The Danish label Dacapo have been a source of pleasure and surprise in recent years, notably for their recordings of Per Nørgard’s Der göttliche Tivoli and A Light Hour, not to mention Rued Langgaard’s Music of the Spheres; all are works of refreshing individuality, superbly played and recorded. Peter Bruun is new to me, but as Jakob Wivel points out in his proselytizing notes he’s highly eclectic in his inspiration and output. That may set alarm bells ringing in some quarters, but on first acquaintance I was persuaded there’s a flair and focus to Bruun’s writing that’s always engaging. The Esbjerg Ensemble must take some credit for this, as they play with uncommon verve throughout.
Letters to the Ocean, first heard as a quintet based on a poem by Ursula Andkjær Olsen, is played here in the version for large ensemble. In four named sections that might tempt one to all sorts of aquatic metaphors, ‘When Night Falls’ is essentially an exercise in persistent – and strangely insidious – rhythmic ideas. Bruun’s writing has a cool, crystalline quality that never lacerates, and one simply has to marvel at the level of detail and colour in the rather more lyrical ‘Drown One Ocean in Another’. Even in its occasional vehemence this music is most natural recorded; this ensures that the essential warmth and clarity of this band is faithfully caught, the fragmented collisions at the close of this movement remarkably tactile. And as their titles suggest, ‘Calm Down’ and ‘Heaven-Haven’ reveal a quieter, more ruminative side to Bruun’s musical persona.
One can’t fail to be impressed by the pellucid quality of both the music and the music-making, the simplicity of utterance concealing a keen ear for texture and rhythmic subtlety. That’s certainly true of A silver bell that chimes all living things together, set to a poem by Rolf Gejsted; it’s mixed from much the same palette as before, ‘Through your song’ introducing the singing and sprechgesang of mezzo Helene Gjerris and, occasionally, a new and atavistic bass. It’s a strange juxtaposition, but it all hangs together surprisingly well. And don’t expect music-box delicacy from ‘A silver piano that chimes all living things together’, which is underpinned by a declamatory, rock-like beat.
How different from the vestigial sounds of ‘The mournful guitars’ and ‘Now a double bass takes off’, whose absurdist titles belie music of distilled beauty and strange charm; Gjerris is pure and magnetic here, limpid in ‘Now it is raining on a song’. Hers is a voice of silver and strength, and one I’d love to hear in Mahler. That said, the orchestra also shines, the music’s valedictory air and faltering pulse superbly caught by the Dacapo engineers. This may not be an SACD, but the class and sophistication of this recording is very impressive indeed.
The concluding work, the four-part Waves of Reflection, may be less serendipitous than the other pieces here, yet it’s still highly engaging. The Varèse-like sound blocks of ‘Reflection’, commingled with brass chords and heavy beats, create a kaleidoscope of clashing shapes and colours, the accordion adding its distinctive, breathy sound to ‘Interlude’. As for the gentle lapping of ‘Wave’, it has a curious sense of detachment – of Orientalism, perhaps – that could so easily pall. That it doesn’t is testament to Bruun’s good judgment – he doesn’t overwork his material – and the fabulous playing of the Esbjerg Ensemble.
This is another quality release from Dacapo, Wivel’s exhaustive notes confirming the company’s belief in good production values. And while some may feel 55 minutes is short measure, this is a well-balanced and varied ‘taster’ that’s whetted my appetite for more. What better recommendation than that?