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Anders HILLBORG (b. 1954)
Beast Sampler for orchestra (2014) [9:43]
O dessa ögon for soprano and strings (2011) [4:39]
Cold Heat for orchestra (2010) [14:25]
Sirens for two sopranos, mixed choir and orchestra (2011) [32:32]
Ida Falk Winland (Sirens) (soprano), Hannah Holgersson (O dessa ögon, Sirens) (soprano)
Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, Swedish Radio Choir (Sirens)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Sakari Oramo (Beast Sampler, O dessa ögon); David Zinman (Cold Heat); Esa-Pekka Salonen (Sirens)
rec. November 2013 and 2014, Stockholm Concert Hall, Stockholm, Sweden
Reviewed as a 24/96 download from eClassical
Pdf booklet includes sung texts and translations
World première recordings
BIS BIS-2114 SACD [62:28]

I first encountered the work of Swedish composer Anders Hillborg in 2011; that was on another BIS release, Eleven Gates, which included King Tide, Exquisite Corpse and Dreaming River (review). There the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic – led variously by Sakari Oramo, Alan Gilbert and Esa-Pekka Salonen – are at their scruff-grabbing best. As expected from this source the recording is pretty spectacular as well. This time around Oramo and Salonen are joined by David Zinman in a series of new pieces dedicated to each of them in turn; the exception is O dessa ögon, an Uppsala University commission.

As Christopher Stark points out in his enthusiastic liner-notes, Beast Sampler derives its title from two things; the subjective notion of the orchestra as a living beast; and the technique of sampling, as used in electronic music. The piece, commissioned by the Stockholm, Gothenburg and NDR orchestras, is very impressive indeed; its string and woodwind glissandi are especially thrilling, the whole thing delivered in powerful, gut-punching sound. Rest assured, though, Hillborg eschews what he calls sado-masochism of the musical kind, so even those who avoid contemporary repertoire should find something to latch onto here.

All too often accessibility is used as a lip-curling synonym for anodyne, but once again Hillborg has come up with a riveting, highly accomplished score that should silence all doubters. Oramo, who rarely disappoints, keeps it all on track; the recording is a stunner, surpassing Eleven Gates for sheer thrust, intensity and detail. As ‘post-modernist collages’ go this is as good as it gets. The rarefied loveliness of O dessa ögon (Oh these eyes), is a welcome contrast to all that growl and prowl. Based on a poem by the 20th-century Swedish poet Gunnar Ekelöf it’s simply and soaringly sung by soprano Hannah Holgersson. As before, Oramo and his band are in rapt attendance throughout.

David Zinman leads the Stockholm players in ‘his’ segment, Cold Heat; it’s also a joint commission, this time led by the Berliner Philharmoniker. Stark refers to the ‘seabird elasticity’ of this continuously evolving and sonically eventful piece; as I recall this apt phrase is derived from the final movement of Eleven Gates. There’s a strange majesty to Hillborg’s writing here, with unexpected rhythmic irruptions from time to time. It’s all strongly characterised and powerfully projected; incidentally, the marvellous trombone players and the various drummers must be mentioned in dispatches. In short, Cold Heat is incredibly fertile and engaging music; indeed, I found myself reaching for the Repeat button several times during the course of this review.

Sirens was commissioned by another set of fine orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony; it's directed here by its dedicatee, Esa-Pekka Salonen. As its title implies the piece, scored for two sopranos, mixed choir and orchestra, is based on Homer’s Odyssey; there are some additional words by the composer himself. And while Stark’s notes are very readable they can be a tad fulsome at times; for example he speaks of Hillborg’s array of ‘finely curated sonic objects’, which could just be a candidate for Pseuds Corner. Never mind, his heart’s in the right place and the work itself – the composer’s longest to date – is what really matters.

Sirens opens with a series of sea-surging glissandi, and it’s not long before we hear the voices that drew those ancient mariners towards a treacherous shore. The scoring is understated and transparent; as for the two sopranos, Ida Falk Winland and Hannah Holgersson, they sustain their impossibly long and often stratospheric lines with a poise and precision that’s just astonishing. The two choirs acquit themselves well, too. More important, especially in this epic context, Sirens has a compelling narrative that both enthrals and enchants. The orchestral underpinnings are modest, the effects profound, and it all has a quiet beauty – an ineffable sadness, too – that’s deeply affecting.

I might tease Mr Stark about his turns of phrase, but on this we are as one: in Sirens Hillborg is at the height of his considerable powers. Factor in committed singing, playing and direction and you have a modern masterpiece that really deserves to endure. Indeed, the BBC should follow up their decision to include Beast Sampler in the 2015 Proms with Sirens in 2016; its ear-pricking spatial effects – no doubt even more telling in BIS’s multi-channel mix – are perfectly suited to the Albert Hall.

These pieces find Hillborg at his most inspired and inspiring; superb musicianship and stellar sound complete the package.

Dan Morgan



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