Bent Sørensen’s distinctive music thrives on the intangible, from atmospheres and feelings to memories and dreams. This recording unites three recent concertos from the Grawemeyer Award-winning composer performed by distinguished Nordic soloists, beginning with a second piano concerto played by its dedicatee and inspiration, Leif Ove Andsnes. Sørensen’s clarinet concerto for Martin Fröst is inspired by the scents of Spanish poetry, while his trumpet concerto for Tine Thing Helseth feeds on his constant obsession with the beauty and vulnerability of Venice. Each concerto is highly evocative and filled with Sørensen’s etched beauty.
A Dreamscape of the Mind, Open to Everyone
by Esben Tange
In Bent Sørensen’s concertos for soloist (or soloists), we as listeners are invited to enter a magical musical world. This applies in the highest degree to the violin concerto Sterbende Gärten (1993) and to L’Isola della Città (2015) for piano trio and orchestra, both of which are milestones in Bent Sørensen’s copious production, and it also applies to the three concertos on this album, written for three of the finest musicians in Scandinavia: the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, the clarinettist Martin Fröst and the trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth.
Although the concertos are rich in technical challenges, we are not dealing here with virtuoso concertos in the traditional sense, with a brilliant soloist in dynamic contrast to the orchestra. Each of the three concertos constitutes rather a single musical organism, with the soloist as the radiant focal point and with the rest of the orchestra as an echoing space that expands and frames the distinctive mood and power coming from the solo player. For the same reason, the soloist is not really alone in the inserted cadenzas. The soloist always enters into an interaction, as in La Mattina, where wind instruments and strings gather around the soloist and add a rhythmic nerve by laying down their usual instruments and playing instead on claves.
That is why the solo concertos are central to Bent Sørensen’s constant exploration and unfolding of the classical symphony orchestra, for the changing illumination of sound, that the focus on the selected solo instruments entails, contributes decisively to the orchestra assuming the role of a magical medium and a dreamscape of the mind, open to everyone.
La Mattina. Piano Concerto No. 2 (2007–2009)
Prior to the light of morning is the darkness of night. This is also the case in Bent Sørensen’s piano concerto La Mattina (the morning), which starts in the lowest register of the piano with a slowly advancing chorale akin to J.S. Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 639). In his programme notes to the concerto, Bent Sørensen describes how inspiration came to him while he was in Vienna for a concert with Leif Ove Andsnes and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra: ‘After the concert, we meet at the piano bar, which unfortunately no longer exists – Broadway. Have wine, relax and suddenly Leif Ove sits down at the piano and plays Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ . I am sitting close by and can see his hands forming something that floats up from the depths and forms a halo above our heads. When I arrive home from Vienna, I immediately start to write the beginning of the piano concerto La Mattina. It is the deepest and darkest thing I have ever written; but it rises, as we did that morning which night had turned into when we left Broadway in Vienna.’
It is music that streams from the innermost darkened zones of the heart and unites with the centuries-old invocation of humanity to step out into the light by the power of Christ. Here in Bent Sørensen’s work, the light is present as something sensed in subdued notes of violins in a sky-high register. It is music that reflects the transition between night and morning – that time of day when human existence is stretched out to an extreme degree between the abyss and heaven.
As the rest of the strings join in, the morning assumes colour and form, and when the nocturnal procession of the piano pauses for a while, the high violins transform from being a shimmering point on the horizon and turn into the most marvellous melodious sky-arabesques. A quiet, blissful rejoicing in the advent of light.
At the same time, La Mattina reaches out towards the metaphysical and has a classical foundation, written for a chamber orchestra comprising the same instruments as Mozart used for his Piano Concerto No. 17, with no trumpets and timpani. Bent Sørensen heard that concerto as a child, and many years later he has created a new concerto where aspects of Mozart’s sublime simplicity are featured once more.
The movements slide imperceptibly into each other, and in the second movement, Luminoso (luminous) we are whirled into a sparkling world of sound characterised by breathy motifs and sudden dynamic fluctuations. But, like in Mozart, an angel passes through the room from time to time. For a split second, everything stands still before the musical energy pulsates freely once more. And towards the conclusion of the movement, before the cadenza with its accompaniment of many claves, we witness a shedding of skin, whereby the classical piano movement is placed in a different light. The entire string corps are transformed into a huge guitar as the musicians start to pluck the strings of their instruments as if playing with a single common hand. Initially only sensed in the distance, but soon with great strength and inciting rhythmical playing that provides a glimpse of the forces possessed by the radiant sun of the day.
This paves the way for the imaginative interaction of the following movements, where the concerto, within the framework of chamber music, leaps with mercurial agility from distant wind instruments that hum like tongues of fire, via a sudden poetic intermezzo for flute and cello that foreshadows a moment of silence at the end of the third movement, to a triumphant connection with the iconic opening of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, an artistic life-companion of Leif Ove Andsnes.
Bent Sørensen’s La Mattina dies away in an intoxicating celebration of the hectic life of broad daylight, but at the very end, as if by some magical intervention, a small fragment of a solemn hymn is heard in the piano. A reminder of nocturnal pain and quiet meditation. The source of morning. Which in a way also brings us back to Bent Sørensen’s first piano concerto, which has the title La Notte (night).
The clarinet concerto Serenidad begins in a floating musical no man’s land, where the highest, most fragile notes on the clarinet can be heard against a background of subdued high strings. Bent Sørensen has said the following about the genesis of Serenidad: ‘All the time while I was composing, I saw the clarinet as a bird or a doll that was trying to escape from an orchestra, a room, a nest.’ The title, however, tells a different story. It is Spanish and means clarity or serenity, and it came to the composer when he found a collection of poems in Barcelona with precisely this title.
The concerto is stretched out between the two poles. On one hand, passages where the notes of the clarinet are stretched out like long threads that try to get out, up and away from the given instrumental surroundings, or passages where the clarinet flutters up precisely like a bird, free in space with a huge, dramatic wing-span and at times on a collision course. And on the other hand, passages where a different beautiful and harmonious world reveals itself. We experience this for the first time at the conclusion of the second movement, where a falling sequence is introduced by the clarinet and then spreads out to the rest of the orchestra. This is modern Romanticism of the loveliest sort, mixed with melancholy. As pure as spring water and naïve as pop, and here formulated with such great warmth that time and place dissolve into a blissful state of being.
The two worlds are not exclusively separate universes, however. Already during the opening, where the mournfully singing clarinet gazes out over the world from its tower room, that romantically coloured falling sequence makes itself felt, however quietly. And at the beginning of the second movement, which like most of the concerto has been written in dancing triple meter, one senses the sound of hurrying steps. With the clarinet in leaping, virtuoso flight and wrapped in mournfully drawn-out trombone glissandos, the character is surreal. According to Bent Sørensen, an image of the clarinet as a roaming doll in the morning in Venice.
Serenidad is by and large a concerto with a wide range, but at the same time it is dominated by dancing triple meter. Just as Carl Nielsen cultivates the expressive and exploratory in his Clarinet Concerto, so Bent Sørensen does in his. Two of the most striking effects we find in the first movement. After the music has initially been in a higher sphere, the space is dramatically widened by the use of the large, deep gong. After this, the musical universe is changed for ever. Later in the movement, a moving, intense scene is enacted where the clarinettist both sings and plays at the same time. It is like hearing the song of whales. Tones from a place beyond the usual human world, yet so lovingly formed.
Serenidad is heard here in the so-called Sonning version, played when Martin Fröst received the 2014 Léonie Sonning Music Prize at DR Koncerthuset in Copenhagen. Here, the pre-recorded material featured in the original version was replaced by seven clarinettists, who took up various positions on the stage and among the audience in the concert hall towards the end of the final movement, where the romantically coloured sequence is re-introduced. With this extra spatial dimension, every sense of the solo clarinet as a separate musical being is eliminated. Because of that omnipresent clarinet chorus, a new musical reality emerges in which the world for a while is whole.
Trumpet Concerto (2012–2013)
As with the piano concerto La Mattina, the instrumentation for Bent Sørensen’s Trumpet Concerto is classical. In this case, the slim orchestra is modelled on the classical-era orchestras of Haydn’s and Hummel’s trumpet concertos, which is a perfect framework for the musical interplay that develops between, among others, the two flutes and the solo trumpet in Bent Sørensen’s concerto.
Here, the sound picture, however, is anything but classical. There is, on the other hand, full physical contact. To begin with, one can sense a faint whistling as most of the orchestra rub their hands together. And with noise from bows being pressed hard against the strings and pieces of sandpaper being rubbed together, it is a both crackling and squeezing sound world that the trumpet enters. One almost senses a forest with all of its mystery and secluded dark areas.
Indeed, the trumpet enters cautiously. The sound is subdued as if coming from afar, and with an accompaniment of buzzing human voices, nature is still in command. So, the feeling of release and happiness is all the greater when the trumpet in a later section sings with a clear, free voice. Even so, Bent Sørensen has a predilection for the sound of subdued brass, for in this indistinct sound, in which the usual sparkling light of the trumpet can only just be made out, is where beauty is most clearly connected to magic. In the sound heard despite being veiled, the pain of deprivation is also felt, and there is room to dream about that which is partially hidden.
Apart from a traditional mute, Bent Sørensen also uses a so-called Harmon Wow-Wow Mute, which can transform the sound in just an instant from whispering to highly penetrating. This almost makes it possible to talk through the instrument, and towards the end of the first movement, we witness a touching scene where the trumpet player enters into a dialogue with a number of the strings in the orchestra, which are also muted. After a short while, the orchestra regains its full sound. Only the solo trumpet remained imprisoned in its cage, where loneliness is inescapable.
In the second movement, composed as a gently rocking barcarole with a loving greeting to the dream city of Venice, the roles are reversed. Here most of the orchestra is reduced to humming with closed mouths, while the rest play with muted instruments, whereas the trumpet is once more able to ring out without any hindrances. And the exquisitely beautiful solo, it should be noted, has been composed bearing in mind Tine Thing Helseth’s particular ability to get the trumpet sound soft like nothing else. But even here, in the most sun-saturated moments, the trumpet is isolated from its surrounding instrumental world. Like petrified figures without eye contact in a painting by Edward Hopper.
A reconciling gleam is, however, shed over the conclusion of the movement, where snatches of a simple, naïve melody accompanied by chiming bells create a briefly shared meeting place and offer an opportunity to cast yearning looks in the direction of a distant innocent age.
The final movement is tightly constructed. In a fine-meshed net of parts and individual notes, the solo trumpet is fixed in a sequence that with a constant, insisting pulse shows similarities with a classical finale. But, as is usual with Bent Sørensen, the solo players are not allowed to break out into an egocentric cadenza. Only at the very end, after a terminal deep note in the double basses, do we glimpse the land of freedom, and, as the composer himself puts it: ‘A stuttering finale where the trumpet finally escapes, but by then the concerto is in fact over.’