Abrahamsen: Schnee / Storgårds, Lapland Chamber Orchestra
A Gramophone Editor's Pick, Shortlisted for the 2022 Gramophone Awards
Recommended by MusicWeb International
A Boston Globe Best Classical Album of 2022
Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee (Snow, 2008) is a gorgeous marvel which encapsulates winter. The instrumental cycle, already a classic of the twenty-first century, comprises a set of ten canons making up an hour of ghostly, feathery music. There is no hurrying, but great depth. As Abrahamsen himself says: ‘In Schnee, a single moment is stretched as far as possible. At some point, the music disappears. There is just a breath of air left’. Founded in 1972, Lapland Chamber Orchestra is the most northerly professional chamber orchestra in Finland and indeed in the entire EU. The orchestra has 18 full-time members and its Artistic Director is conductor John Storgårds. The first ever Principal Guest Conductor, for 2019-2021, is Tomas Djupsjöbacka. Based in Rovaniemi, the orchestra is a regional orchestra that regularly tours the Province of Lapland, but also performs elsewhere in Finland and abroad. The orchestra has performed in festivals such as Savonlinna Opera Festival, Helsinki Festival, the Korsholma Music Festival and the LuostoClassic event. The latest tours abroad have taken the orchestra to Canada, Hungary, Austria, Algeria and the BBC Proms in London.
"The sounds Abrahamsen craves...translucent across a large range of actual expression, hugely complex on the page but delectably simple to the ear, are exceptionally realized and recorded here." -Gramophone
...for a number of years after 1990 [the Danish composer Hans] Abrahamsen composed hardly anything, finding himself in a compositional impasse. The present work Schnee (snow), is one of those with he found his way out of this impasse, and it has been widely admired. However, Abrahamsen’s biggest success so far has been with his 2013 song cycle Let me tell you, using the words of Ophelia from Hamlet. This won the Grawemeyer Award and was voted the greatest classical composition of the twentyfirst century by a poll of critics in 2019.
During his compositional silence, Abrahamsen busied himself with arrangements of the music of other composers, including Bach. He was particularly intrigued by Bach’s set of Canons BWV 1072-8, which he arranged with the aim of repeating them again and again. This gave him the idea of writing his own music using canonic techniques. When he received a commission to write a work for a festival in 2006 he wrote what became the opening two movements of Schnee. The whole work is organised as a set of paired canons, each having an a and a b version. There are also three Intermezzi. Abrahamsen thought of each pair of canons as together forming a third, three-dimensional piece. He also thought of stereoscopic pictures, which two nearly identical pictures give the impression of depth to the viewer.
Each pair of canons is shorter than its predecessor. Furthermore, the ensemble is divided into two groups: sitting on either side of the percussionist on the left we have the strings: violin, viola, cello and one piano. On the right are the woodwind: flute (doubling piccolo and alto flute), oboe (doubling cor anglais), clarinet (doubling E flat and bass clarinet) and a second piano. These are used in contrasting ways. There are also strong contrasts in pace. In the three intermezzi, the wind and stringed instruments are tuned down slightly, creating interference patterns with the pianos, which have normal tuning.
So much for the technicalities of the work, though one could go on a good deal longer about them. What does it sound like? Well, it begins very quietly, so quietly in fact that at first I thought there was something wrong with my equipment. There are very high violin notes and then a melody picked out on the piano. The second set of canons moves rapidly, like walking through swirling snow. The fourth set uses the same sleigh-bells which Mozart used in his Sleigh Ride (Die Schlittenfahrt) from his Three German Dances K. 605. The fifth set uses the device Bach exploited in Contrapunctus 13 from The Art of Fugue of two pieces, one of which is the inversion of the other. At the end, the music just disappears. The work is completely absorbing and gripping and creates a unique atmosphere.
It is beautifully recorded; I was listening in ordinary two-channel stereo, but this is a SACD and should sound even better in that medium. There are helpful sleevenotes, in English and Danish, from which I have borrowed, and altogether this is a memorable disc.
--MusicWeb International (Stephen Barber)
Release Date: February 11, 2022
Catalog Number: 6220585
Number of Discs: 1
Period: 21st Century
Composer: Hans Abrahamsen
Conductor: John Storgårds
Orchestra/Ensemble: Lapland Chamber Orchestra