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“Danish Counterpoint” -  Music of Sørensen and Abrahamsen: Talea Ensemble, Scandinavia House, New York City, 21.1.2011 (BH)

Bent Sørensen
: The Deserted Churchyards (1990)

Bent Sørensen: Funeral Procession (1989)

Hans Abrahamsen: Schnee (2006-2008, U.S. premiere)

Talea Ensemble

Erik Carlson, violin

Wayne Lee, violin

Elizabeth Weisser, viola

Chris Gross, cello

Tara Helen O’Connor, flute

Rane Moore, clarinet

James Austin Smith, oboe

Steven Beck, piano

Anthony Cheung, piano

Alex Lipowski, percussion

James Baker, conductor

Although the music of Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen is widely admired in Europe, he is virtually unknown in the United States, but that may change with ravishing evenings like this one that the Talea Ensemble delivered at Scandinavia House. Schnee (“snow,” and coincidentally programmed during a month of record-setting snowfall in New York City) is an hour-long meditation for nine instruments, and structured as five pairs of canons, with three interludes that break up the symmetry. Each pair has similar music, but with slightly different scoring, as if a completed painting had been placed next to an initial sketch. The first two canons are nine minutes each, followed by pairs of seven, five, and three minutes, and the final two are just sixty seconds each. Abrahamsen likens this to the sensation of life itself, in which time gets shorter and shorter, finally running out.


A recurring texture—one hard to forget—is of the percussionist gently brushing pieces of paper (both smooth and rough), creating rustling sounds, like snowflakes and small wind gusts outside a window, and here Alex Lipowski was mesmerizingly robotic (no, that’s a good thing). Pianists Steven Beck and Anthony Cheung occasionally swept fingertips up and down the piano keys, leaving a trail of ghostly pattering. Other sounds were inspired by new snow that has just fallen, or in the two scherzos near the end, the winter laughter of children playing outside—all adroitly coordinated by conductor James Baker. During the three intermezzos that punctuate the series, the strings slowly, ritualistically retune, dropping in microtones, only adding to the delicate sensations of snow falling that Abrahamsen evokes with such precision.


The stunning concentration on view for the Abrahamsen almost eclipsed—but not quite—the opening works by Bent Sørensen, The Deserted Churchyards and Funeral Procession. Written just one year apart, they may be performed separately, or as here, together with only the briefest of breaks. The former opens with a swirling mass of high frequencies—the upper end of the piano, flurries of small bells, and tremolo strings—which alternate with passages in which the ensemble seems to stand still, barely moving, as a lone chime sounds faintly in the distance. Softly sighing glissandi end it all. With a few exceptions, Funeral Procession is similarly hushed, deploying many of the same effects in a sort of parallel universe. Erik Carlson (violin) and Elizabeth Weisser (viola) were the excellent, acutely focused soloists.


Mr. Abrahamsen was on hand for intermission comments with William F. Baker (known to many from his appearances on Thirteen/WNET, New York’s public television station), who elicited a touching, concise road map of Schnee from its composer. But this bonus aside, the Talea performance left little doubt that the evening will be recalled later as one of the most memorable concerts of the year.


Bruce Hodges


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