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Sebastian FAGERLUND (b. 1972)
Drifts (2017) [11:43]
Stonework (2015) [15:27]
Transit, concerto for guitar and orchestra (2013) [21:46]
Ismo Eskelinen (guitar)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Hannu Lintu
rec. 2016-17, Helsinki Music Centre, Finland
BIS BIS2295 SACD [50:00]

What a wonder the BIS catalogue is! That is where I have encountered, over the years, the music of Kalevi Aho and Joonas Kokkonen. I must add to it the huge discovery of the music of Lepo Sumera, the Estonian composer who died tragically young and whose music I enthusiastically recommend. Hoping for yet another discovery, I asked to review this disc of music by the Finn, Sebastian Fagerlund. I was not disappointed.

Fagerlund spent a year at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam as composer-in-residence, which is only one reason why I probably should have heard of him. But I had not, and those who know him better than I should bear that in mind when reading my impressions.

As is often the case with a collection such as this one, I decided to listen to the three works in chronological order of composition. Transit is a guitar concerto in six linked movements. The insert note tells us that Fagerlund was less familiar with the guitar than he was with the ‘piano or the main instruments of the symphony orchestra’. This would place him, I reckon, squarely in the company of 90% of composers. The guitar’s quiet voice led him to employ a transparent scoring technique. The work as a whole is pensive rather than dramatic, with little in the way of conflict between the solo instrument and the orchestra. The title is meant to convey how the musical material recurs and is modified throughout the work’s twenty-two minutes. The three main thematic ideas as described in the booklet are easy enough to pick out at first hearing, but several subsequent hearings are required before the listener can identify them later in the work. The musical language is quite advanced, with no discernible tone centre. The writing for the guitar exploits to a surprising extent the instrument’s capacity for rapid figuration, with relatively little recourse to chords. There are a few string snaps here and there, but not much experimental guitar technique otherwise. The work comes over as an extended exercise in atmosphere through inventive and imaginative control of texture. It is a persuasive listen.

After what is, for the most part, a meticulous essay in sonority, Stonework comes as something of a shock. The explosive opening discharges huge energy, with a regular rhythmic pulse that is largely absent from the concerto. Texture seems to be more the composer’s concern that melody, but the music demonstrates considerable forward movement. A second section returns to something akin to the earlier work, where long held notes – a Fagerlund fingerprint – create a frozen, fixed effect. The opening music then returns, only to subside into a long fade-out into silence.

Stonework and Drifts are the first two works in what evolved into an orchestral trilogy. The third work received its first performance in Amsterdam in April of this year. Stonework makes reference to ‘man-made stone structures and monuments that are found all over the world’, whereas the title of Drifts ‘refers to accumulations of wind or water’. The work is described as being predominantly slow, but in fact is anything but. Its harmonic movement is certainly slow, and the work’s principal events unfold in unhurried fashion, but over most of the slow-moving lines the composer places a whole variety of instrumental figuration that brings considerable energy to the music. That energy is frequently intensified by short, explosive crescendos. There are moments when tonality threatens to break through. The final moments of the work certainly are slow, but Fagerlund treats us to a little surprise at the very end.

The performances are of outstanding quality. I have listened attentively to all three works, albeit without reference to a score, and at no point can one imagine how the playing and pacing of the music could be bettered. Ismo Eskelinen plays Transit with remarkable virtuosity and apparently total conviction. The recording is well up to the standards we expect from BIS, with a wide dynamic range, and Kimmo Korhonen’s insert note is a helpful guide to the composer and the programme.

This is compelling music that one wants to return to. I have not been able, as yet, to discern a strong, individual personality in the music, but as I explore other works by Fagerlund, which I fully intend to do, I expect this to be revealed as a failing on my part.

William Hedley


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