BENT SØRENSEN (b.1958): Symphony No. 2, L’Isola della città for Piano Trio and Orchestra.
Catalogue Number: 09Y042
Description: Sørensen's Second Symphony (he insists on this as the title, making a distinction between works numbered in a sequence and a work purposefully written as a Second Symphony) appears, on its face, to be a substantial, four-movement piece in an updated neo-romantic form. But this being Sørensen, things are not quite what they seem. There is a good deal of tonality to his material, for a start, but this is constantly inflected, or subverted, by microtonal displacements of pitch. Frequently the listener is presented with what sounds like a strangely familiar passage of Romantic music, but the phrases have "melted" like Dalí's soft watches. There is always something shadowy and slightly sinister about Sørensen's music; what he says about the concerto: "this music unfolds at night, as most of my music does, because it was written at night" applies equally to the symphony, and much of the rest of his output. This is not just Romanticism seen "in a glass darkly" but in a distorting fun-house mirror. Romantic symphonies - most especially those of Mahler, evoked through an inexhaustible stream of almost-recognisable almost-quotations - are constantly present, but refracted through the distorting lenses of Sørensen's personal vision of music history. The first movement begins with a convulsive spasm - a scream, as the composer calls it - the reverberations of which are felt throughout the work. Immediately, naïve, pastoral fragments begin to appear, and pre-echoes of lonely, pained farewells to youth, or love, or happiness, or … A rustic peasant dance seems to get stuck in a loop, then the dragging percussive rhythm of the Scherzo of Mahler 6 intrudes, only to be similarly trapped in repetitive circles. Noble trumpet calls try to rise above motoric pulsating rhythms from a completely different post-minimalist work, and the movement ends on a fluidly malleable cadence. The slow movement follows; a mélange of melodious nocturnes and meditations, or rapt Brucknerian contemplation of nature’s grandeur, suddenly rendered grotesque and mechanical, as though the mechanism behind the vision is suddenly, disquietingly, revealed. The scherzo begins with tribal drumming, behind which a rustic peasant band tries gamely to fit in. They persist in their vain attempts to introduce melody and dance to what is plainly a motoric pulse-fest, featuring a swarming chorus of wood-block percussion. The composer’s mother died while he was working on the finale, and this Mahlerian song of farewell, as usual inflected by Sørensen's fluidity of texture and pitch, is a moving, nostalgic lament. The "island" in the concerto is the compound soloist, trying to emerge from the towers and canyons of the orchestral "city" - not so much hostile as uncaring and uncomprehending. A prelude sets the scene, and then the main action is joined in the first principal movement, which begins with an attempt at a civilised fugue, initiated by the piano. But the trio’s elegant formality is soon subsumed in dense orchestral textures, going their own way rhythmically and timbrally, and the fugue only intermittently becomes audible when the blaring activity of the cityscape is temporarily stilled. Eventually the "soloist" gives up and integrates its fugue into the percussive propulsion of the city’s post-minimalist dance clubs. A brief nocturnal intermezzo follows, like an accompanied cadenza for the concertante group (but cut short by distant sirens), leading to an impetuous, mechanistic scherzo in which the trio seems to be in headlong flight from the relentlessly hectoring orchestra. Finally the piano breaks free from the unyielding pounding and plays a delicious passage out of some neoclassical sonata, and in the final movement the trio asserts itself in fragments of its chosen repertoire, while the orchestra is reduced to mere noise, from which the solo group gratefully detaches itself and goes on its way. Trio con Brio Copenhagen, Danish National Symphony Orchestra; Jukka-Pekka Saraste.