About this Recording
8.224080 - ABRAHAMSEN, H.: Marchenbilder / Lied in Fall / Winternacht


By Anders Beyer

"Music is pictures of music. That is a strong underlying element in my world of ideas when I compose - as is the fictional aspect that one moves around in an imaginary space of music. What one hears is pictures -basically, music is already there."

Thus Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952) describes his view of music. The quotation tells us something about the composer's musical thinking, and about the impression he wants to convey. Mirroring, reflections, labyrinths, echoes, meta-music - music is music is music …

What kind of world does Hans Abrahamsen condense into the vibrations that constitute music? What is the music about? From the works on this CD it is evident that the music has a narrative quality. Hans Abrahamsen wants to tell stories, and he wants to create pictures for the listener. But not in the form of over-specific forms and figures: Abrahamsen's works never reveal their innermost secrets. They communicate with one another through underground passages in the material, works speak with and to one another, new productions borrow materiality and structure from older pieces. This creates shared identity, recognition, without representing that identity directly.

Do we know the music of Hans Abrahatnsen? Does the composer know the music? Perhaps the music has left him and insists on living its own life. After all, it was already there before the composer came and tried to make it comprehensible.

The storyteller Hans Abrahamsen never presents the listener with simple solutions. There are always several possible ways of interpreting the music. What is the meaning of the 'Fall' which forms part of the title Lied in Fall from 1987? It can mean autumn (in American English), it can mean fall (in German). 'Lied' suggests German, yet 'in Fall' is clearly to be pronounced in English. The poetic ambivalence and the very brief programme by the composer also eschews the specific:

"In an autumnal landscape of ever-descending lines, the cello moves singing through its Lied, surrounded by shadows of what has been and what will be, along with other melodies which are at present between these lines …"

The cello has the recurrent 'Lied' in the work, which was written for cello and 13 instruments. The music consists, as described, of descending lines. The overall form of the work is governed by the canon principle.

At a general level one can say that Hans Abrahamsen's music is about (among other things) time. About a musical sense of time, about the historical sense of time, about displacements and layering of various experiences of time. And so it is in Lied in Fall, where the cello moves through a musical landscape which is coloured by the experiences along the way. Descending and ascending motions form the phrases Sometimes the notes fall together in unison meeting-points, elsewhere the cello sees its Lied mirrored or echoed by other instruments.

Time means precision. One becomes aware of this by studying the development of Lied in Fall, which is precisely calculated. On the basis of each note in the basic row Hans Abrahamsen composes descending lines. He himself calls this lydstyrt (soundfalls or sound cascades). These soundfalls correspond in their use of scales to chords that can be traced all the way back to the septet Winternacht (1976-78). Soloist and ensemble (or resonance group) reproduce these eternal falls throughout the piece.

Along the way things become increasingly complex. In the third section Hans Abrahamsen composes in two time layers. This creates a sense of temporal instability, and the cello is woven into a texture of voices and reflections. The soundscape has become a veritable labyrinth - which harmonizes with Abrahamsen's statement about the work: "Lied in Fall is probably based on the strictest structure I have ever worked with." And furthermore: "When I sit working on the form of the music, it is after all also about something inside oneself. So the cello is in many ways inside a labyrinth, in an autumn landscape. The cello tries to find a way out of the maze."

Out of this mirror world grows the fourth section, which rounds off the work. This part is characterized by a simplification of the texture, and takes the form of a rudiment compared with the preceding sections.

A picture of a picture

About the relations between strict structure and the free play of the imagination, Abrahamsen says: "My imagination works well within a fixed structure. Although my works are sometimes very structural, in the course of creating them I feel great freedom to compose with the material. Things can arise along the way within the form. In a 'square' piece like Skum (Foam, 1970), there is a completely square structure: all the sections are exactly the same length. But on the other hand I can put whatever I like into the form. The stricter it is, the more freedom I have to go into detail. Form and freedom: perhaps much of my music has been an attempt to bring the two worlds together."

Lied in Fall ends with an ascending figure - one could say that it transcends; the writing lifts itself up and shifts into a different locus. The endings of Hans Abrahamsen's works are a study in themselves. One gets the impression that for the composer composing is like flying: 'the beginning' (taking off) and 'the end' (landing) are perhaps the two most interesting and difficult elements in a compositional plan; when the movement or the plane has momentum and is flying, there is less to worry about.

In Märchenbilder for chamber orchestra (1984) Hans Abrahamsen builds up towards the third movement, which is the place where the music 'takes off'. In this work a long prelude in the form of two movements is necessary before the music has gained so much momentum that the third movement can be fired off attacca in a dizzying scherzo prestissimo.

With no intention of making the observation absolute, I can say that Märchenbilder is not alone in ending with a friendly, accommodating attitude. Hans Abrahamsen often ends his works on a 'light' note, although this does not mean that the ending is experienced as exaltedly optimistic. This way of ending goes back to the end of the string quartet Winternachtof 1973. This work ends in an unmistakable C major, and the effect is repeated at the end of the last movement of Winternacht, which is four different kinds of music in four different keys, meeting at the end, resolving in the same key. We see the same thing happen in the last movement of the wind quintet Walden, where there are two kinds of music in two different times, which at the very end meet in the same key.

The last movement of Märchenbilder is diatonically structured with C major as the prevalent key. This kind of (tonal) amenability can also be heard at the end of the orchestral work Stratifications (1973-75). In the composer's own words: "If it is possible in music to create pure energy, then I do it. There has to be a polarity between total light and total darkness in the music."

This is experienced as a shared identity in the works, which is underpinned by the affinities between for instance the last movements of Märchenbilder and Winternacht. In Märchenbilder it is a large woven texture in two ayers (C major and B flat minor) -that is, the same key relation as in Winternacht (between F major and E flat minor).

The affinities with other works in the family are sometimes veiled; they are never directly emphasized. Abrahamsen's Piano Studies are related to the Horn Trio of 1984, which is a re-composition of the piano etudes. The material re-emerges in the chamber ensemble work Märchenbilder (1984), which gives us a hint of the composer's fondness for using musical material so as to show it in new lights and contexts. The third movement (the scherzo) of Märchenbilder is related to the Boogie Woogie in Abrahamsen's Piano Studies and thus also to the Scherzo misterioso in the Horn Trio.

One could say that in Märchenbilder the whole piece is present in the first bar. The work begins with a clash of two movements from Abrahamsen's Horn Trio. There is the movement which is called Arabesque (in the violins = second movement of Märchenbilder) and then there is the movement called Märchenbilder (in the piano = third movement of Märchenbilder). These form the starting-point for the whole piece.

In Märchenbilder the composer has built in both accelerando and ritardando (again the time aspect). In the third movement the listener can be taken on an exciting voyage of discovery through rich realms of technical variation One finds temporal compression and spatial expansion, tone rows ordered by ingenious relationships.

The character of the piece is derived naturally from the title, which is borrowed from Schumann, who also wrote a Märchenbilder Of the Danish work Abrahamsen writes in a programme note:

"There are a total of six folk tale pictures, where the first three make up the first movement, the next two the second movement, and the last the third movement, which begins attacca after the second movement. The first two pictures have the same duration - a minute each - and the next four hesitantly increase their length until the last, which lasts almost five minutes."

The composer as stage director

The simplicity of the large formal principle also applies to the movements of Winternacht; the first movement is the longest, then the movements become shorter and shorter. In a sense what is happening is an accelerando (again the time perspective is relevant).

In Winternacht too there is good reason to recall the composer's words about music as something living in an imaginary space. This permits the composer to create pictures of music - for example a horn motif which takes form as a triad motif in the course of its development. In isolation the horn motif would be banal, but in the context it sounds like a meaningful interpolation - like a picture of a fanfare. In that sense Abrahamsen's mode of composition is fundamentally not far from Mahler's musical thinking. It becomes musically unreal, rather like the way a misty landscape is experienced in the work of the film director Andrei Tarkovsky. His fellow composer Poul Ruders has described the music in Winternacht as "dreamingly poetic" and "classical in terms of the clarity and discipline in the instrumentation and form." One understands why the four movements are dedicated respectively to Georg Trakl, M.C. Escher, Igor Stravinsky and Georg Trakl again.

The music of Winternacht becomes pictures of something else, but not imitations. Nor does the title, taken from a poem by the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, mean that we can be sure of a particular mood in the work. It is rather a matter of a simultaneity of moods, timbres, forms and figures, created by an artist with a talent for delicate weaving.

The composer sees something in the existing material and deciphers it in his own quite special way. This way of "thinking music" has been realized by Hans Abrahamsen in his work with Carl Nielsen's Three Piano Pieces op. 59 (1928). Abrahamsen reworked the piano pieces for ten instruments (1990)

Of the work of making Nielsen contemporary, the composer says. "I felt that there was something in the music that was not resolved on the piano. I have always thought that our image of Nielsen has been a little conservative. The Danish musical world has used Nielsen as an exponent of resistance to contemporary music. In the piano pieces I believe I can hear that Nielsen is on his way towards a modernist idiom. His own musical language is being broken down. One feels in the music that the composer does not know where he is going. With curiosity, he listens to the music. He can sense that the world is in motion and he dares open his mind to receive it. This means that his own style is about to be ruptured, which in turn means that something imperfect, something awkward will enter the music. Nielsen's piano pieces encompass an old and a new world. The sound of these pieces reminds me of the sound of Schoenberg's pieces for small ensembles. The actual situation Nielsen was in when he composed these pieces fascinates me."

Nielsen's contrast-filled music, which fluctuates between idyll and catastrophe, inspires the Abrahamsen who sees potential in the splintered tonal idiom. Abrahamsen profiles the rupture in Nielsen in his recomposition of the pieces. In a programme note about the work Abrahamsen discusses this aspect of Nielsen's music.

"In these pieces, which are among Nielsen's last works, it is as if he is about to develop his music into something new. At certain points they are almost atonal (a new side of Nielsen) but always mixed with a strange, tonal, multidimensional colouring. Like Ives, or perhaps Mahler, Nielsen brings many different materials together from simple melodies in an idyllic folk-like or chorale-like tone to a more ominous, desperately grotesque music, often as if in eruptions which disturb the idyll, or even cause it to break down."

Märchenbilder was commissioned by and dedicated to The London Sinfonietta. Lied in Fall was commissioned by The London Sinfonietta and Christopher van Kampen for their twentieth anniversary season and dedicated to Per Nørgård. Nielsen: Three Piano Pieces was reworked for The Esbjerg Ensemble.

Christopher van Kampen (cello) studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London. At the age of twenty-four he was invited to become principal cello of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, a position he held for three years. He has held the position of principal cello with the London Sinfonietta since the early seventies, and has appeared as soloist with most of the leading British orchestras. He is a specialist in contemporary music and has collaborated, as soloist under their batons, in works by Luciano Berio, Hans Werner Henze and Sir Michael Tippett Premieres he has given include Hans Abrahamsen's Lied in Fall and the UK premiere of H.K. Gruber's Cello Concerto, which he also played at the 1991. Proms His solo recordings range from works by Janácek, Hindemith, Debussy, Kurt Schwertsik, Tim Souster and Nicola LeFanu, to Schubert's String Quintet (with the Fitzwilliam Quartet). He has also recorded numerous works as a member of the Nash Ensemble.

Founded in 1968 by David Atherton and Nicholas Snowman, the London Sinfonietta's Artistic Director from 1972 to 1989 was the late Michael Vyner. He was succeeded by the pianist Paul Crossley (1988-1994), and since September 1994 the Principal Conductor has been the young German, Markus Stenz. The London Sinfonietta performs an enormously diverse repertoire, ranging from small to very large forces. Of 233 world premiere performances, over 100 have been specially commissioned, very often for the core group of 16 principal players. The ensemble enjoys fruitful associations with many of the world's most established living composers, including Adams, Berio, Birtwistle, Boulez, Carter, Górecki, Henze, Kurtág, Maxwell Davies, Ligeti, Schnittke, Stockhausen and Xenakis. It has also formed close working relationships with the composer/conductors Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin and continues to champion the music of younger generations, in particular such British composers as Simon Holt, Mark-Anthony Turnage and most recently Thomas Adès and Julian Anderson. The London Sinfonietta is a regular visitor to major international festivals and has made over 100 recordings, and has won awards for its discs of works by Benjamin, Birtwistle, Britten, Carter, Kern (Show-boat), Stravinsky, Takemitsu, Tippett and Weill. Its CD of Górecki's Symphony No. 3 has sold almost 1 million copies worldwide, and has won a growing number of prestigious international awards since its release.

Elgar Howarth studied music at Manchester University and the Royal Manchester College of Music, where his first study was composition. His conducting career began in the early 1970s and since then he has appeared regularly with all the leading orchestras of Great Britain, both in the concert hall and in the recording studio. He has appeared at major festivals abroad - mostly in Europe - and toured Japan with the London Sinfonietta, an orchestra he has conducted regularly both in the UK and abroad from the beginning of his career. His operatic achievements cover a wide repertoire and include the world premiere of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre at the Royal Opera in Stockholm, followed by productions of the same work in Hamburg, Paris and London. In 1985 he made his debut at Covent Garden with Tippett's King Priam which he later performed with the same company at the Athens Festival. He conducted the world premiere of Birtwistle's Gawain at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in May 1991 and the revival in 1994, which has been released by Collins Classics. In 1996 he conducted Henze's The Prince of Homburg and Zimmermann's Die Soldaten, both at the English National Opera. For his work on these productions he won the 1997 Olivier award for "Outstanding Achievement in Opera". He retains an interest in composing especially, as a former trumpet player, for brass instruments. His works are published by Chester Music and Novello, and are much recorded, particularly on the Decca label.

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