SUNLEIF RASMUSSEN: Symfoni nr. 2 'The Earth Anew'
01 January 2017
We’ve waited a long time for the successor to Sunleif Rasmussen’s First Symphony, Oceanic Days (1997). John Storgårds eventually lost patience and commissioned a second symphony from the Faroese composer himself, with help from the Helsinki Philharmonic and a consortium of foundations. The piece was first performed in 2015 in Helsinki in a concert that included Sibelius’s Kullervo.
There are clear parallels with the earlier work, not only in terms of scoring but also in the narrative recounting of an old Nordic (in this case, Norse) myth. But the story of the tree of life Yggdrasil reminds us too of Wagner’s borrowing of the tale for The Ring’s World-Ash Tree. In the final movement of Rasmussen’s symphony the sun turns black and the land sinks into the sea; the rebirth that follows feels much like that which comes after Brünnhilde’s immolation.
Indeed, Rasmussen’s new symphony is a bold, imposing piece that leaves multiple residues in its wake. The music feels every bit as though it’s been simmering inside the composer for the two decades since its predecessor. Some of that work’s techniques, notably its smooth weave and pointillist tendencies, are taken forwards here. The presence of Faroese folk songs is consciously more foregrounded but the general feel is more tectonic and primordial.
The rhythmic impulse is compelling, best heard in the agitato first movement, which feels pulled up from deep inside the earth, and in the capering Scherzo: a joyous but rooted depiction of the tree’s messenger squirrel (Cyndia Sieden sounding every bit rodentine). Rasmussen’s scoring is outrageously imaginative here and, in fact, everywhere; his huge, writhing and wriggling orchestral depths are often topped out by frantic, glistening high winds. The whole is peppered with ear-catching instrumental effects that the Helsinki players take in their stride, as if they rehearsed for two weeks solid (they probably did). Bo Skovhus is warm of voice but tears into his baritone solos; Sieden is clear as a bell; and the choirs sing with grain and weight. New music of a very, very high quality in a thrilling performance – and we have Storgårds to thank for both.