Review: Talea Ensemble Premieres Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee

The American premiere of Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee (Snow) for 9 players was performed by the Talea Ensemble on Friday, January 21st at the Scandinavia House in New York City. An hour in length, Schnee begins with extremely delicate, grainy, pulsating squeaks that are steadily and methodically articulated by individual string instruments. Over top of this eery ground, a gentle piano melody whispers from the highest register, a place where the noise of the hammers is nearly as present as pitch. The combination is austere and utterly stunning.

These sparse, noise-infused gestures would not seem to be the typical building blocks for canonic writing. And yet, Schnee is comprised of five pairs of canons occasionally interrupted by three brief Intermezzi. The second of each canonic pair is essentially an alternate version of the first. The changes are most notable in the orchestration. The squeaking string sound that begins the piece (canon 1a) is transfered to hissing pieces of paper rubbed against wood in 1b. The bouncing, off-kilter rhythmic interplay between breathy winds and stopped piano (stopped with mailing envelopes) in canon 2a is augmented in 2b when the same material is played by the entire ensemble including a wonderful stereophonic back and forth between the two pianos. 

When interviewed during the concert, Abrahamsen (pictured at left) said that he wanted the two versions of each canon to come together in the ear of the listener forming a sort of third dimension. This proves effective given that the canons are very well-defined in terms of tempo and texture and thus it is easy to hold the first canon in one's memory while taking in the second. The result is reminiscent of how Luciano Berio transformed some of his Sequenzas for solo instruments into Chemins for solo instrument and ensemble. A larger counterpoint emerges between past and present, the old version and the new.

Another interesting element to Schnee involves proportion. Each pair of canons becomes progressively shorter in duration. Thus, canons 1a and 1b clock in at 9 minutes apiece while 5a and 5b are only a minute each. As a listener, the generous time assigned to the first two pairs of canons seems extreme initially. This approach, however, allows for "space" to move around. To put it another way, Abrahamsen (like Morton Feldman) puts the listener into a state where every sonic detail can be grasped without the risk of becoming lost. This is important at the outset when scraping strings and rustling paper barely bleed into audibility. In the Talea Ensemble's performance, such quietude was exacerbated by the dry acoustic space at the Scandinavia House, a direct contrast to Ensemble Recherche's highly resonant recording of Schnee. While I generally favor a resonant setting, the dryness forced me to draw nearer and listen with even greater intensity, an effect that felt true to the musical material.

In manipulating the listener's sense of proximity to the sound, Abrahamsen creates a spacial interplay that is far more powerful live than on a recording. Also unique to the live experience is the hyper-focused atmosphere that enhances the unusual temporal and proportional qualities mentioned above.

Friday's concert began with two works by another Danish composer, Bent Sørensen. I often feel sorry for composers whose smaller pieces are programmed alongside another's magnum opus. However, Sørensen's The Deserted Churchyards and Funeral Procession (both for mixed chamber ensemble) were compelling on their own and set up the Abrahamsen rather nicely. Performed back to back without pause, these works reveal the composer's gift for creating striking timbral combinations (I must give credit to any composer who can subtly and beautifully incorporate slide whistle into a piece). Like Abrahamsen, Sørensen often manipulates material by redistributing it to different parts of the ensemble, setting up interesting points of comparison. He also shares an affinity for skirting the edges of audibility.

The Talea Ensemble deserves high praise for their outstanding musicianship which was deftly displayed in the Sørensen and Abrahamsen.  Both composers require each player to generate a vast array of sounds (detuned strings, running fingers up and down the piano without actually depressing the keys, executing whistle tones on the flute, dipping percussion in water) and at times require the partial deconstruction of an instrument (as when Abrahamsen has the clarinetist remove the mouthpiece and slam the palm against the open-ended tube) or augmentation (stopping piano strings with mailing envelopes). This is certainly not unusual for contemporary art music, but to execute the sounds well and to furthermore maintain one's focus for such long stretches of time reveals uncommon endurance and versatility.

Talea also must be credited for presenting important works that all too often go unnoticed in the U.S. Schnee was completed in 2008, recorded in late 2009 and was not performed in America until last week. I am hopeful that Talea's stellar performance will serve to broaden domestic interest in these two very important composers.