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Tommie HAGLUND (b. 1959)
Flaminis Aura, for cello and orchestra with tape (2001/2004) [35:28]
Il regno degli spiriti (Land of Souls), for string quartet (2001) [19:14]
Sollievo (Dopo la tempesta) (Solace; After the Storm) (2013) for string trio [14:06]
Serenata per Diotima for strings (2014) [13:39]
Ernst Simon Glaser (cello)
ZilliacusPerssonRaitinen Trio, Julia Kretz-Larsson (violin II)
Gothenburg Symphony/David Afkham (Flaminis Aura)
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Joachim Gustafsson (Serenata)
rec. 2012, Gothenburg Concert Hall (Flaminis Aura); 2015, Malmö Concert Hall (Serenata); Petruskyrkan, Stocksund, Sweden (Chamber works)
Reviewed in surround
BIS BIS-2025 SACD [83:46]

My previous exposure to Tommie Haglund’s music came with the release in 2010 of ‘Hymns to the Night’ on Phono Suecia (PSCD184 - review). In an eloquent and splendidly detailed review, Nick Barnard commended it in glowing terms, especially the concertante violin work which gives the disc its title. My colleague wasn’t the only one to recommend it and as a true Scandophile I ordered it without delay. While I agree with much of Nick’s review, especially about the stunning solo playing of Elizabeth Pitcairn in ‘Hymns’, I have played this work several times over the years and it strikes me as music that’s easier to admire than to love. While Haglund’s craftsmanship and rigour are never in doubt there is just something about this piece that passes me by. If anything, it’s that structurally it seems to rely excessively on short-breathed phrases which (to my ears, alas) merely seem to staunch the flow of the piece. Some of Kancheli’s and Silvestrov’s symphonies rely on similar means, but I find them structurally coherent and, perhaps more importantly, both formally satisfying and deeply moving.

Regardless of my perceptions of the Phono Suecia disc, I eagerly anticipated hearing this BIS recording of four more pieces by Haglund, including another concertante work, this time for cello and orchestra, ‘Flaminis Aura’. At the very least, having read the BIS publicity, I certainly wanted to experience the sonic properties of the concerto in its SACD guise.

I was not disappointed - in fact I have been bowled over by both the sonic and compositional merits of this disc. Haglund’s music – in three of the pieces at least – remains beautifully crafted but on this occasion it has touched me in unexpected ways. Ingo Petry’s production is brilliant even by normal BIS standards – the lifelike surround sound image for Flaminis Aura is as good as I have encountered on SACD. The interstellar ‘aura’ provided by the NASA recording of Earth from space is woven seamlessly into the sound picture, resulting in a passage of bewildering sonic beauty, resplendent with two speakers but almost breathtaking through five – I used a relatively inexpensive Sony Blu-ray system – and all but producing a physical sense of weightlessness!

Why is ‘Flaminis Aura’ successful, then, when ‘Hymns of the Night’ didn’t work for me? I certainly find it interesting that this Cello Concerto is broadly a decade older than the violin work. Perhaps Haglund’s approach was less self-conscious and more relaxed during the composition of the earlier piece? Haglund’s work in general seems to proceed at a pretty modest pace. There’s very little fast music in any of the four works in this conspectus, but to my ears the melodic shapes here are more touching, the glittering orchestration often translucent and certainly more involving. There’s easily sufficient expressive and textural variety to sustain the concerto’s 35 minute span despite the generally slow tempo. Not only this, but soloist Ernst Simon Glaser, the principal cellist in the Gothenburg Symphony, coaxes a ripe, lustrous tone throughout and fully embraces the intensity of the cello part – it’s barely possible to imagine a performance of greater searing commitment. The German conductor David Afkham oversees a precise, perfectly balanced contribution from the Gothenburg band. ‘Flaminis Aura’, then, is both alluring and convincing.

The couplings involve more modest forces. The string quartet ‘Il regno degli spiriti‘ is also an earlier work, dating from a Medici Quartet commission in 2001. The work is compellingly laid out for its forces – the notes tell us the extra-musical inspiration involves a North American Indian version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, hence ‘The reign of the spirits’. The music frequently conveys a ghostly countenance. The work seems to drift from familiar tonal regions toward a more dissonant, even gently expressionistic netherworld. It is always haunting and sometimes disturbing. The seemingly ad hoc quartet led by Cecilia Zilliacus play with total conviction. The recording in both formats is remarkably faithful and, given the restrained nature of the work, spectacular, not least in the higher registers of the instruments which feature prominently in this piece.

The trio ‘Sollievo (dopo la tempesta)’ marks Haglund’s recovery from a painful back condition and subsequent surgery. This is certainly no criticism, but many of the textures and harmonies in this work, which is of more recent pedigree – 2013, brought Schnittke’s String Trio to my mind. It is wonderfully laid out for the instruments. The playing of the ZilliacusPerssonRaitinen Trio suggests one giant stringed instrument rather than three separate ones, such is the homogeneity of their timbre – this performance evidently involved really deep listening on the part of each player. This trio itself lasts under a quarter of an hour and creates a truly lasting impression.

Had the disc finished at that point I would have been sufficiently convinced by the obvious qualities of these three works that I needed to reconsider my earlier perceptions of Haglund’s music. As it is, BIS offer another work in an extremely generous programme. This is the recent ‘Serenata per Diotima’ for string orchestra, partly inspired by the birth of Haglund’s first granddaughter. The string writing and the lush textures of the work confirm a masterly understanding of string sound but in my heart I found this the least convincing piece as an entity, its sound technical means insufficient in compensating for what I perceived as a lack of expressive direction. The strings of the Malmo Symphony Orchestra give it everything, however, and their sonorous, glowing sound is again captured in splendid detail by the BIS engineers. I suspect others may respond more readily to this work than I did.

So in conclusion I would certainly hope that as many readers as possible get to try this distinctive Swedish voice. The fact that the nuances of these pieces tend to emerge with greater familiarity has certainly encouraged me to return to the Phono Suecia disc with fresh ears. The superb performances and recording throughout this collection engender the hope that BIS will consider recording more of Tommie Haglund’s output.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: Nick Barnard (Recording of the Month)



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