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Sunleif RASMUSSEN (b. 1961)
Fanfare Lontane for wind octet (2009) [8:28]
Andalag #5, for alto flute, clarinet in A, French horn and bassoon (2012) [9:12]
Andalag #7, for piccolo flute, clarinet in E flat, French horn and bassoon (2013) [8:20]
Sonata No. 1 for solo viola (2016) [27:15]
Jákup Lützen (viola)
rec. 2018, Hoyvikar Church, Tórshavn, Faroe Islands
DACAPO 8.226133 [53:17]

This is the sixth disc on Dacapo to be dedicated to the singular music of the Faroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen. I first fell under the spell of his work when it released the first one, a spectacular SACD coupling his 2002 Nordic Prize winner Symphony No 1 Oceanic Days with an engaging large-scale Saxophone Concerto (review). In 2016 his even more elemental Symphony No 2 The Earth Anew emerged in a powerful account from the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra with vocal and choral forces under John Storgĺrds’ committed stewardship (Dacapo - 8.226175). The three discs issued in between focused on Rasmussen’s music for chamber groups and ensembles – most impressive of these to my ears was a disc entitled ‘String against String’ from 2007 (Dacapo – 8.226044); this included a performance of the Violin Concerto No 1 with Storgĺrds this time as soloist along with a pair of intriguing string quartets which are both concentrated and atmospheric.

Andrew Mellor’s characteristically informed notes reveal that in recent years Rasmussen has been compiling the Andalag sequence of pieces for wind instruments – apart from the two brief woodwind quartets with that name included on the new issue there are eight briefer duos (four of these feature on the two Dacapo Rasmussen discs not discussed above: ‘Dancing Raindrops’ on 8.226567 and ‘Motion/Emotion’ on 6.220643) and a more substantial octet for winds. The sequence can be played in toto or individual numbers can be extracted and performed as individual entities. The idea was conceived for the Faroese ensemble Aldubáran, the majority of whom are excellent wind instrumentalists and feature on the new disc. Mellor explains that in Faroese the compound word Andalag combines two semantic ideas; anda (spirit, or breath) and lag (melody, or layer). Both these woodwind quartets involve horn and bassoon, while different types of flute and clarinet in each case complete the ensemble. Andalag #5 is essentially lyrical and seems to blend elements of fanfare and chorale. The theme emerges very gradually in octaves – Rasmussen initially contrives music of great subtlety which contrasts passages of variegated timbre with more homogenous material. A sudden clarinet outburst at 2:28 breaks the reverie – it could be birdsong – this little motif reoccurs frequently in the middle of the piece, albeit with slight variations and extensions. The other instruments coalesce in an atmospheric backcloth that projects a light which could only come from the North. At 4:45 more avian interlopers photobomb the sound picture–the four instruments meld magically into different lyrical constellations. Oscillating figures provide gentle disturbances from about 6:56. Ultimately Andalag #5 synthesises material which is either quirky, contemplative, or both.

Andalag #7 replaces the alto for a piccolo flute and the clarinet in A for one in E flat. It seems more rapid and agitated than its sibling from the first bar. In the first half of the piece the ensemble is effectively configured as a pair of duos; horn and bassoon conspire in fanfare type material while the upper instruments twitter argumentatively above and across them. After three minutes or so the music gradually slows and quietens. From 4.25 rhythm suddenly seems less important, and Andalag #7’s flowing, almost pentatonic lines are left to flute and bassoon. The horn adds satisfying pedal textures while the clarinet hovers above and amid the surface in a prettified, improvisational way. From 6:30 the piece picks up pace again, developing the features that have already been established. The coda involves pairs of melodic waves in contrary motion. Both these Andalag pieces are incredibly colourful and varied given the obvious limitations of using just four wind instruments. Aldubáran have long been Rasmussen’s favoured hometown advocates – their understanding and empathy in this music is palpable. Dacapo’s recording, made in the sympathetic acoustic of the Hoyvikar Church in the Faroese capital Tórshavn, is perfect.

In fact the layout of this church and its sonic possibilities are utilised to even greater effect in Fanfare Lontane, the peppery woodwind octet piece with which the disc opens. Its raw material is drawn from a work Rasmussen composed in 2009 for open-air performance, his Ólavsřka Cantata, conceived for the eponymous Faroese summer festival. And there is certainly something rather breezy and open-air about this tripartite piece. In the first section two offstage muted trumpets and a trombone (situated in a corridor of the church in order to convey the illusion of distance – Lontane means ‘from afar’) provide the fanfares while the rest of the group (in the nave) are the orchestra – initially this appears to be the clarinet alone. There is something rather redolent of early Britten in the way this clever, affecting piece builds. In the middle part, the tension is provided by the interjections of brass upon the sombre stoicism of the wind quintet’s chorale. On this occasion the quiet music prevails. The jaunty feeling is restored in the final panel in which case the off-stage status of the brass seems less defined or important. Occasionally the trio cut through the harmonic surface of the winds. The tempo shifts noticeably towards the piece’s conclusion as the work slows right down leaving a solitary trumpet to play a single note nine times, an allusion to Rasmussen’s childhood experience of Sunday services and his relief when the single bell tolled nine repeatedly to signify its conclusion.

The major work on this portrait disc is a very different beast. The Sonata for solo viola (identified as No 1 in the note) was written for the prominent Faroese violist Jákup Lützen’s debut recital. Rasmussen employs an arch-like five movement form. The elemental opening incorporates a slowly ascending figure based on the open strings of the viola, and in this way, according to Rasmussen’s words in the note “the instrument makes the form of the piece.” Little bends in pitch hint at ancient or folk music rather than microtonality. The mood is maudlin and austere, the means economical and concentrated. The curt Allegro con brio which follows strikes a more strident, mechanistic tone. There is a tension between fast trilling and more controlled, tonal chorale-like passages. Note Lützen’s glowing tone from 3:28 – a rapt episode before the drone-drenched conclusion. The central slow movement is not markedly different rhythmically from what’s gone before. But it is gently yearning and songful, literally so when Lützen’s fragile, rather lovely voice harmonises with his instrument. There is a delightful warmth to Dacapo’s sound which doesn’t unduly soften the sonata’s more astringent passages. The fourth panel is marked Con brio –beyond the initial tappings and tickings, it seems rhythmically akin to a folk dance. On the other hand, in timbral terms it’s somewhat delicate and spare but the colours are rich rather than grayscale. The third and fourth movements clearly require precision and imagination and Lützen provides both in spades. At eight minutes, the finale is equal in duration to each of the first two ‘pairs’ of movements. Marked espressivo it offers a moto perpetuo type opening, a kind of Faroese baroquery. The reason for the movement’s marking becomes more apparent as the panel proceeds; piquant harmonies (and further little bends) lend a rather elegiac hue. At 3:05 a closely harmonised episode again weaves its way around a drone until at 4:24 Lützen’s singing restores the human dimension – this time the voice emerges more assertively. The effect is rather moving. As the viola transitions back into arco mode, the voice broadens before it fades over little descending portamenti as the sound dissolves. The Faroe Islands are renowned for the levels of precipitation they absorb over the span of an average year, and this piece is agreeably rain-drenched rather than granitic. Rasmussen’s sonata hits home more with each successive hearing – it’s an impressive major addition to the solo repertoire for this instrument. It’s magnificently realised by its dedicatee and beautifully recorded.

If 53 minutes of music seems a little parsimonious the quality of the music here is more than ample compensation. Dacapo’s generous promotion of Rasmussen is in no way simply a dutiful acknowledgement of a rare composer from one of Denmark’s more isolated (albeit self-governing) territories. Rasmussen’s music utterly transcends the local – he is without question a major Scandinavian figure and the inhabitants of his islands should be very proud of him.

Richard Hanlon

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