That Hans Abrahamsen (born 1952) has again established himself among the most significant composers of his generation can only be to the good of contemporary music. This Dacapo release features original pieces and arrangements for wind quintet; the latter category not to be lightly dismissed, given that Abrahamsen has frequently turned to the music of his predecessors as means of re-focussing his creative energies. That these four works blend seamlessly as an overall sequence, moreover, says much for his strength of persona.
Abrahamsen was barely out of his teens when Landskaber (Landscapes, 1972) confirmed him as a figure intent on breaking away from a Danish modernism still indebted to Austro-German models. In their overtones of American minimalism, not least Terry Riley (a more potent influence on music at this juncture then has latterly been the case), these three brief yet eventful pieces each outlines a specific ensemble ‘sound’ whose distinctiveness does not preclude overall unity of purpose, for all that their inherent abstraction eschews expression as such.
By the time of Walden (Forests, 1978), Abrahamsen had evolved a demonstrably more tactile idiom in which lessons previously learned from Ligeti are put to productive use. Such is evident in the keen contrasts between solo and ensemble textures, along with a tendency to character evocation such as draws these four pieces into tighter accord than might have been the case. Although added subsequently, the title’s allusion to Henry David Thoreau’s philosophical non-conformism can only be relevant to the ethos of this music – now even more than then.
Turning to the arrangements, and that of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin (made in 1989) feels just a shade disappointing. Not that Abrahamsen’s reconfiguring of the composer’s version for orchestra is at all wanting in finesse; rather the result is lacking in the re-creative insight that distinguishes his other such projects. Thus for all the elegance of the ‘Prélude’, urbanity of the ‘Forlane’, pathos of the ‘Menuet’ and sprightliness of the ‘Rigaudon’, there remains the feeling of a job well done such as yields only limited extra light on the music.
Not so Abrahamsen’s arrangement of Schumann’s Kinderszenen (transcribed in 2005) and in which he transforms these piano miniatures effortlessly into a different medium without undermining the deft intensity of the original. Put another way, no-one hearing this music for the first time in this version would likely deduce its derivation – even that there was a derivation at all. As with Abrahamsen’s rethinking of Carl Nielsen’s late Three Pieces (also for piano), the outcome is a work fully able to stand as an autonomous entity and deserves to be a mandatory addition to a still-limited medium.
The performances by Ensemble MidtVest could scarcely be improved on for clarity of ensemble and that expressive acuity as defines each of these works, while the cool yet never clinical sound and Jens Cornelius’s detailed booklet notes are further enhancements. A pity that an even earlier and unpublished piece for wind quintet was not included, but it hardly undermines the overall excellence of this issue. Should Abrahamsen again revisit the wind quintet medium, one hopes these musicians will capture the results.