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Bent SØRENSEN (b. 1958)
The Papillon trilogy
Mignon-Papillons for piano and strings (2013-4) [23:51]
Serenissima for solo violin (2014 ) [5:17]
Sinful Songs (1997-8) [15:47]
The Lady of Shalott version for solo violin (1987 rev 1992) [7:30]
Ständchen for eight players (2006) [15:49]
The Weeping White Room for piano and ensemble (2002) [7:42]
Katrine Gislinge (piano)
Lapland Chamber Orchestra/John Storgårds violin)
rec. 2014/5 at Korundi Hall, Rovaniemi, Finland
DACAPO 8.226134 [76:06]
Rosenbad – Pantomime
Rosenbad-Papillons for piano and string quartet (2013) [24:55]
Fantasia Appassionata for piano (2014) [13:15]
Pantomime-Papillons for piano and ensemble (2013-4) [26:19]
Katrina Gislinge (piano)
Stenhammar Quartet
Esbjerg Ensemble
rec. 2016/7, Royal Danish Academy of Music, Copenhagen
DACAPO 8.226135 [63:29]

The Danish composer Bent Sørensen has developed an idiom which is full of nostalgia and a sense of decay. You can hear this in his 1993 violin concerto Sterbende Gärten, which brought him international attention, and which was my introduction to his work. Perhaps I should also say that although he is, of course, a contemporary composer, the level of dissonance is low and the texture is normally mellifluous and attractive. Here we have a clutch of his works which continue to explore this idiom.

These two discs are best taken together, since between them they contain his Papillons trilogy. There is an interesting idea behind this. All three versions feature a piano, and all are in seven movements. The piano part is basically the same in all three, but the movements are in a different order each time, and the writing for the other instruments is different too. Mignon-Papillons is for piano and strings, Rosenbad-Papillons for piano and string quartet and Pantomime-Papillons for piano and ensemble. The piano part is without display, so the two large works are not like concertos and the piano should not be excessively prominent in the middle one. The sleeve-note explains that the trilogy is “filled with the ebb and flow of fear, hope and nostalgia”. That is certainly true, but the works are sufficiently different to avoid monotony and each makes sense on its own terms. The individual movements are varied in tempo and style, but remain consistent with the mood of mourning and melancholy with which I associate Sørensen.

The titles are mystifying. Mignon is the mysterious girl from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister, whose songs have been set by many composers. Papillons are butterflies, also the name of a piano suite by Schumann. Rosenbad is the government building in Stockholm, equivalent to the Palace of Westminster in London. Pantomime suggests the commedia dell’arte and the Harlequinade, which has been an inspiration to many composers. However, I can attach no definite meaning to the titles for these works. However, I was very taken with them and particularly with the piano writing; Sørensen has developed a piano idiom which is in keeping with the traditions of the instrument, while also being contemporary. He owes something to Debussy, something to Scriabin, something to the piano studies of Ligeti, but also has something of his own to offer.

Nothing else on the first disc is of this quality, seeming, rather, like broken fragments of his idiom. There are two solo violin works. The more recent is Serenissima, known as the epithet for Venice and hence also for Britten’s last quartet, though again I can see no connection with this work. It is not particularly serene. After some skirmishing around it settles down to a slow and sad melodic line interrupted by occasional outsbursts, using a range of violin techniques. It stops suddenly. The other solo work, The Lady of Shalott, is much earlier, and this time the inspiration is perfectly clear: it comes from Waterhouse’s painting, based on Tennyson’s poem; Sørensen saw this on a visit to London in 1987. He originally wrote it for viola, but later transcribed it for violin. Alas, his work does not live up to its title: there are many atmospheric noises and some wisps of melody, but they do not seem to me to add up to much.

The Sinful Songs are not songs but a work for an ensemble of fourteen players. These are meant to be positioned spatially round the audience. Composers have experimented with this kind of idea for years, but except for straightforward antiphonal or deliberate off-stage effects the results rarely seem to me worth the effort. Of course, on ordinary two channel stereo you miss much of the effect. Sørensen seems to have been inspired by Stockhausen’s Gruppen for three orchestras, a once-fashionable work of this kind which is still trotted out from time to time as a curiosity. His work uses some of the same techniques, such as long notes tossed around the ensemble or occasionally short rhythmic fragments doing the same thing.

Ständchen is written for the same ensemble as Schubert’s Octet and is in five short movements. It is full of wailings and sighings with occasional odd noises and sometimes a snatch of a lyrical passage.

Finally on the first disc we have The Weeping White Room, another evocative title whose meaning is obscure. This is for piano and strings and sounds like a sketch or preparatory work for the Papillons trilogy.

The remaining work on the second disc is the Fantasia Appassionata, written to commission and first performed along with Beethoven’s Sonata Appassionata, Op. 57, and Brahms’s Seven Fantasies Op. 116. Sørensen’s score is divided into seven sections, like Brahms’s work, and has reminiscences both of this and of the Beethoven. It is an interesting work which again displays Sørensen’s fluent piano writing.

The performances, most of which are world premiere recordings, were assisted by various Danish foundations, and we are grateful to them for making these recordings possible. They are fluent and confident, and Katrine Gislinge’s piano playing is particularly authoritative, as she is the composer’s wife, though she also enjoys an independent reputation as a soloist. The recordings, though made in two different venues, are warm without being over-resonant, though I did think that the piano in Rosenbad-Papillons, though only there, was a little too prominent. In the two solo violin works John Storgårds moves from the podium to the fiddle and offers confident and expressive playing.

If you are new to the composer I would suggest starting with the second disc, on which all three works are rewarding. However, you will probably then want to hear the other part of the trilogy, possibly the most attractive of the three, and may also warm to the other works on the first disc more than I have done. Certainly the Papillons trilogy is well worth hearing.

Stephen Barber



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