SUNLEIF RASMUSSEN, “Motion/Emotion” = Motion/Emotion; Andalag No. 1; Four Gardens; Andalag No. 3; Cantus Borealis; Vetrarmyndir (Winter Pictures); Andalag No. 11 – Lapland Chamber Orch. Wind Quintet/John Storgårds – DaCapo Records 6.220643, 63:15 [Distr. by Naxos] (11/19/13) ***1/2:
Sunleif Rasmussen is a very interesting composer whose music is a fairly sophisticated, complex blend of modern sound but with an affinity for nationalistic melodies and some truly skilled idiomatic writing for winds. He is also probably the best known composer from the Faroe Islands off the coast of Denmark (I’m not sure how many composers there are from the Faroes but Rasmussen is a very fine composer regardless of this interesting fact.)
He is a truly fascinating guy who also has a background in jazz and who frequently incorporates traditional Faroese and/or Danish folk melody into his music. While Rasmussen’s own instrument is piano – in particular, jazz piano – you would think he is a wind player due to the skill and dense but clear technique he applies to his wind scores. They are difficult but perfectly “playable” and he blends instruments in lovely, if not unusual, ways.
For example, Rasmussen wrote a whole series of Andalag (the term translates loosely into “breath”) duets for sonorous, sometimes unusual, combinations. There are three represented here. His Andalag #1, for flute and clarinet is a bit of a mathematical scurry around a three note idea. Andalag #3 for clarinet and horn has a more ‘call and response’ feel to it; almost like echoes across a canyon using a small motive announced in the horn. The Andalag #11 for the really interesting combination of alto flute and bassoon is a very static calm work that, again, features a small melody. The whole Andalag series, according to booklet notes, is written on a very precisely followed plan and reflects a number of snippets of Faroese folk material.
The title work, Motion/Emotion, is a very bracing and exciting wind quintet in five movements. The opening Motion1 sets the stage propulsively followed by the languid and pretty Emotion 1 and Emotion 2, both of which have a very picturesque quality and the closing Motion/Emotion utilizes themes and material reflective of the preceding movements. This is a very attractive quintet, indeed!
Vetrarmyndir (Winter Pictures) is a related work, being a sextet for wind quintet with piano. It is also the earliest work in this collection and there are some wonderful depictions of a bleak landscape that the composer notates as “Copenhagen 1991.” Rhythms in this work stack up and collide under some “icy” runs and noodling in the piano. There are moments in this work (in which the clarinetist doubles bass clarinet) that sounded ‘Stravinsky-esque’ to me. Regardless, this is a very colorful work and one that I found a highlight in this set. However, it also shows the composer’s evolution comparing this piece to Motion/Emotion, for example. Cantus Borealis, for wind quintet; from 1995, is somewhat related to Winter Pictures in its harmonic landscape and overall feel. There are some really nice moments that sound like a forceful Nordic gale that I greatly admired.
Lastly, Four Gardens is a fairly large ensemble work consisting of wind quintet plus piano and three strings. The movements that reflect the “four gardens” are apparently extracted from music and scenes in Rasmussen’s chamber opera, The Madman’s Garden, and is a jazz-tinged score with, again, some really fine wind writing. This was also the first opera based on some Faroese legends and themes.
Based on just this collection, much of Rasmussen’s music is complex and heady but also intriguing to listen to and – from what I can tell – great fun to play. I am not sure how much “mass audience” this may accrue but I liked this music and admire the composer’s craft. I think this would appeal greatly to anyone already attuned to modern music and looking for something very unique. The recording and engineering by DaCapo is spacious and of the highest quality.