HANS ABRAHAMSEN Værker for blæserkvintet
29 July 2016
Although the title of this disc would lead one to expect wind quintet works of Hans Abrahamsen, only a third of the programme contains original material. The rest are arrangements by Abrahamsen of well known pieces by Schumann and Ravel. The two original compositions are early works, the first, Landscapes, which Abrahamsen wrote at age 19. Though neither of these approaches the originality of his wonderful song cycle, let me tell you, they are both quite accomplished and idiomatically written for the woodwind quintet.
Landscapes is in three movements, the first two of which are marked “Senza espressivo.” Abrahamsen was reacting against the complexities of German modernism in this quintet. He intends all three movements to be played at one fixed dynamic, where the “close-knit parts move stepwise up and down through tiny motifs, and the movements are not rounded off - they quite simply stop, as with a ‘cut’,” according to Jens Cornelius’ informative notes in the CD booklet. The music contains much dissonance, but also has a simplicity that one associates with minimalism. The landscapes Abrahamsen is depicting are fields as blocks of sounds, a sandy landscape influenced by the American minimalism of Terry Riley, and a wilder landscape “with a manic atmosphere that could continue endlessly.”
Walden, the title Abrahamsen later assigned to the work, is taken from Henry David Thoreau’s famous book. This second woodwind quintet is more frequently performed than Landscapes and shows an advance in the composer’s development. It is in four short movements and combines poetic material and minimalism, just as Thoreau’s plan was to opt out of society and adopt a simpler existence. Cornelius warns, though, that just as “Thoreau’s plan for the simple life is a construct, one must not be fooled by Abrahamsen’s newly-invented simplicity.” The music originates in a narrow, tonal range, is rigorously constructed, and expands while “at the same time a contrary development makes the movements accelerate in tempo and shorten in duration.” The work begins with the horn, Abrahamsen’s instrument as a student at the Royal Danish Academy of Music, playing an ascending fourth and then continues with five-bar phrases while the other instruments respond with phrases of four bars between which are long pauses. Later the music becomes more animated with a bit of dissonance. The second movement has the character of a funeral procession with flute and bassoon providing a passacaglia-like foundation before the other instruments join in. With more dissonance than the preceding movement, it extends into a 12-tone row. The last two movements are livelier and shorter. The third movement’s micropolyphony, which Cornelius likens to “brooks flowing polyrhythmically on,” is rather reminiscent of Ligeti. The fourth movement, barely a minute long, is cheerful and to be played very quietly. The music simply stops.
Both of Abrahamsen’s wind quintet pieces here are attractive and memorable. I would have liked to hear more original works in this genre. Apparently, his first work for wind quintet relied heavily on Stravinsky’s neoclassicism and the composer never published it. Instead, he arranged popular compositions by Schumann and Ravel, having taken a ten year break from composing in 1989. His arrangement of Kinderszenen is a straightforward transcription for wind quintet. The only small change to Schumann’s original occurs at the very end of the work where Abrahamsen has the oboe hold the note and bind the last chords together. This version of Kinderszenen works well for the most part, though I wish he had placed more emphasis on the lower instruments, the horn and bassoon. The oboe, in particular, can get a bit piercing, as it plays a prominent role along with the flute and clarinet throughout the composition. The horn gets to shine in the ninth scene, Ritter von Steckenpferd, but for me the best movement is the famous Träumerei where the oboe is omitted altogether and the clarinet leads the others. It is really quite beautiful and here one hardly misses the piano. Ensemble MidtVest performs well, as they also do in the original works. The sound is good, but tends to emphasize the treble range - something I did not notice in the original Abrahamsen works.
While I can understand the justification for arranging the Schumann for wind quintet, I have a harder time accepting the Ravel for this medium. There aren’t that many masterpieces for wind quintet from nineteenth century Romanticism, whereas the twentieth century has numerous fine examples. Ravel had already arranged Le Tombeau de Couperin for orchestra from the piano original, i.e., the same four movements which Abrahamsen scored. As in Ravel’s orchestration, Abrahamsen’s arrangement features the oboe and also gives important parts to the horn and the other instruments. I am sure professional wind quintets do not mind having another work of the calibre of Ravel’s to perform. Again the recording is satisfactory, but could use a bit more warmth.
Overall, this disc is valuable for providing excellent accounts of Abrahamsen’s wind quintets - all 18 minutes of them - and it gives the listener a taste of the composer’s ability as an arranger. Dacapo impresses with their production. There are not only Jens Cornelius’ excellent notes, but also the attractive artwork of Denise Burt.