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Thorsten ENCKE (b1966)
A Live Portrait
Preludes for Ensemble (2012) [15:05]
Wanderer (Phantasy for Orchestra on Themes of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des  
 Nibelungen) (2013) [11:45]
Hommage à 14 players (2014) [8:29]
Un beau brin de fille for Chamber Orchestra (2011) [7:52]
Echoes for Violin, Viola and Orchestra (2016) [12:32]
Nyx for full orchestra (2011) [14:19]
rec. 2012-16
C-AVI MUSIC 8553247 [70:02]

Thorsten Encke trained as a cellist and currently plays with the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, but has devoted more time to composition over the last few years. He is something of an unknown quantity outside Germany but his stock is clearly rising in his homeland. This ‘Portrait’ disc presents six works for diverse ensembles, from the seemingly diffuse Preludes for an ensemble of eight players, through the double concerto Echoes, to the Wanderer-Phantasy after Wagner and Nyx, both for large orchestras. The personnel involved in this assemblage give an indication of the esteem in which he is held: the all-star octet which perform the Preludes seems to have a real feeling for Encke’s music; the soloists in Echoes are a pair of Fausts.

One of the interesting quotations that leaps out of the (not always well-translated) notes is this from an attendee at one of Encke’s performances: “Music is life: it is movement, rhythm and Gestalt.” Encke muses at length about the link between form and content: essentially, he agrees that in the best music the whole is only comprehensible as the sum of its individual constituents. This is perhaps best illustrated here by the opening work, Preludes. There are five brief movements but the sweep of the whole work is easily grasped. The outer preludes involve the whole group; within, are three mini-concertos, highlighting clarinet, string trio and double-bass and percussion in turn. While the timbral contrasts between each tiny section might illuminate their individual distinctiveness, ultimately they are too brief and fragile to make a mark independently and after a couple of hearings the piece becomes more enjoyable and comprehensible taken holistically. There are some striking instrumental effects and these Preludes are not without a certain melodic charm. The seemingly scratch group perform them with admirable commitment.

If Gestalt is the psychological concept that underpins Preludes, it’s Freud and the world of unconscious suggestion which seem to characterise the following Wanderer (Phantasy on themes of Wagner – not Schubert). Wotan is the Wanderer in question. In the composer’s words, “My piece begins…with a series of forebodings, associations and shards of memory…The listener is transported to the world of dreams…including the horror of the void, the fear of nothingness.” Perhaps this is a piece about guilt and the failure to do the right thing. The spirit of Wagner lurks beneath the surface for most of this atmospheric work, although more direct references to its ultimate inspiration emerge towards its conclusion. Wanderer exhibits some confident orchestral writing and the NDR Philharmonie evidently play it with real conviction and are vividly recorded, but I’m afraid its concept went way over my head.

Encke founded the flexible ensemble “musica assoluta” in Hanover and they perform the next three works: to my ears these are easily the most interesting pieces on the disc.  Hommage is not a tribute to any individual but is dedicated to the history of music itself and our subjective experience of the passage of time. This isn’t a completely novel idea and superficially at least is somewhat akin to Birtwistle, albeit refracted through a slightly more melodic, and perhaps Teutonic, prism. The clicking gestures at its outset will be familiar to those of us who enjoyed works like Exody and Deep Time but this shorter span incorporates some novel, luminous and attractive writing.  Un beau brin de fille is a brief psychological profile of the Breton peasant girl who is the subject of Paul Sérusier’s portrait Fille Bretonne.  Encke tries to dig beneath the figure’s apparently defiant expression to explore a range of imagined emotional states. There are some limpidly beautiful solos for wind and brass, as well as more feisty episodes. The work features some alluring harmony and the whole edifice is both convincingly laid out and beguiling to the ear.

The double concerto Echoes contains music of greater delicacy and refinement; indeed, this is the most recent piece in the collection. Encke describes Echoes as a nature piece; the musical material is lyrical, the textural effects are at one turn glassy and pellucid, at the next eerie and sylvan. The Faust siblings play with a mutually intuitive sense of the architecture of the work, and at times with effortless airy beauty. Echoes floats by in a twelve-minute span and finally evaporates into the ether whence it came. For me this is the most coherent and fully realised work on the disc and I would certainly be curious about Encke’s future output if it were to follow this kind of path.

The final work, Nyx, for large orchestra, is performed by the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie, Bremen under their longstanding artistic director Paavo Järvi. Again, this is a piece of subjective psychological content, exploring the aura of night, the wandering mind, the allure of sleep (hypnos) and death (thanatos). In the first half of Nyx, Encke conjures colours and textures that are predominantly elusive and airborne, as if as individuals we recognise our own isolation during the hypnogogic state immediately prior to sleep. In Encke’s case, the inevitability of thanatos then exerts its strange hold on our fading consciousness. Consequently, this music quickens and intensifies, evoking an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia.  While this composer clearly has an ear for orchestral sonority and deploys a lucid structure in Nyx, it lacks a truly individual voice. Hearteningly, the later Echoes represents a significant move forward. At the conclusion of Nyx, the burst of enthusiastic applause that follows suggests that Encke is a familiar and widely admired quantity, in this part of North-West Germany at least.

Given the varying sources of these live performances the recording quality is remarkably homogenous and detailed, and they lack nothing in terms of passion and commitment. To my ears, Encke’s later works suggest that he is a composer who has ultimately found an individual style and a sonic identity which suit him. On that basis, I look forward to further encounters with his music.

Richard Hanlon

Stefan Rapp (percussion); Christian Tetzlaff (violin); Edicson Ruiz (double-bass); Lauma Skride (piano); Isahy Lantner (bass-clarinet); Volker Jacobsen (viola); Gustav Rivinius (cello); Sharon Kam (clarinet)/Thorsten Encke (Preludes)
NDR Radiophilharmonie/Eivind Gullberg (Wanderer)
musica assoluta/Thorsten Encke (Hommage; un beau brin de fille; Echoes)
Isabelle Faust (violin); Boris Faust (viola) (Echoes)
Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen/Paavo Järvi (Nyx)
rec. 9 June 2012, SPANNUNGEN Festival, Heimbach (Preludes); 20 October 2013, Grosse Sendesaal, Landesfunkhaus, Hannover (Wanderer); 21 March 2014 (Hommage); 16 January 2015 (Un beau brin de fille); 12 September 2016 (Echoes), Sendesaal, Brem
17 December 2011, Concert Hall DIE GLOCKE, Bremen (Nyx)



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