute, clarinet, violin and piano) is another example of Rasmussenís practice of reworking material from other pieces of his (in this case, from the opening of the First Symphony) and again alternates folk like tunes and hymns that are the basis of the symphony though, as already mentioned, the borrowed material undergoes complex transformations so that the actual music is actually anything but folksy.

Similarly Trauer und Freude ("Sorrow and Joy") is based on the first phrase of the similarly titled hymn. It is scored for wind quintet, string quartet, piano/harpsichord and guitar. Its three movements reflect the titleís dialectic implications: Sorrow and Joy in the first movement, Sorrow in the sad, slow central movement and Joy in the lively, virtuosic Finale. Again, there is much imaginative writing here, albeit often of a rather austere sort. It is the most ambitious piece here.

Surrounded for small chamber orchestra is another substantial piece also in three movements (actually a long central Cantabile framed by two shorter, livelier movements). Again, it makes use of some existing material, in this instance the first phrase of a Norwegian folk tune (Surrounded by Enemies). The title also aptly reflects the instrumental layout of the piece in which the string quartet is surrounded by the rest of the ensemble. There is much dialogue and interplay between the strings and the other instruments, in a variety of ways, so that the piece might be experienced as some sort of concerto grosso in modern guise. Once again, the music displays many Rasmussen hallmarks. A quite substantial piece of music and one of the finest and most impressive here anyway.

Rasmussenís is a quite distinctive voice in Nordic music and this generous, well-planned and superbly played cross-selection of his recent output is most welcome. I hope that the First Symphony will soon be recorded, and that other similar releases of Faroese music will soon be available from the same source. Recommended.

Hubert Culot

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