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Thomas Agerfeldt OLESEN (b. 1969)
Der Wind bläset wo er will (The Wind Blows Wherever It Pleases), for orchestra (2011) [23:35]
Cello Concerto (2014, rev 2016) [25:13]
Johannes Moser (cello)
Danish National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Otto Tausk
Rec. November 2017 (concerto) and August 2019 at DR Koncerthuset, Copenhagen, Denmark
DACAPO 8.226586 [48:48]

This is the second portrait disc Dacapo have dedicated to the work of Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen although the first, Tonkraftwerk (8.226509) was released way back in 2004. That issue’s title track is a quirky and memorable piece for chamber orchestra which subtly and at times humorously evokes industrial machinery. Whilst I enjoyed that disc, I haven’t thus far encountered Dacapo’s 2016 DVD of Olesen’s ‘choreographic opera’ treatment of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey (2.110415) although it seems to have garnered a sheaf of positive reviews. I hope the present issue is equally successful; it pairs a couple of Olesen’s big orchestral works from the last decade. Whilst they strike me as very different beasts both are colourful, accessible and eloquent. The concerto especially has left an indelible impression.

In a most lucid booklet note, Lasse Laursen reveals that Olesen originally conceived Der Wind bläset wo er will as a graphic drawing which he duly converted into an orchestral score. The title alludes to the unknown, unpredictable provenance and direction of the wind, a spontaneous quality which is immediately recognisable in the delicate threads of Olesen’s piece. Der Wind incorporates a single span of orchestral sound divided into five identifiable sections which Dacapo have helpfully tracked seperately. A jazzy double-bass figure seems to haunt the loose fusillade of spiralling woodwind arabesques, ethereally stratospheric strings and percussive emissions which comprise the work’s deftly atmospheric opening. Laursen mentions a pervading French influence and it’s palpable in the weave of the music even if it’s not altogether obvious in its pitches, intervals and harmony. Olesen’s playful experimentation is detectable throughout the piece. A modal, sinister melody in the strings from 5:30 seems to prefigure a transition into briefer, more clearly differentiated passages which are touched by repetition. The blasts of wind (imaginatively produced by a range of extended instrumental techniques) at the centre of this second panel is succeeded by a long unison melody. This persists and splinters, eventually morphing into a vaguely Messiaenic sounding central spread (marked meno mosso) which mutates into billowing, virile brass chords and sharp blasts of timpani and bass-drum (vividly captured by the Dacapo engineers). Peculiar dripping, twanging noises predominate at the outset of the fourth section before an eerie descending figure intervenes and threatens to rise, only to be dissuaded by the tappings and watery manifestations of Der Wind’s initial swirling gestures. During the final recapitulation Olesen revisits and re-orders some of the earlier material as the piece becomes increasingly immersive, eliciting a kind of vocal texture, one strand of a lush neo-romanticism which is frankly gorgeous. Straussian chamber textures pre-empt a conclusion which projects an unexpected sense of nostalgia. In the final reckoning Der Wind bläset wo er will is as unpredictable as it is compelling. Both playing and recording are stupendous.

Olesen originally trained as a cellist and his Cello Concerto of 2014 (revised a couple of years later) is an achingly personal essay. It’s dedicated to the memory of his mother and was composed in part as she endured her final illness. He is quoted in the booklet as perceiving the entire concerto as ‘a kind of rondo’, something that encapsulates the idea of ‘returning’, just as the composer was always able to return to his mother throughout his life, not least during times of crisis. The single movement design is again demarcated into four separately tracked sections. The opening seems to evoke the composer practising scales as a child – it’s familiar yet fresh, open-hearted and extremely attractive. The orchestral commentary begins to intensify after a minute and a half, accompaniment that wavers between tact and drama. The second idea (marked più mosso) is more varied but idiomatically and energetically conceived for the soloist (in this case the outstanding Johannes Moser) and the argument glides toward the initial opening scalar ideas with pleasing inevitability. En route there’s an abundance of colourful detail, most notably the spiky but apposite percussion and lots of pungent muted brass. At 4:40 the soloist emotes a pronounced, not-quite-resigned descending scale which leads again to a reprise of the initial theme. A denser, chordal passage for the cello acts as a bridge into the third panel. This is gentler initially, the orchestral accompaniment more chamber-like and luminous. At the core of this is a passionate yet somehow detached passage in which the soloist seems to be swimming against the orchestral backcloth, but at 3:45 their paths collide. I detect hints of Olesen’s compatriot Per Nørgård’s ‘infinity series’ in the regular, rapid pulse of this material. As this section subsides the dissonance and textural variety in the cello part seems to expand. A trombone fanfare heralds the beginning of the end. A reflective cello phrase is mirrored by mourning strings which stoically strive to remain upbeat. This extended closing section thus takes on the role of a threnody, albeit one not drenched in overt sadness. It’s an extremely strange and powerfully affecting farewell, not least when a stray, gentle guitar (of all things) seems to stumble into the room, joining in as it gradually gets the hang of the music. The initial theme is beautifully shoehorned into the conclusion. If this is the end, it’s a most agreeable one.

Olesen’s Cello Concerto is a wonderful find and worth the price of the disc on its own. Johannes Moser is completely inside it and it’s difficult to imagine a more emotionally powerful rendition. The Dutch conductor Otto Tausk is equally attuned to the essence of this singular piece and ensures world-class accompaniment from the DNSO. Dacapo’s teriffic recording exudes clarity – the balance between soloist and orchestra seems ideal.

These two substantial works add up to just under 50 minutes of exceptional contemporary music, but frankly who’s counting? In each case the sounds Thomas Agerfeldt Olesen has devised are utterly absorbing. He writes with tremendous sophistication and wit in the first piece and with an emotional directness in the second which is as daring as it is affecting. To echo the translation of the title of the first piece, both works last as long as they do. Each will amply reward any curious, sympathetic listener. That is surely enough.

Richard Hanlon
 



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