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Abrahamsen schnee 6220585
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Hans ABRAHAMSEN (b. 1952)
Schnee, 10 Canons for 9 instruments (2006-8) [54:18]
Lapland Chamber Orchestra/John Storgårds
rec. February 2020, Korundi House of Culture, Rovaniemi, Finland
DACAPO 6.220585 SACD [54:18]

The Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen became interested in the piano and in composition after hearing his father play the piano. However, he has a disability affecting his right hand, of which he can only use two fingers. His performing interests shifted to the French horn, and he studied this as well as musical theory at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, where his teachers included the composer Per Nørgård. Later he studied with Gyørgy Ligeti. His early compositions were associated with the movement known as New Simplicity (Den Ny Enkelhed), a Danish group who reacted against the Darmstadt School of the previous generation, whose best-known members were Boulez and Stockhausen. (The similarly named German group (Neue Einfachheit), which included Wolfgang Rihm and Manfred Trojahn, arose later.) Their aims were close to those usually known as European minimalists, such as Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki and John Tavener, who are well-known. He had an early success with Nacht und Trompeten, which was performed by the Berlin Philharmonic in 1982 under the composer Hans Werner Henze, who became a strong supporter of Abrahamsen.

However, for a number of years after 1990 Abrahamsen composed hardly anything, finding himself in a compositional impasse. The present work Schnee (snow), is one of those with he found his way out of this impasse, and it has been widely admired. However, Abrahamsen’s biggest success so far has been with his 2013 song cycle Let me tell you, using the words of Ophelia from Hamlet (review). This won the Grawemeyer Award and was voted the greatest classical composition of the twentyfirst century by a poll of critics in 2019.

During his compositional silence, Abrahamsen busied himself with arrangements of the music of other composers, including Bach. He was particularly intrigued by Bach’s set of Canons BWV 1072-8, which he arranged with the aim of repeating them again and again. This gave him the idea of writing his own music using canonic techniques. When he received a commission to write a work for a festival in 2006 he wrote what became the opening two movements of Schnee. The whole work is organised as a set of paired canons, each having an a and a b version. There are also three Intermezzi. Abrahamsen thought of each pair of canons as together forming a third, three-dimensional piece. He also thought of stereoscopic pictures, which two nearly identical pictures give the impression of depth to the viewer.

Each pair of canons is shorter than its predecessor. Furthermore, the ensemble is divided into two groups: sitting on either side of the percussionist on the left we have the strings: violin, viola, cello and one piano. On the right are the woodwind: flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling E flat and bass clarinet) and a second piano. These are used in contrasting ways. There are also strong contrasts in pace. In the three intermezzi, the wind and stringed instruments are tuned down slightly, creating interference patterns with the pianos, which have normal tuning.

So much for the technicalities of the work, though one could go on a good deal longer about them. What does it sound like? Well, it begins very quietly, so quietly in fact that at first I thought there was something wrong with my equipment. There are very high violin notes and then a melody picked out on the piano. The second set of canons moves rapidly, like walking through swirling snow. The fourth set uses the same sleigh-bells which Mozart used in his Sleigh Ride (Die Schlittenfahrt) from his Three German Dances K. 605. The fifth set uses the device Bach exploited in Contrapunctus 13 from The Art of Fugue of two pieces, one of which is the inversion of the other. At the end, the music just disappears. The work is completely absorbing and gripping and creates a unique atmosphere.

It must be very hard to perform. Storgårds explains that it takes a good deal of preparation, with every player having to master their individual part first before they start putting the work together. The dedication necessary is obvious from this performance. It is beautifully recorded; I was listening in ordinary two-channel stereo, but this is a SACD and should sound even better in that medium. There are helpful sleevenotes, in English and Danish, from which I have borrowed, and altogether this is a memorable disc.

There is an earlier recording, from 2010, from Ensemble Recherche on Winter & Winter, which I have not heard, but I find it hard to believe that it could be superior to this new one. It has made me eager to explore more of Abrahamsen’s music.

Stephen Barber

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