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Rolf MARTINSSON (b. 1956)
Open Mind, Op. 71 (2005) [9:35]
Orchestral Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson, Op. 82a (2009/2011) [26:08]
A.S. in Memoriam, Op. 50b (1999/2001) [10:05]
Concerto for Orchestra, Op. 81 (2008) [26:20]
Lisa Larsson (soprano)
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra/Andrew Manze, Sakari Oramo (concerto)
rec. 2015/17, Stockholm Concert Hall, Sweden
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
BIS BIS-2133 SACD [73:17]

Swedish composer Rolf Martinsson’s profile on recordings reflects an output that includes concertos, other orchestral works and chamber music. This wide-ranging programme includes his first significant foray into vocal music and the Concerto for Orchestra, which carries thematic associations with numerous previous works.

Open Mind for orchestra was written to function as a concert overture, and its function in this context forms the perfect opening. With two spectacular outer sections and a slow, atmospheric centre, this mini-symphony has some schmaltzy romantic overtones, but also carries a darker dramatic side that if anything heightens its cinematic feel. Dedicated to the conductor Manfred Honeck, it contains a musical cryptogram based on the letters of his name, though you probably wouldn’t realise this without the composer’s booklet notes.

Such a hefty and impressive start puts us in a good place to appreciate the quality of everything that follows. The Orchestral Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson also open powerfully, but Martinsson’s skill with orchestration avoids putting strain on the soloist. His fascination with this poetry is “the fact that they are short, subtle descriptions of brief moments”, and with ten songs divided into three themed groups, these songs also average at a relatively compact duration of something over two minutes each. The texts are given in the booklet, and the clarity of the settings and the colourful nature of the orchestral accompaniments enhance each poem, creating additional sound-worlds that point out mood and pictorial detail. Lisa Larsson has collaborated a good deal with Martinsson, and he clearly knows her voice very well indeed. The actual première of this cycle was with mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter, and the vocal line has been adjusted here and there in some of the songs to be more effective in the soprano range. Martinsson doesn’t go in for elaborate word-painting, but his melodic lines are expressive and eloquent, forming a rewarding cycle that has become justifiably popular in programmes in Sweden and beyond.

A.S. in Memoriam is written in memory of Arnold Schoenberg, and in particular to his Verklärte Nacht, the original string sextet instrumentation of this masterpiece expanded into string orchestra, very much following in Schoenberg’s footsteps. There are quotes from Schoenberg in this piece, and its post-romantic idiom with potently atmospheric and teeth-clenchingly gripping climaxes, chromatic counterpoint and harmonies is a skilled and movingly fitting tribute.

The Concerto for Orchestra absorbs some of this romantic character and, as previously mentioned, is self-referential to some of Martinsson’s other works as well as to Schoenberg, in this case with a couple of bars from Pelleas und Melisande. Martinsson points out his intuitive method in working on this piece, not wanting to “force the music into a specific framework but let it develop improvisatorially as a perambulation between the various quotations…” He set aside the need to be original, preferring to explore his material and techniques in greater depth and liberating himself towards finding new discoveries via this route. The results are an expressively eloquent first movement with a highly romantic character, and a richly potent middle movement that is by no means restful, at times piling on the complex harmonies like the incoming waves of a threatening sea. An apotheosis of repose is achieved at the very heart of the concerto, but the music is never static, and we’re propelled towards a final movement that opens in a spooky Amabile e dolcissimo with a bed of strings, harp, and tuned percussion supporting wind solos. Moving through some fascinating harmonic colours, the final minutes are ultimately taken over by a dramatic Tumultuoso chase filled with almost as much danger and excitement as Stravinsky’s Sacre.

Rolf Martinsson’s works is bold and uncompromisingly personal, eschewing avant-garde modernism and engaging us with solidly expert conventional techniques of composition and orchestration. As for alternative recordings, Open Mind can be found in another fine performance with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by dedicatee Manfred Honeck on the Daphne label, and from the same source there is a recording of A.S. in Memoriam with the Malmö Symphony Orchestra conducted by Christoph König. These alternatives are all well produced and performed, but having all of these works together in BIS’s superb SACD sound and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra on top form is a real treat.

Dominy Clements



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