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ClassicsOnline Home » ABRAHAMSEN: 10 Studies for Piano / 6 Pieces for Violin, Horn and Piano
By Mark Koldys
American Record Guide
Hans Abrahamsen's works often move on the edge of a delicate, sensual dream
world. With a cautious ear to the wall of musical history they listen to the
past. The music takes clichés and turns them over reflectively in its
hands Romantic horn calls arouse associations with Mahleresque alienation. The
delicacy of the poetic expression recalls the lightness of Mendelssohn.
But if one looks behind the notes, one discovers that the composer operates
without emotiveness in a field of tensions where objective construction means
as much as subjective manipulation of what is constructed. Abrahamsen has explicitly
denied that he can sit down with a pen and a sheet of music paper and say 'now
I will express emotions'. The sophisticated, evocative power of the music arises
in a great dialogue, an energy-consuming struggle with the material that is
his point of departure. The material may consist of anonymous scale runs, fragments
of themes from the history of music, or his own earlier music - and much different
music can live peacefully side by side in the same work, for Abrahamsen has
from the outset professed postmodernism and stylistic pluralism.
An example - as clear as it is important - of Abrahamsen's sober composition
technique and its surprising poetic result is the chamber ensemble work Winternacht
from 1978 (recorded by the London Sinfonietta on dacapo 8224080), where the
basic chromatic descent of the beginning - the mechanical, objective background
structure of the music - is transformed into an atmospheric musical picture
by virtue of the choices made by the composer from the ostensibly anonymous
Abrahamsen has so to speak used an eraser on some of the notes from the three
chromatic lines that descend simultaneously, but in different tempi, so that
the remaining notes come to form the picture's fragile, frost-clear foreground,
from which an inward, melancholy figure emerges. Such 'concretist' composition
techniques are used in Hans Abrahamsen's earliest works in the service of an
objective, stylistically pluralist 'cut-up' music, but in the works from the
second half of the seventies and through the eighties they open up a subtly
poetic, refined world of expression The result is unmistakably Abrahamsenesque.
The wind quintet Walden is another example which, in terms of both the
year of composition and the expressive register of the music, has moved from
cool objectivity to a highly present, sophisticated and discreetly romantic-sounding
idiom. The work was originally written for a traditional wind quintet ensemble
-flute, oboe, clarinet, French horn and bassoon, but is here recorded in the
composer's 1995 version for the less traditional but wonderfully homogeneous
wind configuration oboe, two clarinets (db. bass - and Eb clarinet), alto saxophone
and bassoon. The reworking should not be regarded as an improvement, the composer
emphasizes, but as an alternative due to the wish of the Dutch Califax Ensemble
to perform a work by Abrahamsen.
The English title of the work is the name of the book by the American author
and natural philosopher Henry David Thoreau, in which he described his life
of solitude in the great forests of Massachusetts in the mid-nineteenth century.
Like the American avant-garde composers Ives and Cage, Abrahamsen was inspired
by Thoreau's call for contemplation and a movement back to nature. The result
was a wind quintet in four short movements that peel away everything superfluous
to focus on simple qualities like identity and clarity. The composer explains:
"Different layers meet in the quintet, such as the organic (growth, flowering,
decay), the concretist (mechanical patterns) and the descriptive (far-off horn
signals and other ghostly music from the past arise in our awareness as in a
Abrahamsen's ten piano studies are intimately related to the horn trio Six
Pieces, which is one of the clearest examples of the composition of music
over music that one can encounter in Abrahamsen's oeuvre. For six of the first
seven piano studies form the background for the horn trio, which with its highly
heterogeneous movements at once looks back to the composer's radically pluralistic
first string quartet Ten Preludes from 1973 and forward to the abrupt
hiatus in the composer's output which - apart from various arrangements and
a few small compositions - lasted from 1987 until 2000.
Browsing through the 10 Studies for Piano, one is struck by a strong resemblance
to Romantic character pieces Even the titles of the pieces recall the popular
nineteenth-century 'album leaves' The studies are a kind of Romantic echoes
for piano, but the echoes reach the listener with considerable distortion because
of their passage through the filters of history and the composer.
The first four have German titles. Here the modern grand recalls its Romantic
era, the world of Schumann and Chopin, but viewed from our time, as a kind of
psychoanalysis, the composer has said. In the next three studies, which have
English (or American) titles ('Boogie-Woogie', 'For the Children', 'Blues'),
it is another era, closer to our own, and the sense of time has also changed.
The pieces are more mechanical and rhythmic and perhaps even a little jazzy
and cool, says Abrahamsen. The next two studies have French titles meaning 'The
River of Forgetfulness' and 'Cascades'. Here it is the French piano spirit of
Debussy and Ravel the pieces reflect, while the last study, 'Le trombe del mattino'
('The Trumpets of the Morning') with its Italian title, refers to Italy, the
land of light. The languages of the titles, and the associations they can arouse
in the listener, mean a lot to the composer.
The album leaf character of the studies dictates the design of the horn trio
in six short movements, where from the first seven piano studies only No. 2,
'Sturm' has been left out. The other six are reworked in the trio, but in a
partly changed order.
With its dreamed thirds and its inward melodic seventh outbursts - as touching
as anything in the Romantic piano literature - the transfer of 'Traumlied' can
be followed bar by bar to the trio's 'Serenade'. With the horn performing a
characteristic signal function and the violin as a clarifier of the piano part's
hidden right-hand melody, the shimmering 'Arabesque' becomes the second movement
of the work, while the 'Blues', which through the piano version's notes (and
pauses!) permits us a glimpse of a well-loved Chopin prelude, is reborn as a
melancholy andante. (In the more up-to-date blues piece from the piano studies,
too, the piano -even if only unconsciously? -can remember its Romantic past).
'Ende' becomes a slow, gloomy funeral march, while the 'Boogie-Woogie' of the
studies is transformed into a quick 'Scherzo misterioso', whose violin note
is carried directly over, into the final movement's 'For the Children'.
Here, where the horn falls silent and leaves the piano alone with the ghost
violin, one can again study Abrahamsen's concretist 'eraser technique' in transparent
activity: a considerable number of the notes from the piano study of the same
name have quite simply been deleted. The rest has become a new music. Or else
it is the same music, only edging much closer to the silence that finally made
the 1990s a long pause in composition - a pause which Hans Abrahamsen, with
the last three piano studies and most recently with a new piano concerto completed
and premiered at the Oslo Ultima Festival 2000, now seems to have ended.
Thomas Michelsen, 2001
Anne Marie Abildskov (piano) trained at the Carl Nielsen Academy of Music in
Odense and the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen with Rosalin Bevan,
José Ribera and Tove Lønskov as teachers. Since 1990, beside her
solo and chamber music activities, she has been a member of Athelas Sinfonietta
Copenhagen. In the autumn of 2000 she gave Hans Abrahamsen's Concerto for
Piano and Orchestra its first performance at the Ultima Festival in Oslo.
Søren Elbo (clarinet) made his debut at the Royal Danish Academy of
Music in Copenhagen in 1991. In 1988 he was engaged by the Aalborg Symphony
Orchestra - from 1993 as solo clarinettist - and in 1996 he joined the Danish
National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Søren Elbo also teaches at the Royal
Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen and has among other awards received Simon
Spies Fondens Musiklegat.
Joakim Dam Thomsen (oboe) made his debut at the Royal Danish Academy of Music
in Copenhagen in 1995 after studies with Professor Jørgen Hammergaard
and solo oboist Bjørn Carl Nielsen. He then pursued studies with Gordon
Hunt at the Royal Academy of Music in London. He has received among other awards
the Jacob Gade Prize and the Victor Borge Music Prize. He has performed on many
tours in Denmark and abroad with among others the wind quintet Boreas and since
1994 has been solo oboist in the Royal Danish Orchestra. Jeanette Balland (saxophone)
made her debut in 1998 at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen from
the soloist class after studies with Christer Johnsson and as a pupil of Aage
Voss. She has further studied in Holland and in Switzerland, where she took
the Virtuosité from the Conservatoire de Lausanne. Jeanette Balland is
active both as a soloist and as a chamber musician, and has in particular aroused
attention as a member of DuoDenum (saxophone and percussion), which has won
several prizes. In addition she is much used as a musician in among other orchestras
the Royal Danish Orchestra and the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra,
by which she has been awarded the grant Emit Holms Mindelegat.
Anne Søe Iwan (violin) began playing the violin according to the Suzuki
method with Tove and Béla Detrekby Then she studied with Milan Vitek
and Marta Libalova, and at the Mozarteum in Salzburg with Ruggerio Ricci. She
made her debut in 1991. She has toured in Denmark and abroad as a soloist and
chamber musician, and since 1995 as first violinist in Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen.
Anne Søe Iwan plays on a Nicolaus Gagliano from 1745, kindly made available
by the foundation Augustinus-Fonden.
Preben Iwan (French horn) first studied the French horn at the Carl Nielsen
Academy of Music in Odense, and then at the Hochschule für Musik in Hamburg
with Professor Ab Koster. In 1988-90 he was solo hornist in the World Youth
Orchestra, and since 1990 he has been solo hornist in Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen.
In 1992-2000 he was with the Zealand Symphony Orchestra.
Anna Klett (clarinet) studied at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen,
making her debut from the soloist class in 1994, then at the Conservatoire de
Musique de Genève with Thomas Friedli, where she won the Premier Prix
Virtuosité Anna Klett performs as a soloist and chamber musician in many
different contexts. She has been a member of Athelas since 1994 and is also
a regular member of the Boreas Wind Quintet, the Figura Ensemble and the Faroese
Signe Haugland (bassoon) trained at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen
with the bassoonist Peter Bastian as her teacher. Since 1990 she has been with
the Zealand Symphony Orchestra and she is also a member of the Boreas Wind Quintet,
the Danish Wind Octet and Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen.
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