24.01.16

L’isola della Città

Trio Con Brio, DR Symphony Orchestra/Joshua Weilerstein, DR Konserthuset 21.1.16

Sørensen’s long-awaited new Triple Concerto is heard at last – but does it tell us anything new about the composer?

As the complex instrumental accouterment required for Bent Sørensen’s new triple concerto L’Isola della Città was being shifted into place behind him, conductor Joshua Weilerstein spoke from Konserthuset's stage about the four composers – Nielsen, Ligeti, Debussy and Sørensen – who made up his concert with the DR Symphony Orchestra on Thursday.

The ‘overwhelming stillness’ of György Ligeti’s Atmosphères, Weilerstein said, showed that the orchestra could be used in an entirely new way. Debussy’s La mer, as we know, paved the way for many of the musical developments of the twentieth century in its upending of the accepted view of a standard musical argument. Nielsen…well, Nielsen’s just Nielsen. But was Weilerstein right to suggest, at the end of his neat, involving and coolly passionate little speech, that all four figures wrote music that is ‘radical’?

It’s Sørensen’s status as a radical that troubles me, but fascinates me too

It’s Sørensen’s status as a radical that troubles me, but fascinates me too. Among all his fleeting glances towards past musical epochs, Sørensen’s new triple concerto felt like an act of retrospective reconciliation even before the first Beethovenian fugue had drifted in like a ghost passing a window. When we think of the ‘failed’ multiple-instrument concertos of the past, notably Beethoven’s and Brahms’s – works that history has decreed flawed for whatever reason – it felt, at first, as though Sørensen was attempting to tidy up some unfinished business on behalf of both composers.

In a sense, L’isola della Città is ultra-traditional: a piece which riffs almost entirely on the contrast between the trio of soloists (L’isola, the island) and the orchestra (Città, the city) while suggesting that a strange beauty can emerge if and when the two lie together. In this initial search for balance and equilibrium – I have never heard such a large orchestra make such little noise – is Sørensen also proposing that a balanced triple concerto on the old model is still viable despite the unfortunate failings of the past?

Technically, Sørensen’s fingerprints are all over his new work – from his drifting, wind-blown textures and his contentedness repeating single pitches to his request that the entire wind section play additional instruments (wood blocks, ticking like haunting clocks or like halyards banging against their masts). You can count on Sørensen’s counterpoint being deft but in this piece it’s exceptionally lucid, as at the start of the second movement when he recalls the fugue theme from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 110 before twisting it into his own refracted, introspective coil. It was played with the utmost delicacy by Trio Con Brio’s Jens Elvekjær.

All the noise we’ll never hear
In an interview broadcast on P2 before the performance, Sørensen talked of the city as seen and heard from his apartment near Kogens Nytorv – an apartment which feels somehow set back from the buzz of the metropolis despite being absolutely at the heart of it. Likewise, that huge orchestra: it almost surrounded the trio, always visible, with so much percussive heft lying in wait at its rear. But it hardly ever marched upon the threesome with its full weight, despite Sørensen’s clear expression of its overpowering potential. 

Sørensen’s way with orchestral texture is increasingly breathtaking

That dichotomy is partially achieved in this piece by the composer’s ability to throw the focus, almost by stealth, onto the orchestra’s hinterlands: violins, violas and cellos are often muted, making space for brushed piano strings, sandpaper shimmies, breath effects or the avian cut-through of muted trombones. Sørensen’s way with orchestral texture is increasingly breathtaking. His ability to waft so much air and space around each gesture, no matter how many other, equally aired gestures happen to be in action at the same time, is remarkable and possibly even unparalleled.

Why did those repeating characteristics – the downward glissandi, the juddering stuck notes referencing the musical biology of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen – never sound tired? I have no idea. Sørensen’s scoring of snatched wind chords against orchestral wave effects in the concerto’s final pages seemed to me just as far-out and shocking as the planes of sound that constitute Ligeti’s Atmosphères.

The question of concerto form
Where Beethoven and Brahms might have had problems weaving their multi-voiced textures into a coalescent, galvanizing orchestral finale, Sørensen turns that particular idea of a concerto’s final unification on its head. Ultimately, his trio sets out on the path it had been eyeing all along, ‘slipping out of the orchestra’s deafening shadows’ in the fifth movement, to borrow the composer’s own phrase. So it wasn’t about equilibrium at all. Behind the soloists, but for those almost primordial wind chords, the orchestra becomes almost entirely bereft of pitch; the trio is left to discover and then cleave to a conventional major triad.

A concerto in which soloist and orchestra are gradually prized apart, where any sense of union proves hopeless

That might be seen as the most radical statement of all: a concerto in which soloist and orchestra are gradually prized apart, where any sense of union proves hopeless. As an encore, Trio Con Brio played the final movement from another work written for them by Sørensen, his piano trio Phantasmagoria. That it does so many of the same things – creates such space, traces simple yet strong two-voice counterpoint, takes a single note and pushes it slowly through a semitone glissando as if it has the weight of a gargantuan rock – speaks of Sørensen’s individuality of voice and personal conviction.

Those gestures might be beautiful. Both pieces were, in fact, unspeakably beautiful in the hands of Trio Con Brio: both the concerto, with the orchestra virtuosically quiet behind them, and in that excerpted encore in which Soo-Kyung Hong hummed a lament over her cello in another absolutely Sørensen-esque act. But does this increasing focus on the intangible, this handling of anti-modern subject matter with increased distillation and delicacy, make Sørensen a radical? I suspect the answer is no. But I also have a hunch we’ll be listening to him in 2100.

The concert was premiered the 21. of January in Koncerthuset. Also performed was music by Ligeti, Debussy and Carl Nielsen. The concert is avaiable here.