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Toshio HOSOKAWA (b. 1955)
Drawing, for eight players (2004) [12:33
Bent SØRENSEN (b. 1958)
Minnelieder - Zweites Minnewater, for chamber ensemble (1994) [12:35]
Ellen LINDQUIST (b. 1970)
Mantra - concerto for gamelan and sinfonietta (2016) [24:42]
Kristin NORDERVAL (b. 1957)
Chapel Meditation, for voice and plucked piano (2001) [3:53]
Espen Aalberg (gamelan), Kristin Norderval (soprano), Else Bø (piano), Trondheim Sinfonietta / Kai Grinde Myrann
rec. 2017, Klimen kulturhus, Stjørdal, Norway
Reviewed in stereo and SACD Surround
BIS BIS-2340 SACD [54:59]

On the face of it, there’s nothing that obviously connects the four works (or their composers) in this unassuming BIS collection. In fact, the link is provided by the chamber orchestra performing them, the Trondheim Sinfonietta, which last year celebrated its twentieth birthday. The present disc notes that landmark and includes four pieces from the last twenty-five years that have featured on the group’s programmes. Indeed Mantra, the piece after which the album is named, was jointly commissioned by the orchestra and the percussionist Espen Aalberg, who performs its riveting gamelan part here.

But we start in Japan with Hosokawa’s piece Drawing, a piece for eight players whose extra-musical inspiration was provided by the composer’s experience of a dream in which he vividly imagined his own birth. The primal feelings this triggered are explored herein – its title describes the process of physically ‘outlining’ the melodic contours of this music. A string unison slowly increases in volume and ushers in the birthing process, whereupon Japanese bell sounds and odd, bent notes intercede, before piano and gongs and eventually flute, clarinet and oboe are added to fill out the texture. The sound of breathing (usually via the flute) fades in and out of the sound picture while the melodic lines are keenly and delicately spun, the intensity of the music carefully increasing as wind trills and arabesques pre-empt still greater activity. The central section heaves with a subtly controlled physicality; the tension implicit in the piece is never far from the surface. The BIS engineers faithfully render Hosokawa’s richly detailed writing, even more impressively so in the disc’s surround option. The medium could have been invented to demonstrate this kind of intricately managed sound world.

Bent Sørensen’s Minnelieder - Zweites Minnewater (Courtly love songs – Second Love Lake) requires a larger group, fourteen players including horn, brass and an extra violin and double-bass (as well as various instrumental doublings). This piece has its genesis in two earlier Sørensen pieces, Les Tuchins (1986) for pairs of cellos, trombones and electric guitars and its more complex successor Minnewater (1988) for 15 instruments which recycled the form and harmony of the original into music characterised by overlapping waves of sound. The present work emerged six years later and is scored for a similarly sized ensemble. This piece is very characteristic of Sorensen’s individual sound world, its opening gesture aptly described in the notes as ‘primordial’. This is music dense in micro-activity from the start, with shards of sound and fragments of melody and allusion emerging organically from a babbling undergrowth. The percussion plays an important role in generating the work’s impetus; the Dane’s beloved bell sounds again feature as well as restrained yet emphatic material for the cymbals. A muted trumpet also generates plenty of atmosphere, but in general the music is agitated and busy, until the 7:38 mark when a solo bass flute ushers in a calmer section, before the work enters a drawn out yet hectic and skittering coda, with hints of jauntiness in wind and brass as well as percussion that evokes an ensemble of tin cans. Bells and descending swirls of woodwind conclude the piece.

I am sure many readers will be attracted by the idea of a concerto for gamelan and orchestra, and the centrepiece of this disc is Mantra, composed by an American-Dutch composer Ellen Lindquist whose name, I must confess, is new to me. In recent years she has made her home on the outskirts of Trondheim, and the orchestra’s percussionist, Espen Aalberg co-commissioned this concerto as part of his personal ‘Gamelan as Inspiration’ project. The result is a stately exploration of the beguiling, singular sounds of individual gamelan instruments. It is a hauntingly beautiful, original piece, which contains not a trace of cliché or gimmickry. It radiates a calm which justifies the meditational associations of its title. There is craftsmanship and honesty in the myriad ways Lindquist has attempted to synthesise the sounds of the gamelan with the Western orchestra, but also in the seamless structure of the work, which unfolds with clarity and purity. The harp plays an important role, at times producing bent notes which sound most uncharacteristic of the instrument, but completely chimes with the aesthetic of Mantra.  There are a couple of moments which fleetingly recall Takemitsu’s use of percussion in his late orchestral masterpiece ‘From me flows what you call time’ but this is almost certainly a coincidence, and I mention it only to give the curious reader some idea of the kind of bejewelled sounds that await them. Mantra encompasses an absorbing world of measured, gossamer delicacy, and projects a quiet elegance that merits the deepest contemplation. It moves slowly, rewarding the sympathetic listener with space to reflect as well as the siren allure of its kaleidoscopic sonics. It is difficult to imagine a more involving or focused performance or recording. If the Hosokawa piece which opened the disc sounds terrific in the surround option, Mantra tops it. It is a joy indeed that the BIS engineers can make such hushed music ‘spectacular’.

The disc concludes with Kristin Norderval’s affecting Chapel Meditation, a brief work for voice (in this case, her own) and ‘plucked piano’. It was inspired by her experience of recording Josquin as a member of the vocal ensemble Pomerium. This wordless, atmospheric vocalise effortlessly bridges the centuries, the bell-like clarity of the plucked strings, the halo of sound produced by their harmonics and Norderval’s ripe, glowing voice combining to create a hypnotic, lasting impression.

While all of these pieces demonstrate their composers’ capacity for imaginative instrumental colours and deserve focused, concentrated listening, I have to say that I found Ellen Lindquist’s gamelan concerto Mantra to be one of those rare experiences which offered something completely different; music of integrity and humility yet rich in adventure and daring in its ambition.  In this magnificent performance by these Norwegian musicians, and in superb BIS surround sound, it completely blew me away.

Richard Hanlon

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