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Sunleif RASMUSSEN (b. 1961)
Symphony No. 1 Oceanic Days (1995-1997) [41.25]
Saxophone Concerto Dem Lich entgegen (2001) [20.32] (1)
Jeanette Balland (saxophone) (1)
Danish National Symphony Orchestra DR/Hannu Linto
rec. 5-8 May 2003, Danish Radio Concert Hall
DA CAPO 6.220506 [61.57]

Rasmussen comes from the Faroe Islands; he is probably one of the first contemporary classical composers to do so but his background is rather varied. He started out as an experimental rock and jazz musician but from the early 1980s started to take an interest in classical music. He trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Music from 1990 to 1995, studying with Ib Nørholm and Ivar Frounberg. He was also much influenced by the music of Tristran Murail and the compositional principles of spectral music (where the harmonies are derived from the overtone series).

Rasmussenís Symphony No. 1 was commissioned by the Nordic House in the Faroes; written in 1995-1997, it did not receive its first performance until 2000 when it was performed by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. The symphonyís title refers to a poem by the Faroese writer William Heinesen, Itís again one of these Oceanic days. Rasmussen has often used Heinesenís work for inspiration. Rasmussenís music is firmly linked to Faroese culture and life; the sound-scape of the music constantly evokes the landscape and the sea. The basic material, the building blocks of the Symphony are Faroese folksongs.

The CD booklet explains how Rasmussen derives his melodic material from the overtone spectrum of the melodies, so that these traditional tunes evidently permeate the melody, harmony and rhythm of the Symphony. How much of this is detectable by the listener, I am not sure. Lack of familiarity with the basic Faroese folksongs themselves means that it is not always easy to detect references; add to this the fact that spectral music can often simply sound like a Debussian wash. But this Rasmussenís symphony has much more going for it than a certain novelty of harmonic construction.

His music moves from one short section to the next, not in a disjointed manner but flowing, the listener constantly being diverted by the shimmering aural sound-scape that the composer creates. Whether explicitly or not, it is music which constantly recalls the sights and sounds of an ever-changing landscape or seascape, a vision constantly the same but always different. Percussion feature heavily in the score, though the CD booklet does not give details of the exact instrumentation.

This is a symphony in as much as Rasmussen has used formal procedures to construct the work; whether it is a symphony in classical terms I leave to others of a more academic turn of mind to decide. What it is is a sumptuous aural experience.

The companion piece is a saxophone concerto, Dem Licht entgegen. The title of the piece links up with the hymn Som den gyldne so frembryder (As the golden sun breaks out) on which Rasmussen has based much of his compositional material. This theme is also reflected in the way that the music moves from the depths to the heights, the soloist playing the baritone, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones respectively in the first, second, third and fourth movements. The first movement, in particular, with the baritone saxophone outlined against the low instruments of the orchestra, is especially striking.

The concerto seems more violent than the symphony and in this later work Rasmussen appears less content to simply generate sound-scapes and explore the drama in the music. Where it falls down is as a concerto; the solo part may be difficult but it seems to lack a virtuoso, show-off element and the soloistís ability to generate a distinctive voice is hampered by the necessity to play four different instruments. Still, if one thinks of it as an extended tone-poem with concertante part, then it is a profoundly fascinating work.

Rasmussen was a name that was new to me and the catalogue is not overstuffed with his music. He seems to be an interesting new Northern talent and I look forward to hearing more of his music. The performances on this disc are exemplary, and the artists project Rasmussenís sound-world with a naturalistic confidence. This is definitely a disc to explore.

Robert Hugill

see also review by Hubert Culot


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