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Rolf MARTINSSON (b. 1956)
Garden of Devotion Op. 97 (2013) [22:34]
A.S. in memoriam Op. 50a (1999) [10:32]
Landscape Op. 84 (2010) [4:45]
Kalliope Op. 66 (2004) [28:15]
Lisa Larsson (soprano)
Bas Treub (violin)
Netherlands Chamber Orchestra/Gordan Nikolić
rec. 2018, location not given.
Reviewed in SACD stereo.

Rolf Martinsson's Garden of Devotion sets poems from 'The Gardner' by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore with shamelessly romantic melodic lines and often lush harmonies from a string orchestra accompaniment. This entirely suits the text's theme of unrequited love, Martinsson changing the order of the poems to create an added narrative which gives shape to this cycle. There is a throbbing but pent-up passion in the music which will take anyone expecting a modernist idiom by surprise, but this work is in part the fruit of a collaboration with Swedish soprano Lisa Larsson which has also included a recording of Orchestral Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson (review). Her expressive, pure sound is good for this idiom, but you'll need the printed texts in order to understand the words.

A.S. in Memoriam is again for string orchestra, though originally written for 15 strings, and was written in memory of Arnold Schoenberg and his Verklärte Nacht, quoting that work directly at one point. It has plenty of the atmosphere of Verklärte Nacht, with plenty of Wagnerian and at times Mahlerian colours thrown in, and something of Richard Strauss's Metamophosen; all elements that have made this work something of a popular hit on the concert circuit. The alternative BIS recording with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Andrew Manze (review) is a bit more generalised in its sound, the strings of the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra being asked to wring more passion out of the notes with closer focus and wider vibrato. Taste will dictate which you prefer, but for me this version conjures more of the wood-panelled darkness of 1899.

To the Shadow of Reality is another work dedicated to Lisa Larsson. Written for soprano and string quartet, its five movements set to selected texts by Swedish poet Karin Boye. As with Garden of Devotion the sequence creates a narrative, this time an unhappy tale of love and its hurtful consequences. There is more overt drama in this cycle, especially in the third song, From a bad girl, and the fourth song You are my purest consolation forming a gentler contrast with tenderness at its heart despite the underlying and ongoing conflicts in the theme of the cycle as a whole, the final action a determination to strike out onto new paths: "Our adventure has no end in sight."

Landscape for solo violin was written for Henning Kraggerud, taking Edvard Munch's painting 'Strand' as its starting point. Martinsson sums this piece up best: "I have improvised on a story where waves, a beach and two different temperaments have important roles... [These] are represented by a man and a woman, fighting in a house close to a beach..." The temperaments develop and recede, exchanging places as the piece progresses, the narrative framed by a representation of "the beach and the waves." Whether this would be apparent on a first hearing without the description I'm not sure, but the piece certainly has a pictorial flow and atmosphere.

Kalliope for string orchestra has nine movements, each depicting one of the Muses - daughters of Zeus. The Muses each preside over a genre in the arts, and you can have fun trying to sort out which is which when listening blind and with your machine on 'shuffle'. Martinsson's romantic idiom is back in full force here, with hints of Richard Strauss, Wagner, and perhaps the Schoenberg of the 5 Orchestral Pieces, though without their spiky edginess.

Rolf Martinsson once again proves himself a standard-bearer for approachable high-quality contemporary music. Those scared of being cast adrift on a sea of atonal rootlessness and grungy ugliness can find safe haven amongst the craftsmanship of these works and the refinement of their performances and recording, There are a few challenges along the way, but the overall impression is of relatable human emotions and the kind of deeply satisfying expressive richness that should encourage everyone to explore further.

Dominy Clements

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