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Andrew Mellor
Gramophone, June 2016

THE SPECIALIST’S GUIDE TO…Hans Christian Andersen

This diptych tribute to Andersen from the most childlike of Danish composers, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b1932), uses the writer’s short story In a Thousand Years (a prescient telling of how Americans will cross the Atlantic to ‘see’ Europe in one week) for its first part and the patriotic poem In Denmark I Was Born for its second (the composer processes the ‘hymn’ through influences from boogie-woogie to Arabic music). Gigantic little works, both of them. © 2016 Gramophone

Grant Chu Covell
La Folia, June 2012

The 30-minute Concerto Grosso shuttles quartet and percussion-rich orchestra across a shifting landscape. Two Hans Christian Andersen texts appear in Moving Still—H.C. Andersen 200, the first in English, the second in Danish. Given that expat Hillier is now fluent in Danish, he excels in both parts, adding an ironic outsider perspective to the Nationalist texts. “In A Thousand Years” presciently imagines a world where young Americans fly across the ocean to visit old Europe. This American first movement contains taped vocal effects that emphasize the music’s agitation. The Danish movement comprises a set of variations on “In Denmark I Was Born,” using a lovely traditional melody. © 2012 La Folia Read complete review

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, April 2009

His Concerto Grosso for string quartet and symphonic ensemble is a work of shreds of ideas, motes of melody and insect-like rhythmic patterning. There is a Rousseau-like jungle hush about this work—something of Villa-Lobos’s Amazon. It’s also characterised by minimal means and slender tendrils of sound. We learn from Jens Cornelius that this work is amongst the composer’s longest. We hear a live recording of the famous Kronos quartet and members of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. They gave the premiere in 1990. This is the second revised version. The first one was also on Dacapo 8.224060. The composer says he has become interested in transparency as the years have passed and that is very evident from listening to this piece.

Moving Still was a commission for the H C Andersen bicentenary celebrations in 2005. It’s for baritone—here Paul Hillier—and string quartet. It’s a very contrasting diptych in two big segments. There is a nervily iterative minimalist first movement in which words are spoken across the music—much of the narration involves counting. It is followed by a contented and disorientatingly melodic fantasy around a well-loved settings of Andersen’s In Denmark I was Born. The string quartet is joined by a taped track where the tenor gentle confides—across right and left tracks—three layers of the song. The piece fades into a shredded harmonic shimmer recalling Kastchei’s Garden in The Firebird.

Last Ground is dedicated to the Kronos and is for quartet and recorded sounds of the ocean. The composer spent time on the island of Samsø close to the sea. The work reflects a fascination with the sea’s violence. Crashing breakers and the cries of gulls are gradually joined by the pismire moans and groans of the quartet. There is a slow arrival of longer dactyls of melody and these evolve, subtly twist and turn and slide out of focus. The crashing sea returns at 8:34 mixed with instrumental fabric. This is more of a meditation on the sea’s violence than a direct reflection of it.

Paul Cook
American Record Guide, March 2009

I don’t think I’ve heard the Kronos Quartet sounding better than this. Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s music is spectral and quite Nordic (perfect for Kronos) with traces of Stravinsky’s rhythmic elements as well as bits of Schnittke’s humor without that composer’s clamor or his homages to other composers or styles. Certain elements of minimalism do haunt the opening section of Concerto Grosso (2006), but these come in the form of pizzicato passages, and mostly the mood is somber and graceful (the composer himself called this work ‘turgid’, but I don’t find it turgid at all). The abiding structural format of this work is definitely baroque, especially in the manner of Vivaldi (here is where I get that sense of Schnittke’s ghost). Gudmundsen-Holmgreen also likes to throw in discordant elements where he can, and in this he reminded me of Leif Segerstam’s early symphonies. It all makes for interesting music for those of us who like twists and turns and the odd humorous gesture, but it can be uncomfortable for others.

Moving Still (2004) bears the subtitle, ‘HC Andersen 200’ and comes in an English version and a Danish one. Here the use of minimalist techniques come into play more overtly as, in I, called ‘Moving (Europe Seen in a Week)’, he describes a futuristic journey from Europe to America. There is no actual singing for Mr Hillier in I. He merely recites from Hans Christian Andersen’s poetry, and his voice has equal standing with the quartet. II is called ‘Still (In Denmark Where I Was Born)’ and opens with the patriotic melody, ‘In Danmark er jeg Fodt’, sung this time by Mr Hillier. This is a very quiet movement infused with every ounce of true romanticism that the composer has; then he lets his hair down, so to speak. His sense of humor unfolds as he injects a boogie-woogie that evolves into music that is curiously Arabic. And all of it works.

Last Ground (2006) is for strings and ocean sounds, though birds, wind, and rain are in there as well. This will strike many as familiar territory, common to the music of Einojuhani Rautavaara though with less reliance on recurrent melodies. It’s a work of moods that begins with sea sounds and ends with a storm that drowns out the quite tones carried by the Kronos Quartet. This last work seems gimmicky, almost a throwaway, since composers have been using tape-loops and recorded sounds (including animal and bird sounds) for about 100 years. But this acerbic music has considerable charms, and anyone familiar with very modern Scandinavian music will like this work quite a lot…Yet the recording transcends mere excellence— indeed, the true miracle of this recording is its sound. This includes the harrowing Concerto Grosso—a concert performance very cleanly edited.

Bradley Bambarger
New Jersey Star-Ledger, January 2009

Of Holmgreen’s works excerpted in the hour-long film [The Music Is a Monster, Da Capo DVD 2.110406], one of the most exciting is the percussive symphonic work “Triptykon” (available on a 1989 BIS CD). Another highlight is the vocal piece “Moving Still,” which has just been released on a Da Capo CD with “Last Ground” (for string quartet and taped sea sounds) and his explosive Concerto Grosso (for string quartet and orchestra). The film shows the stars of the CD—baritone Paul Hillier and the Kronos Quartet—perform parts of “Moving Still,” which sets words by Hans Christian Andersen.

The first part of “Moving Still” has Hillier recite in English—over Kronos’ theatrical sounds—fantastically prescient Andersen prose about young Americans touring Europe by air. The second part is a kind of alternative Danish national anthem, with Holmgreen recasting Andersen’s poem “In Denmark I Was Born.” Hillier sings the lyric to an old, sweet tune, his live voice intertwining with his taped voice for rich, northern European counterpoint. But Holmgreen has a point to make about his country’s inevitable evolution, as Kronos interjects a boogie-woogie rhythm and Hillier bends the melodic line like a muezzin. “I am very proud,” the ever-open Holmgreen says, “if my version of the Danish song sounds as beautiful as an Arabic melody.”

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