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Rolf MARTINSSON (b. 1956)
Into Eternity
Opening Sounds, Op.94 (2012) [6:33]
Ich denke Dein…, Op.100 (2014) [28:07]
Tour de force, Op.95 (2013) [10:14]
Into Eternity (In i evigheten), Op.103 (2015) [21:46]
Lisa Larsson (soprano), Malmö Symphony Orchestra / Paul Mägi
rec. 2017, Malmö Live Concert Hall, Sweden
Sung texts and translations included
Reviewed in stereo and surround
BIS BIS-2323 SACD [66:44]

Here is a disc which features four compositions each characterised by colourful, assured, cinematic orchestration. Two of them incorporate vocal parts which are always sweetly lyrical and easy on the ear; both were tailored for the resplendent voice of Lisa Larsson, arguably the finest living Swedish soprano, and she is absolutely at the top of her game. Premier local label BIS are renowned for producing superbly engineered discs, but even among their extensive output the present disc boasts outstanding sound, especially in the surround option. So why do I feel so underwhelmed?

Fifteen years ago I heard Rolf Martinsson’s music for the first time; during a period when I bought anything that featured the golden trumpet of Håkan Hardenberger I eagerly snapped up another BIS disc featuring Martinsson’s concerto ‘Bridge’ (review). It is unquestionably well-written from a technical point of view, but despite supremely expressive playing from the soloist (and inevitably terrific sound) I thought the orchestral part owed far too much to the music of 1940s Hollywood melodramas and despite an occasional airing the passage of time has done it few favours. Last year BIS released ‘Presentiment’, a further Martinsson collection (review); I’m afraid despite another top notch sonic spectacular I didn’t share Dominy Clements’ enthusiasm for music which is again exciting on the surface but whose essence seems shallow and expressively rather stunted. Its highlight for me was the Emily Dickinson song cycle; its ten brief numbers are never allowed to outstay their welcome and they provide a worthy vehicle for Lisa Larsson’s pure, honeyed soprano.

And in my view it’s Larsson’s voice which saves the new release; she is always worth hearing although I’m afraid this selection of Martinsson’s recent works presents the listener with similar obstacles. It is not difficult to detect the shared attributes of the two orchestral showpieces on offer here (their adjacent opus numbers are a clue). Opening Sounds was commissioned for the inauguration of Reutlingen’s new concert hall; Tour de Force is described, accurately as a “brief, energetic and dramatic concert opener…” I wonder if Robert von Bahr’s continued engagement with Martinsson owes something to the fact that he is such an accomplished orchestrator - his music can be absolutely trusted to show off the magnificent BIS sound; if one is thinking about this in purely sonic terms, the initial timpani thwacks at the outset of Tour de Force will leave one in little doubt that this will be a demonstration disc. Indeed the opening bars sound especially thrilling in the surround option; but frankly I’m afraid in both works the musical substance rather passed me by. Even the titles, Tour de Force and Opening Sounds seem a little too obvious and frankly somewhat banal. It is astonishing to me that during his training Martinsson studied under Brian Ferneyhough; there is absolutely nothing on this disc to suggest it. In fact the soundtracks of certain post-war Hollywood melodramas again came to mind; perhaps those scored by less renowned specialists like Frank Skinner or David Raksin.

The two extended vocal works at least boast the considerable attraction of Lisa Larsson’s delicious voice. The recent cycle Ich denke Dein… (I think of you…) is unashamedly, heart-on-sleeve neo-romantic. Martinsson’s settings of poems by Goethe, Rilke and von Eichendorff are pleasantly lyrical, the German texts treated efficiently with occasional hints of word painting. I would imagine someone coming afresh to the world of orchestral lieder would be deeply impressed by the orchestration, which is unequivocally expert, although it sounds overcooked to my ears. Martinsson interpolates phrases which approach sprechgesang here and there - I found this device a bit contrived. On the face of it, the fourth song, Goethe’s Die Liebende schreibt is the most convincing, with its winsome violin solo and hints of muted trumpet. I also quite liked Mondnacht (after Eichendorff), an atmospheric tone painting of a moonlit night. The lush strings that dominate the cycle are again pure Tinseltown, ditto the excessive harp and bell tree colourations. But Lisa Larsson is on radiant form and the BIS sound is extraordinarily opulent. The detail that emerges in the surround is particularly revealing, almost to the point that it reinforces one’s view of the limitations at the heart of Martinsson’s music.

The structure of Into Eternity is unconventional. Conceived for the opening of the new Malmö Live Concert Hall (where this disc was recorded and whose acoustic on this evidence is exceptional) it consists of an extended orchestral introduction, which is linked by a vocalise to two poems by the early twentieth century Swedish poet Karin Boye. The words seem to connect emotional longing with the nocturnal and natural worlds. Again, the BIS engineering in both options leaves nothing to the imagination. Swooning violins and yet more glittering harp ensure the textures are thoroughly drenched in schmaltz. Learning about the poet’s rather tragic life, I’m not sure she would have approved. The Estonian conductor (and jazz violinist) Paul Mägi is more than happy to overindulge in Martinsson’s excesses. Larsson’s account of the brief vocalise sounds gorgeous, and the more exclamatory elements of the first poem Den stunden (That moment) are spoken, in English. Recognisable elements from the introduction bathe the gnomic Nattens djupa violincell (Night’s deep cello) and incorporate an inevitable cello solo, although its conclusion is convincingly mysterious and dark.

Lisa Larsson would make an old copy of Exchange and Mart sound good. She certainly does her bit for this composer, with whom she has collaborated regularly; there is no doubt her advocacy is heartfelt and genuine. The playing of the Malmö band is exceptional throughout.

I realise the point of a review is to present a personal, reasoned opinion, but it would be churlish not to point out that I have discussed this recording with three other new music connoisseurs of long acquaintance, and two of them absolutely loved it, so I suspect it may turn out to be a real ‘Marmite’ disc. For me, the superficial glitter of Martinsson’s music fails to conceal a rather derivative, predictable core. To conclude with a final culinary metaphor: I find myself feeling bloated after an excessively rich suet pudding; perhaps a single scoop of lemon sorbet would have sufficed.

Richard Hanlon

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