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Jesper KOCH (b. 1967)
Dreamscapes, for cello and orchestra (2005-07) [28:51]
Arcadia Lost, for violin and orchestra (2015-16) [22:46]
Lonesome, for clarinet, strings, harp and percussion (2010-2013) [16:04]
Michaela Fukačová (cello)
Eugen Tichindeleanu (violin)
John Kruse (clarinet)
Odense Symphony Orchestra/Justin Brown
rec. 2017, Carl Nielsen Salen, Odense Koncerthus, Odense, Denmark
Reviewed in both stereo and multichannel (SACD)
DACAPO 6.220579 SACD [67:41]

Jesper Koch was born in Copenhagen in 1967 and learnt his craft under the tutelage of a who’s who of Danish composers including Ib Nřrholm, Hans Abrahamsen, Karl Aage Rasmussen and Ivar Frounberg. His early music seems to have inclined towards minimalism, but the four orchestral pieces which featured on the 2004 Dacapo release (8.226502) which brought Koch’s name to a wider public are suffused with flavours more akin to post-impressionism, not least the charming Lewis Carroll - inspired tone poem Alice under Summer Skies. The three concertos included on this fine new collection suggest that in terms of both narrative structure and harmonic sophistication Koch has continued to plough this furrow in the last fifteen years; most interestingly from my perspective each of them seem to inhabit a sound-world more rooted in southern Europe than Scandinavia.

The cello concerto Dreamscapes is both the oldest and longest of these works, and while its aesthetic seems to have most in common with the pieces on the earlier disc the following quote (which kicks off the booklet note) perhaps characterises the work more aptly: “I have always escaped into music. As a boy. I experienced music as the ideal world, and I spent most of my childhood at the piano. The real world didn’t have the same appeal at all”.

It seems that the conceit of Dreamscapes involves the cello ‘doing its own thing’ and much (but not all) of the time avoiding the calmer, pragmatic, more worldly concerns of the rest of the orchestra. In the first movement Day-dreaming the soloist cannot resist the initial siren-call of an ethereal harp which tempts the cello into a beatific hinterland which always seems just beyond the reach of the orchestra, even as from time to time it gets tugged back to reality by thorny outbursts from brass and piano. Koch’s writing conveys velvet warmth, is attractively nostalgic, with ever more texturally complex woodwind writing and delightful washes of harp and tuned percussion mercifully free of cliché. In the central Lullaby – interrupted the mood is darker, the cello becoming yet more marooned from its moorings, a noirish muted trumpet and flute combo adding the impression of a city at night until a single bell-stroke triggers an urbane flugelhorn solo; in due course this seems to encourage the solo cello to recover its poise. The finale is entitled Hungarian Dreams; it amounts to Koch’s delightful nod to many nineteenth century composers’ fascination (or obsession) with rondo finales marked all’ungharese, with the ethnic element owing much here to the spectres of those 20th century giants Ligeti and Bartók. Thus the material seems to contrast the ribald and earthy folk influences of the one with the weird inter-galactic experimentation of the other. There are horn-calls and the inevitable Bartókian ‘night music’. Unlikely juxtapositions of colour and pulse ricochet between the speakers and merge. As the movement subsides there are brief references to the melodic contours that featured earlier, before the soloist is re-united with his old therapist the flugelhorn and they head off together once more.

The Czech soloist Michaela Fukačová is the principal cellist with the Odense Symphony Orchestra and contributes a performance which is by turn impassioned and delicate. The orchestra itself is also on top form; one of the most obvious qualities one finds in each of these works is Jesper Koch’s brilliant orchestration- he keeps everybody on their toes. The writing for harp, percussion and especially woodwind in Dreamscapes is imaginative, poetic and precise.

By contrast, Lonesome, the clarinet concerto which concludes the disc is more lightly scored and involves a string orchestra augmented by harp and percussion. Here Koch explores different psychological states of isolation (not always bad); as a concept it’s not a thousand miles away from the composer’s pre-occupations in Dreamscapes. A carefully made clarinet phrase emerges tentatively from a weave coloured by bells, vibraphone and harp. This is wistful rather than sad, and from here Koch builds the work most attractively, with lovely rising arabesques embellished by delicate tuned percussion, accomplished string counterpoint and bell strokes which act as waypoints. This serene mood morphs into a perkier episode which skilfully marries the reflective and independent dimensions of loneliness. The soloist John Kruse (principal clarinet with the Royal Danish Orchestra) is at no stage engaged in wanton acts of virtuosity in Lonesome but his playing throughout constitutes a primer for beauty of tone and subtle dynamic shading. The work itself effortlessly blends passages of lithe rapidity with more mellow content. Koch creates hazy, glassy textures when tuned percussion interact with the strings while in Lonesome’s central section punchy harp arpeggi evoke the piquant textures of the cimbalom. The slow, languid phrases that predominate towards its conclusion contribute to an ethereal, mysterious atmosphere.

Lonesome is placed last in the programme, but I played it second to provide something of a foil for the pair of string concertos. Much as I enjoyed that piece and Dreamscapes, it is Koch’s exceptional new violin concerto Arcadia Lost which most impressed this listener, a view that has been reinforced by repeated hearings. Apparently influenced by Shelley’s Venice-set dialogue poem Julian and Maddalo, a Conversation, the concerto projects a Mediterranean warmth compromised by nostalgia and implied melancholy. In the first movement Barcarole the register occupied by the soloist descends gradually and almost imperceptibly, an allusion both to the inundation of Venice and to the descent into insanity of the madman whom Shelley’s protagonists encounter and whose affliction seemingly owes much to a doomed love-affair. The movement radiates more of the atmosphere of the Barcarole than the letter, and while rippling figurations are present in the writing they are more abrasive than might be expected, although the ghosts of both Corelli and Vivaldi hover benignly above the shimmering orchestral backcloth Koch provides. The sad cor anglais motif that concludes the panel is taken up by the soloist at the outset of the succeeding Notturno, in an anxious, rather pining solo supported by capricious phrases in wind and brass. This makes for a gently gothic effect; in cinematic terms it evokes the apparitions the main characters experience in Nicholas Roeg’s 1973 Venetian thriller Don’t Look Now. At around the 3:30 mark a rather Stravinskian neo-classical riff breaks the spell, and echoey, muted trumpets create a different kind of noir. The solo cadenza that emerges is simultaneously virtuosic and reflective, declamatory and ardent. The outstanding soloist is the Romanian violinist Eugen Tichindeleanu (the concertmaster of the Odense Symphony Orchestra); he makes light of this challenging passage. As the Notturno subsides a delightful flute solo launches the Pastorale finale, as dawn prevails – this provides a magical contrast. The soloist takes up the material via another virtuosic passage before the orchestra becomes more involved. The music intensifies, the colours deepen. Koch manufactures an extended conclusion which is as expertly paced, coloured and inevitable as any recent violin concerto I can recall. Harp and dampened bells play important roles; the effect is ethereal- ecstatic yet sad. A bassoon appears as if from nowhere at the 6:30 mark and instigates an extended denouement dominated by ingenious interplay among the woodwind. The coda approaches Berg’s violin concerto in its less-is-more emotionalism; it’s spare, melodic, audacious and its authentic beauty cuts deep. It concludes a work which proves to be unexpectedly moving, perhaps even troubling. Arcadia Lost proves to be an apt and inspired title.

It strikes me that this is one of Dacapo’s most engaging and satisfying releases of recent years. The Odense Symphony Orchestra have long enjoyed an excellent reputation but the sumptuous sounds they produce on this disc mark it down as one of their very best. The English conductor Justin Brown presides over readings which demonstrate thorough preparation and immaculate execution. The SACD layer contains some of the most intricately balanced and revealing orchestral playing I have yet encountered in that medium. The two-channel sound is in any case resplendent.

By now Jesper Koch has reached his early 50s; on this evidence he has happened upon a most individual style which provides balm for both ears and soul. One finds it difficult to imagine these riveting works being performed with deeper commitment or greater attention to detail. Dacapo’s exemplary sound in both formats caps a most auspicious release.

Richard Hanlon

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