A Real Discovery
J Scott Morrison | Middlebury VT, USA | 05/21/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I began listening to this CD based on two faulty assumptions on my part. First, I had read, mistakenly as it turns out, that Faeroese composer Sunleif Rasmussen had studied with Norwegian composer Per NORGARD -- he was actually a student of the similarly named Ib NORHOLM -- and since I have come to really admire the music of Norgard I assumed the music of Rasmussen might be similar, another faulty assumption, as often students' music sounds nothing like their mentors'. Well, guess what? This was a case of real serendipity, because I instantly fell in love with the sound of Rasmussen's music. One of life's happy accidents. Further, it turns out there is some similarity between Rasmussen's music and that of Norgard after all. It could be broadly defined as spectral or timbral music, and as such it is exceedingly attractive. Even though there is no obvious formal plan in this music (although the composer does indeed have a plan, it's just that it isn't all that apparent to this listener), it is unfailingly interesting, engaging, and satisfying to me.
The disc contains two major works of the young Rasmussen (b. 1961 -- he started out as a rock musician and soon was smitten with the possibilities of 'classical' music) -- the Symphony No. 1, subtitled 'Oceanic Days,' (1995-97) and the Saxophone Concerto, subtitled 'Dem Licht Entgegen' ('Toward the Light') (2001). The 40-minute symphony's subtitle is taken from a line by Faeroese poet William Heinesen (1900-1991): 'It's again one of these Oceanic days.' The symphony is a paean to the landscape and seascape of his homeland, the Faeroe Islands. This group of 18 islands, with a total area of less than 600 square miles and a population of about 50,000, is located in the North Atlantic about 200 miles northwest of the Shetland Islands, which are themselves off the northernmost coast of Scotland. They were settled by the Vikings, the ancestors of the modern-day Faeroese, in the 8th century. The islands joined Denmark in 1386 and have been part of the Danish kingdom ever since. The Faeroes have had home rule, under Danish authority, since 1948. The symphony's orchestration abounds with impressionistic effects -- shimmering strings and tuned percussion, pictorial wind and brass solos, and in the third movement (of three) a tuba representing a whale. All this is so expertly and seamlessly done that one is carried along both dreamily and breathlessly, if one can imagine, towards a peroration where the string players are instructed to sing their lines as well as play them. This is almost as if the seemingly barren landscape has been populated by its hardy human inhabitants. An extraordinary work.
The Saxophone Concerto, here played by its dedicatee, Danish saxophonist Jeanette Balland, is unusual in one respect: the soloist is required to play baritone, tenor, alto and finally a soprano saxophone in each of the four movements respectively. What an interesting idea! This would be a mere parlor trick if it weren't for the effect this has. The concerto builds from an almost primal percussive and deep-hued brutality in the first movement through a kind of striving of the saxophonist to rise out of the darkness into the light, accomplished in part by the ascending range of the four saxophones used. The second movement is lyrical (and again has string players singing a unison vocalise as they play), the third has echo effects and soloistic chamber music passages, and the fourth has a triumphant soprano sax sailing above the orchestra in concerto grosso style.
Throughout both works the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, under Finnish conductor Hannu Lintu, and captured in stunningly brilliant SACD sound, plays beautifully. The string players even sing well! This is indeed an impressive first hearing of music from this inventive and talented composer. As far as I know this is a first recording of his music. I shall be on the lookout for more.
Recommended for those who love to discover new composers.