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Sunleif RASMUSSEN (b. 1961)
Symphony No.1 Oceanic Days (1995/7) [41:25]
Saxophone Concerto Dem Licht entgegen  (2001)a [20:32]
Jeanette Balland (saxophone)a;
Danish National Symphony Orchestra DR/Hannu Lintu
rec. Danish Radio Concert Hall, May 2003
DACAPO 6.220506 [61:57]

 

The poetic works by the Faroese writer William Heinesen have inspired several works by Sunleif Rasmussen. These include the pieces for voice and chamber ensemble Arktis and Dedication (both on BIS CD-1278 - see review).

Heinesen’s words also provided the impulse for one of Rasmussen’s large-scale works, the Symphony No.1 “Oceanic Days”, composed between 1995 and 1997. This earned the composer the Nordic Council Music prize in 2002. The First Symphony is a large-scale and substantial work in three movements of broadly equal length, although the opening Tranquillo is rather longer and more developed. The excellent insert notes tell us that most of the music is derived from existing material, viz. a secular ballad Herr Sinklar and a hymn tune Jeg ligger her i stor elende (“I lie here in great wretchedness”); and that the actual music also reflects on the content or implicit meaning of these sources. So, we are told that the music derived from the hymn is in relatively slow tempos with a dark, lyrical character whereas that related to the ballad tends to be in more or less fast tempos and has a bright character. Prior knowledge of the background of the music is not really necessary in order to appreciate the scope and weight of this big-boned symphony. The subtitle nevertheless gives a fairly good idea of what may be expected from the music and from the work as a whole. It is primarily a large-scale symphonic structure about the sea, its power, its beauty and its dangers. The sea is an important component of Faroese life that depends on it in more than one respect. The first two movements  Tranquillo and Largo are generally slow moving, dark-hued and often menacing. The weighty first movement is pure sea music on a large-scale, heavily pulsating in massive sound waves relieved by calmer, slower, almost chamber-like episodes. The second movement Largo is on the whole more lyrical in character with much soloistic writing for instruments or groups of instruments. The music is again varied in mood and dynamic and culminates in a series of massive climaxes. The third movement Cantabile has the whole orchestral forces in play for the first time. It is characterised by two splendid ideas: an important part for tuba, which the composer associates with the blue whale, and a really magical episode (at about four minutes into the movement) in which the string players sing their parts while they play; an arresting moment for all its simplicity. Rasmussen’s First Symphony is one of his most impressive achievements, and one in which his remarkable instrumental flair and mastery in handling large orchestral forces are displayed to the full.

The Saxophone Concerto “Dem Licht entgegen”, one of his most recent pieces, is also based on a melodic variant of the hymn Som den gyldne sol frembryder (“As the golden sun breaks out”); but, again, the work may be appreciated as an abstract piece of music characterised by energetic writing, and considerable instrumental and orchestral resourcefulness. The first movement Agitato with its massive, almost primitive rhythmic patterns really lives up to its title; it ends with a forceful episode mostly for percussion. The second movement Cantabile is rather more lyrical in character, although the music is at times fairly impassioned. The composer uses again the same device as that in the third movement of the First Symphony. Players from the violin and viola sections sing in unison providing the saxophone with a softly undulating accompaniment. The third untitled movement has a chamber-like quality perfectly suited to the meditative nature of much of the music. The Saxophone Concerto is capped by a brilliant Finale. Incidentally, the four movements are played without a break, which emphasises the symphonic character of the piece that is – as far as I am concerned – one of the finest recent additions to the saxophone’s repertoire; a demanding, but immensely rewarding piece that should gain a permanent place in the repertoire.

Performances and recording are excellent throughout and serve the music’s varied facets well. Jeanette Balland navigates fearlessly and almost effortlessly through the exacting saxophone part. This superb release is the perfect complement to the somewhat earlier BIS disc; both offer a good survey of Rasmussen’s highly personal music.

Hubert Culot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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