Nacht und Trompeten
Concerto for piano and orchestra
Recompositions by Hans Abrahamsen:
Befiehl, du deine wege, BWV272
Three Piano Pieces, Op.59
Four Pieces (from Sechs Kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19)
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Anne Marie Abildskov (piano)
Stratifications & Nacht und Trompeten (Dausgaard) recorded in March 2000 in the Danish Radio Concert Hall; the remainder recorded in Norway in May 2002 in NRK AS Grieghallen and NRK Minde
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: August 2005
CD No: DACAPO 8.226010
Duration: 63 minutes
Interest in this (2004) release was stimulated when Hans Abrahamsen’s music was heard at BBC Proms 2005. On that occasion a selection of instrumental pieces and a work for large orchestra suggested that further investigation of his music was imperative … and has been handsomely rewarded with this superb issue.
Abrahamsen (born 1952) has a very keen ear for colour and texture, for silence, for rhythm, and for suggesting (intentionally or not) a narrative; the listener’s imagination is ignited and, on a purely musical level, one can revel in his fastidious and wide-ranging resource of sound and fertile ideas. One of Abrahamsen’s teachers was György Ligeti. First on the CD, and the earliest music here, is Stratifications (1973/75), a very Ligetian title, and with some aural echoes of the master. Yet, Abrahamsen’s sense of fantasy is very much his own, so too the way harmony is ‘stretched’, and he beguiles the ear with layers of intriguing structures that are juxtaposed both sequentially and concurrently. His orchestration is as sure as it is unpredictable as it is ear-catching, and while his mechanisms can be repetitive, these phrases never tire the ear and the Ives-like, out of sync conjunctions keep the active listener satisfied.
Stratifications is for full orchestra, and conducted by Thomas Dausgaard, so too is Nacht und Trompeten, which was written for the Berlin Philharmonic. The premiere, in 1982, was led by dedicatee Hans Werner Henze. The title might suggest something Mahlerian; rather, the sometimes-sinister soundworld looks back to other composers of the early twentieth-century – Berg never seems far away – and there’s a strong flavour of Stravinsky in the music’s rhythmic pungency (Four Etudes and Symphony in three movements). Abrahamsen has absorbed many influences into his music without even the merest suggestion of plagiarism. Both these orchestral works repay repeated listening.
For all that Abrahamsen is associated with the 1970s’ “New Simplicity” movement, there is nothing here that is ‘easy’ to listen to. Yes, some rhythms have a direct, punchy quality and reiteration helps establish certain motifs; yet Abrahamsen is a cunning operator in ensuring that nothing outstays its welcome and, above all, his writing is of the utmost sophistication, and often remarkably poetic. His music requires very careful preparation and listening to find its interior – for that is where its heart is.
In the 1990s, Abrahamsen fell silent as a composer of original music. He turned to what might be termed ‘arrangements’, a very unsatisfactory word, for the examples on this CD are, indeed, “recompositions”. The chosen music is re-imagined in terms of Abrahamsen’s own language, itself formed from his abstraction of earlier musics. To quote from the booklet note, these ‘arrangements’ are a “dialogue with history”.
The Bach is a ‘chorale prelude’ (now for 15 instruments), which has a cool linear beauty that is captivating, and which also ‘borrows’ material from his fellow Danish composer Poul Ruders; it all belongs.
The three piano pieces of Nielsen, another countryman, is music of great diversity, and lucidly scored by Abrahamsen (for 10 instruments) with a flavour all its own, and which reminds of Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 in places. Once again, one is enlightened by such cross-references. And, paradoxically, Schoenberg’s own Opus 19 Piano Pieces (four of the six arranged for chamber orchestra) are transmuted to an unexpected sound-realm (in relation to Schoenberg’s own); Abrahamsen conjures something sensuous. Occasionally there are effects recognisable from Schoenberg’s Five Orchestral Pieces; and, of course, the composer’s characteristic intervals are intact, so too an appropriate Webern-like economy of instrumental writing. Overriding all of this is how responsive this music is to being coloured, and how Abrahamsen has ‘found’ a melodic and atmospheric ‘through line’ for each of these elusive creations.
For Per Nørgård’s 60th-birthday in 1992, another teacher, Abrahamsen made a version of Breaking (as in sea-waves) that changed Nørgård’s instrumentation (reduced?) and added in more ‘effects’ (glissandos, quarter-tones, etc.) than in the original. It’s a powerful and busy piece as heard here, quite striking in its search for a placid outcome.
Abrahamsen has now returned to original composition without diminishing his interest in finding new angles on his or other composers’ music. (His Four Pieces, completed in 2003 and heard at the Proms, stem from piano etudes written twenty years earlier.) The 15-minute Piano Concerto (1999-2000), the soloist here being Abrahamsen’s wife, has already been heard in London to a warm reception. The short first movement, all of two minutes, is preludial and exploratory, and the pianist alone searches out the second movement with a very spare solo (‘innocent and simple’ is the composer’s heading in the score) until the other instruments enter to chaotic effect. The material, when not spare, is angular and dissonant and, the explosive third-movement aside, this concerto seems like a draft for something bigger, yet as a whole it also relays a wealth of information that seems at odds with the work’s brevity. A fascinating piece: the final chord seems an afterthought (and comes after an Abrahamsen trademark, a long silence), or maybe that’s where the work has been heading all the time.
The Bergen-based BIT20 Ensemble and Ilan Volkov give superb performances, so too the Danish Radio Symphony; one imagines that the composer was at the sessions, and there’s no doubt as to the superb recording quality.