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Hans ABRAHAMSEN  (b. 1952)
Stratifications (1973/5)a [8:51]
Nacht und Trompeten (1981)a [10:21]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (1999/2000)b [15:21]
Johann Sebastian BACH  (1685 – 1750)
Befiehl du deine Wege BWV 272 (arranged Abrahamsen 1991)c [7:03]
Carl NIELSEN  (1865 – 1931)
Three Piano Pieces Op. 59 (1926, arranged Abrahamsen 1990)c [10:15]
Per NØRGÅRD  (b. 1932)
Breaking (1983, arranged Abrahamsen 1992)c [5:13]
Arnold SCHOENBERG  (1874 – 1951)
Four Pieces from Sechs kleine Klavierstücke Op.19 (1911, arranged Abrahamsen 1998)c [5:25]
Anne Marie Abildskov (piano)b; Danish National Symphony Orchestra/DRa; BIT20 Ensemblebc; Thomas Dausgaarda, Ilan Volkovbc
Recorded: Danish Radio Concert Hall, March 2000 (Stratifications, Nacht und Trompeten); and NRK AS Grieghallen and NRK Minde, May 2002
DA CAPO 8.226010  [62:39]

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Now in his early fifties, Hans Abrahamsen has a substantial output to his credit, and one that perfectly illustrates this composer’s untiring quest for expression. His early works seemed to belong to what is often referred to as New Simplicity - implying that the music often had some minimalist ring). His later output finds him exploring different paths, as is fairly evident in pieces such as Stratifications and Nacht und Trompeten recorded here. His recent Piano Concerto might yet be a further step into some new territories. His music, however, resists any all-too-easy classification; and rarely yields all its secrets; if at all. It is often quite allusive and epigrammatic, if not at times frankly enigmatic; but his is a distinctive voice in present-day Danish music, as several earlier recordings have amply demonstrated. Some may remember two earlier DaCapo releases, 8.224080 with some of his pieces for sinfonietta conducted by Elgar Howarth and including one of his finest works to date Lied in Fall for cello and ensemble as well as his orchestration of Nielsen’s Three Piano Pieces Op.59, also heard here, and DCCD 9006 including his two string quartets.

Abrahamsen also is interested in re-visiting works by other composers, and his re-workings of works by Nielsen, Bach or Schoenberg “are a dialogue through which [I] find [myself] in aspects of another composer’s music”. This release thus also provides for an opportunity to hear some of these re-workings.

The very title of Stratifications points at the content of this multi-layered piece that opens with four brief shots after which the music gathers some momentum, with ever increasing concentration and ending rather abruptly on a high violin unison, as if the different strands of the music had now coalesced in one single sound.

Nacht und Trompeten appropriately opens in a dreamy, mysterious mood in which tiny fragments (trumpet calls, horn calls) briefly flash through the nocturnal haze, obliquely alluding to Mahler. The central, almost minimalist section builds to a Stravinskian climax reminiscent of The Rite of Spring leading into the slow coda, again alluding to Mahler. Again and again Abrahamsen alludes to composers of the past without ever directly quoting their music. This is much more a matter of mood than of literal quotation in an attempt at achieving some “new kind of listening to the material” - thus Thomas Michelsen in his informative insert notes.

Reviewing this new release was a most welcome opportunity to re-visit his Piano Concerto that I heard during the 2003 Ars Musica festival in Brussels, and that had left me rather puzzled. True to say, repeated hearings of this often enigmatic piece have not completely cleared my view of the piece, but have helped hearing things that had eluded me two years ago. Abrahamsen’s Piano Concerto is for piano and ensemble including a synthesiser, if I remember well, and is in four movements, all of which but one are fairly short. The piece opens with a short preludial movement in which the music, as it were, freezes after a minute or so (the movement lasts less than two minutes). This is followed by a comparatively long slow movement Adagio innocente e semplice, that true to its title is far from simple indeed. It opens with a long solo for piano made of isolated notes interspersed with silences. The ensemble creeps in, disrupting the apparent simplicity and tranquillity of the opening with nervous, almost aggressive gestures. The piano, however, restores the opening mood, albeit now in the bass register. There follows a short agitated Scherzo flickering capriciously before moving into the slow final movement in which the ensemble briefly erupts again, but the piano has the last word and concludes the piece in ethereal mood.

As already mentioned, this release also includes several of Abrahamsen’s re-workings of music by other composers, in this case Bach, Nielsen and Schoenberg. The piece by Nørgård heard here is more an orchestration for chamber orchestra than a real re-working. The Bach arrangement is particularly interesting and successful, although it holds some surprise in stock. In fact, Bach’s chorale gradually emerges from two melodic fragments borrowed from Poul Ruders’ Four Dances in One Movement; and, as Michelsen notes, the metamorphosis from Ruders to Bach can be accomplished because both of Ruders’ fragments are in fact “hidden” among the parts of Bach’s chorale. This arrangement is a very fine piece of music indeed, and quite different from Stokowski’s larger-than-life Bach orchestrations. Nielsen’s Three Piano Pieces Op.59, composed in 1928 and published posthumously in 1937, belong to his more searching and ‘modern’ pieces full of unexpected harmonic twists, even including a twelve-tone row, although Nielsen used it his own way. Abrahamsen’s highly efficient orchestration for chamber ensemble is also available in Da Capo 8.224080 (London Sinfonietta conducted by Elgar Howarth), as is his re-scoring for chamber orchestra of Nørgård’s Breaking (on Kontrapunkt 32140). This arrangement was done to mark Nørgård’s sixtieth birthday. Abrahamsen chose to orchestrated only four pieces from Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke Op.11 of 1911, i.e. the four slow pieces of the set, so that this re-working has an undeniable elegiac quality.

This release usefully illustrates several aspects of Abrahamsen’s music making and thinking, be it in his own music or in his re-working of other composers’ works. I would have favoured an all-Abrahamsen disc, since a number of his pieces are still unrecorded; but the present release is as fine an introduction to this composer’s personal sound world as might be desired. Excellent performances caught in fine recording. Well worth investigating.

Hubert Culot


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