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).
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.
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.
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.