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Karin REHNQVIST (b. 1957)
In Orbit – a moving quartet for violin, clarinet, cello and piano (2017) [26:40]
Far and near, for solo clarinet and e-bow (2017) [8:03]
Ellen LINDQUIST (b. 1970)
Groundings, for piano trio (2004) [8:03]
Gaia, for solo cello (1998) [7:27]
Somniloquy, for piano, cello and clarinet (2010) [7:13]
Pastorale, for solo piano (1991) [3:29]
Alpaca Ensemble
rec. December 2019, Newtone Studio, Oslo, Norway

I couldn’t resist this intriguing disc of chamber and solo instrumental pieces by two composers I have come to admire greatly. I first encountered Karin Rehnqvist’s music at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in the late 1990s; indeed she came into the festival shop which I was managing at the time and kindly let me have a disc which included her unforgettable work Solsången (Sun Song), sung by the extraordinary Lena Willemark in a performance which was later licensed to BIS (still available on BIS-CD 996, one of two outstanding Rehnqvist monographs on the label; the other is reviewed here). I cannot recommend this life-enhancing piece highly enough – it is unlike anything I have encountered before or since. Rehnqvist is Swedish; Ellen Lindquist’s surname suggests that she might be also, but in fact she identifies as American-Dutch. She trained in Vermont and New York and is currently resident in Norway, although she has also taught at the Gotland School of Music in Sweden. I greatly enjoyed Mantra, her concerto for gamelan and orchestra on a mixed composer anthology (also on BIS) which I had the good fortune to review back in 2019. This is another invigorating piece I can confidently recommend. If Rehnqvist and Lindquist share one quality it is a complete lack of artificiality or contrivance. All the pieces I have come to know by both composers are consistent in their humanity, generosity of spirit and direct appeal.

On the evidence of those previously heard compositions, Rehnqvist and Lindquist also share the happy knack of communicating with an appealing lightness of touch which is common to all the pieces here. The biggest is a recent quartet by Rehnqvist entitled I Banor (In Orbit), devised for the Alpaca Ensemble, an accomplished Norwegian group who perform it here. Its extra descriptor ‘a moving quartet’ reflects the motion of the planets of the solar system, which is mirrored during a live performance by the circumnavigation of the hall by the violinist Sigrid Elisabeth Stang as the piece proceeds, and by the changing of positions of all four players once she has arrived on stage. It is carefully structured in seven sections; the odd-numbered ones linked to each other by interludes designated as ‘transits’. The opening Outer Space section emerges from a spare, tentative violin figure, the other instruments join in one-by-one. The spatial quality of the sounds is enhanced by Rehnqvist’s discreet application of quarter-tones which suggests an infinity of melody and harmony. Her ear for colour and texture in this paradoxically sparse yet detailed music is extremely sophisticated, yet her deceptively simple patternings conceal sounds of exquisite subtlety. The decay of a low piano note at the end of the section dissolves into a tiny string ‘transit’ which ushers in a movement entitled Planet Play. Here Rehnqvist judiciously applies effects which include the plucking of piano strings. This sound radiates playfulness and light but it duly connects to a darker, possibly awed ‘transit’ interlude. This extended reflection strikes me as the emotional core of the quartet, whereby Rehnqvist limits herself to a restricted palette of notes and gestures. Toward the end of this episode, unexpectedly brutal piano sounds intrude upon the quietude. But not for long: they swiftly melt into the folk-like, songful simplicity of a fifth section, aptly entitled Laud. About halfway through this panel the flow is disarmed by a repeated timbre which could conceivably be a bicycle bell (although I suspect it’s the piano); either way the other three players do not flinch in the face of the cheeky intruder. Pizzicato tappings refract the effect of the first ‘transit’; a moody passage for low clarinet and strings forms a bridge to a concluding Epilogue in which a folky violin tune collides with impudent piano, wisps of wistful clarinet and spiky interjections from the cello. In Orbit takes two or three plays to make its point but it gets under one’s skin in the end. Its austerity increases with familiarity. The Alpacas’ seem most attentive to Rehnqvist nuanced writing; one wonders what In Orbit ‘looks like’ in a live performance.

Rehnqvist’s Far and near, for clarinet and e-bow (as I understand it, this is a device which enables notes to be sustained, enabling the player to effectively accompany themselves with a drone effect, for example) also seems to incorporate astronomical ruminations. In her booklet note Hild Borchgrevnik explains that the piece loses a degree of impact on a CD recording, as Rehnqvist suggests that the music should be experienced in total darkness, facilitating the effect of sound emerging from an invisible, unpredictable source. Far and near increases in speed and virtuosity as it proceeds. Borchgrevnik suggests the listener’s perception of long melodic lines alternating with rapid ornamental runs creates the illusion of ‘starry writings in a cold sky’; this effect works best with headphones under the duvet. Rolf Borch’s reading is coolly impressive.

The remainder of the disc is given over to four works by Ellen Lindquist. According to the composer’s description (quoted in the booklet) the brief piano trio Groundings “reflects the ongoing cycles of ‘groundedness’ and ‘ungroundedness’ that we as human beings all face throughout our lives.” In this way the wedge shape of the initial idea, whereby a single piano note is stretched up and down by a semitone as the strings join in seems to suggest purpose and direction; in contrast intermittent flurries of notes and agitated repetitions of piano chords and motifs conjures up a mood of distraction or daydream, be it cognitive, affective or even behavioural in form. This is a most musical (and approachable) impression of a psychological phenomenon with which most readers will be familiar.

The title of another brief trio, Somniloquy (in this case for piano, cello and clarinet) describes another strange example of unconscious human behaviour, talking in one’s sleep. The semitone interval plays a key role here, too. In the opening bars the players’ aspirated vocalisations mimic the sounds of deep breathing during sleep; in its quieter phases the music is glacial and calm, but sudden, very rhythmically defined interjections are both loud and disturbing, angular, strident and nightmarish. These astringent textures dissolve into breathing and silence half-way though, before more identifiable whispered phonemes perhaps ‘give the game away’, and possibly reinforce the validity of Sigmund Freud’s famous description of dreams as “the royal road to the unconscious”.

Gaia for solo cello was commissioned from Lindquist by the choreographer Andrea Olsen; its composition evolved simultaneously with the creation of Olsen’s accompanying dance piece. The original music was written for solo violin; its subsequent cello reworking, which initially accompanied a video installation is played here by Marianne Baudouin Lie in a new adaptation. Its five brief sections oscillate between grace and lightness, and seem to address the interdependence of Earth, its inhabitants and the availability or otherwise of its provisions. The measured lyrical opening is folk-like and identifiably Nordic in its sensibility. The entire piece seems to fit the cello to perfection.

Lindquist’s wistful Pastorale for solo piano is one of her earliest compositions, It’s utterly devoid of harshness and has an improvisational, rather bluesy feel. Else Bø’s account concludes a well-planned disc of two distinct halves. The two pieces by Karin Rehnqvist certainly seem more adventurous and experimental, whilst Ellen Lindquist’s contributions may prove to be more approachable for non-specialist listeners, All the music is played with evident commitment by the Alpaca Ensemble and the recording more than lives up to the exacting standards of the Lawo brand. The excellent booklet is enhanced by some eye-catching and though provoking art too – Jennifer Anne Soep’s impressions of the players in rehearsal are novel and intriguing.

Richard Hanlon

The Alpaca Ensemble:
Rolf Borch (clarinets), Sigrid Elisabeth Stang (violin), Marianne Baudouin Lie (cello), Else Bø (piano)

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