Sunday 5 May 2013

Rewarding music by Danish composer Bent Sørensen on a new release from Dacapo

The Danish composer Bent Sørensen (b.1958)  studied composition with Ib Nørholm (b.1931) at the Royal Danish Academy of Music and with Per Nørgård (b.1932) at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus . 

Since the mid-eighties, it is almost exclusively as an instrumental composer that Bent Sørensen has made his name, as one of the most listenable Danish composers of his generation. His four string quartets now feature centrally in his chamber music output but, more recently, there has been a growing number of works for large orchestra including a violin concerto Sterbende Gärten (1992-93), a trombone concerto Birds and Bells (1995), the piano concerto La Notte (1996-98) and a symphony (1995-96).  Among the few vocal works Sørensen has written are the opera Under the Sky (2003), the cantata The Echoing Garden (1990-92), In Paradisum (1994-95, 2002) and a number of smaller songs.

Bent Sørensen is professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Music as well as a visiting professor of composition at the Royal Academy of Music in London .

It is said that Sørensen's mature works are dramatic and evocative, half in shadow and full of swirling motion, like memories from a remote, ruined past. It is music that often seems to make memory its theme, to evoke memories or unconscious recollections. Sørensen achieves this by treating major/minor tonalities with microtonal inflections and blurring the harmonies with glissandi.

Dacapo  have released a new disc that makes an ideal introduction to the music of Bent Sørensen. Pianist Rolf Hind , violinist David Alberman and the BBC Symphony Orchestra  conducted by Michael Schønwandt  bring us Sørensen’s Sieben Sehnsüchte for Violin and Piano (1999), The Masque of the Red Death for Piano (1989/90) and La Notte Piano Concerto (1996-98).


‘Sieben Sehnsüchte’ (Seven Longings) for Violin and Piano is in seven movements and represents the personality in pursuit of its alter ego. The music involves sounds such as glissandi on the piano strings, whistling, song, double stopping and microtones. It opens quietly with strange harmonic sounds from the violin, sometimes quite intricate and delicate, beautifully played by David Alberman. When the piano enters it is only to pick out occasional notes, decorating the violin sounds. As the movement progresses the violin becomes a little agitated but soon calms with rapid slides on the violin. At times, the piano seems an onlooker to a dream. The second movement again opens with the violin, soon becoming fast and anxious as the piano enters, still as though an onlooker, beating a repeated rhythmic note on the piano. This is followed by pizzicato notes made on the piano strings that give a sort of tapping sound. The violin then plays pizzicato before longer bowed notes draw the movement to a close.

The piano opens the third movement in a florid melody, wandering over the keyboard but now evidently in control. There are some lovely rich sounds from Rolf Hind. The violin quietly joins, still keeping to its slides until trying to match the piano in an anxious sound. There is an ebb and flow as both players emerge then recede. The piano itself becomes more intricate as the violin continues its sweep of sounds before ending suddenly. A gently picked out motif on plucked piano strings is accompanied by a similar violin theme as the fourth movement commences. A dialogue continues between the instruments until the fifth movement, where the piano gently plays a little tune, soon to be joined by the violin working over the theme. Rhythmically the violin is faster than the piano until it catches up in a faster section. There is a section for violin before the piano joins in this frantic music. Eventually the music slows to a quiet coda with tapping from piano and long held violin note.

The sixth movement is heralded by bold piano chords as the violin quietly enters playing a longer breathed melody in the background. The piano theme quietens and becomes more intricate with trills before it simply ends. The final movement opens with the violin but is soon joined by the piano in a meandering little motif, again those little slides on the violin are there, as the piano gently accompanies. The music moves to an insistent motif before ending.

‘The Masque of the Red Death’ for Piano (1989/90) takes its title from a story by Edgar Allan Poe concerning the plague, though Sørensen uses it in a more symbolic way concerning the imbalance in any living system and in the universe itself.  Marked Presto-molto maniaco ma con delicatezza it commences with a rapid motif on the upper keyboard before filling out. There is some superb playing here from Rolf Hines. This reduces to an insistent theme, repeated constantly as it descends and grows faster. As it slows the theme varies but there is still a repeated motif full of clusters of notes for the right hand giving quite a florid sound, in this spectacular and quite individual music. Soon there is a subtle change as the music becomes less insistent and develops the material. After a sudden pause, there are repeated staccato notes that slowly and imperceptibly develop into a new theme, becoming quite intoxicatingly intricate. The music slows and the theme seems to slightly broaden before rising to a short climax. Another pause precedes a loud outburst, descending to quite intricate sounds, slowly descending. A lone note heralds another pause before the piano plays descending scales to end quietly.

With ‘La Notte’ (Night) Piano Concerto (1996-98) the piano represents the individual standing against the collective in the form of the orchestra and is in two movements, opening quietly with delicate piano notes and glissandi from the violins. Slowly the piano theme opens out and develops against scurrying strings. The orchestra develops into a distinctive, unsettled, scurrying theme as the piano plays its repeated motif. There are effective percussion sounds as the scurrying theme continues, the strings becoming more conventionally melodic for a short time. After an outburst from the orchestra there are tubular bell chimes leading to a quiet atmospheric section with falling, sighing sounds from the orchestra and some atmospheric muted brass sounds. The piano continues to rapidly play its intricate notes over this orchestral background. Soon there are orchestral outbursts before the piano plays repeated low chords against an orchestra with brass and percussion. Timpani add to the menace as the music develops, the piano developing the theme in a slightly jazzy manner. After further repeated notes from the piano and orchestra the piano plays some quite magical phrases with outburst of percussion before ending quietly and atmospherically with a chime.

The second movement opens quietly with the piano playing a gentle tune against sighing strings. The piano continues the theme against dreamlike orchestral sounds that emerge then recede. The quiet is interrupted by an orchestral outburst part way through but soon quietens to a stillness in the orchestra, the piano still playing its somewhat tentative theme. There is another small climax, with percussion but immediately the music quietens, though the piano becomes more strident and insistent. Pizzicato strings appear against a more complex piano part but the work ends with the pizzicato strings just fading away.

The recordings from 2000 (La Notte) and 2011 (Sieben Sehnsüchte and The Masque) are excellent. Whilst some of this music makes for a difficult first listen, I would encourage perseverance, as repeated listening, particularly of The Masque of the Red Death and La Notte will reward.

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