Jhe dryly factual subtitle of Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee, “10 guns for nine instruments”, hardly alludes to the magical sonorities and scintillating reflections explored in this 55-minute work, composed between 2006 and 2008. In the 1990s, Abrahamsen wrote almost nothing, and he returned tentatively to composition, first with a series of orchestrations of his own music and that of other composers, then with a piano concerto in which he first explored times the world of sound that he had reinvented.
In Schnee, this new crystalline world has reached its final form, evoked by trios of strings and woodwinds, as well as two pianos and percussion. His starting point was a series of arrangements of Bach canons that Abrahamsen had made in the early 1990s, but there’s nothing far off in his response. Schnee’s 10 canons are presented in complementary pairs, each of which the composer likens to two versions of a painting of different colors. They are separated by more static intermezzos, while the canons become progressively shorter as the work progresses, with microtones steadily blurring the edges of their complex sets of pitches. This proved to be the gateway to so much that followed in Abrahamsen’s music – to the equally fragile soundscapes of the extraordinary Let Me Tell You song cycle, and more explicitly to his opera by Hans Christian Andersen The Snow Queen, created in 2019; the first of Schnee’s canons underpins the opera’s opening scene, while the torrential fourth provided the material for the Frozen’s sleigh ride through the snow.
Schnee is already available on disc, performed by Ensemble Recherche, who originally commissioned it. But this performance by the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Storgårds, seems to capture both the rigor and the feathery fragility of Abrahamsen’s instrumental writing in a much more haunting way, with tempos consistently faster than the previous version. Besides its delicacy and sense of wonder, Search’s performance now feels rather down-to-earth, and the scintillating intricacies of Abrahamsen’s canons never are.
The other choice of the week
A number of Harrison Birtwistle major scores, including two of his operas, have not yet appeared on disc, but a collection of the Nash set on BIS at least fills in some of the gaps in his gnarled chamber works. It focuses on music from the last decade, although the origins of Pulse Sampler, for oboe and percussion, date back to 1981.
The most important piece is the 20-minute Duet for Eight Strings, written in 2018 for violist Lawrence Power and cellist Adrian Brendel, who perform it here; they are joined by pianist Tim Horton for the 2011 Piano Trio, while Gareth Hulse is oboist for the Oboe Quartet, which began life as a single movement for the great Heinz Holliger but expanded Birtwistle in 2010 at the request from Nash.