Hans Abrahamsen

Composer Portrait – Hans Abrahamsen

Hymn, for solo cello
Storm and Still, for solo cello
Capriccio Bagatels, for solo violin
String Quartet No.2

Hans Abrahamsen in conversation with Andrew McGregor

Heath String Quartet (Royal Northern College of Music):
[Oliver Heath & Kate Lindon (violins), Gary Pomeroy (viola) & Christopher Murray (cello)]

Arena, Royal Albert Hall, London

Prom 24

Symphony No.3 in C, Op.52
Four Pieces for Orchestra [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83

Nelson Freire (piano)

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Ilan Volkov


Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 1 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Sandwiched between Sibelius and Brahms, the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s Four Pieces for Orchestra received its UK premiere to a reasonably full house. There was a slight irony to this – for back in the 1970s Abrahamsen (born 1952) was a member of a group for alternative music which sought to free performance from the concert hall and take music onto the streets with a scratch orchestra.

In conversation with Andrew McGregor in the pre-concert “Composer Portrait”, it became clear that there is an underlying tension in Hans Abrahamsen’s music between an anti-authoritarian streak and a desire for freedom and his need for defined musical structures. Three short pieces offered some valuable insights into Abrahamsen’s musical make-up. As a former horn player he is acutely aware of harmonics, which came out vividly in the cello’s musings in Hymn, much of which consists of double-stopping and is a journey from the darkness of the instrument’s lowest register to light at its top end. Abrahamsen is also responsive to painting – Storm and Still was written as a ‘fanfare’ for an exhibition of paintings by a group of the same name. And Abrahamsen’s music is abstract, so although String Quartet No.2’s obsessively repeated patterns may have been inspired by Escher’s drawings, there is no attempt at pictorialism; and he is nostalgic, too, as demonstrated by the Quartet’s ‘siciliano’. Fine performances by Christopher Murray and Oliver Heath in the solo items, and by the Heath Quartet itself.

Abrahamsen’s Four Pieces for Orchestra (2000-3) is a re-composition of four piano studies written in the 1980s; the piano piece’s original titles – ‘Dreamsong’, ‘Storm’, ‘Arabesque’ and ‘End’ evoke what the composer calls “the golden German Romantic time full of expression, night, timelessness, dream and the irrational”. The Four Pieces employ a huge orchestra including much percussion (not least a hammer “as in Mahler’s 6th”), four Wagner tubas, bass trumpet, guitar, mandolin, two harps, two contrabassoons and two tubas. This is a long way from the ‘New Simplicity’ movement with which Abrahamsen was associated back in the 70s. In fact, the world of Berg never seemed far away, and overlapping blocks of sound, frequently teetering on the edge of audibility, occasionally punctuated by violent outbursts, and extended by telling use of silence, proved haunting and evocative.

Sibelius’s Third Symphony was equally well rehearsed. The BBC Scottish Symphony is currently playing near the top of its game under Volkov’s clear direction. However, on this occasion the sum of the parts was rather less than it might have been. Volkov took a swift view of the opening Allegro moderato, hustling it along and failing to generate the requisite pulsating momentum. Perversely, in the Andantino he adopted a slowish tempo and compounded it by beating the full 6/8; once again there was much sensitive playing, from the strings in particular, but the movement dragged. How often in this piece the key to success lies in the tail of Sibelius’s tempo markings – the first movement’s ‘moderato’, the second’s ‘con moto, quasi allegretto’ and – after its introductory ‘Moderato’ – the finale’s is marked ‘Allegro ma non tanto’. Once again Volkov pushed just too hard and the final peroration was not the seismic event which it can be.

The evening’s plum was the chance to hear the Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire. A pianistic partner of Martha Argerich and one fully worthy of her, Freire plays here all too infrequently. He is now recording for Decca and will essay both of Brahms’s concertos with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and Riccardo Chailly. Despite a few slips, Freire told the familiar story like a master storyteller who knows how to hold an audience in the palm of his hand. Each paragraph led naturally to the next. There was much delicacy as well as leonine power, the latter held in reserve; above all Freire has a clear appreciation of this large concerto’s conundrum – that it is chamber music writ large. In the scherzo there was a wonderful moment of unpredictability in the ‘sotto voce’ double octaves where Freire surged forward, and he also understands that the ‘piu agitato’ at the movement’s close is just that, “more agitated” rather than simply faster. The slow movement included a fine cello solo from Rudi de Groote, unhelpfully positioned out of the pianist’s sight-line (if only Volkov used antiphonal violins…), and – despite a mobile phone ringing – Freire created real magic: time stood still just before the cello’s reprise. The finale too struck just the right tone – unforced and amiable but with an underlying strength of purpose. This was a performance to treasure.

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