43 year-old Sebastian Fagerlund is one of the rising composing stars of Finland, a country whose per-capita production and consumption of classical music is something we Americans could only dream of. Well, to paraphrase the old song, five-and-a-half million Finns can’t be wrong. So, let’s give this new recording of Fagerlund’s works from Sweden’s invaluable BIS label a spin and see whether we hear what they hear — if one were able see what one hears, that is.
For those of us not blessed (or cursed) with synesthesia, describing music like this is a tricky business, though annotator Susanna Välimäki gives it a pretty good go in the album booklet:
Fagerlund’s music is characterized by incessantly flowing, layered soundscapes, in which forceful, angular figures and static, brooding motifs trace out strong lines or exist as independent blocks. This results in the impression of inexor able processes, natural or mechanical, indifferent to those who find themselves at the centre of the events.
There’s plenty more description where this comes from in the booklet, which you can download in pdf form here. My recommendation, however, is as always, listening first, reading later.
Up first is Fagerlund’s Violin Concerto, subtitled “Darkness in Light,” composed in 2012 for Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, the soloist in the present recording. In three movements following the classic fast-slow-fast pattern and lasting roughly a half-hour, Fagerlund’s Concerto is comparable in size and shape to standard repertoire concertos by Mendelssohn, Bruch, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Barber, et al. — a lineage into which “Darkness in Light,” with its traditional design and tonal language, fits unabashedly but not obsequiously.
From its arresting opening to its perhaps surprising conclusion (don’t give it away!), the Concerto never for a moment flags in tension or intensity. The solo violin writing, as wide-ranging and virtuosic as it comes, never exceeds the demands of the musical argument. Like all the best concerto composers, Fagerlund demonstrates both the classicist’s sense of unity and the dramatist’s sense of characterization and interplay. He also gets on my good side by building in a bit of improvisation, of which there has been a dearth for centuries in classical music. Best, I believed every note of “Darkness in Light,” something I can’t often say about new music of any genre. While you really need to hear the whole work, do at least sample the fabulous second movement (track 2). Just be sure not to have the volume set too high at the start — you’ll understand why later.
To continue on to the album’s second work, an orchestral piece called “Ignite,” immediately after listening to the Violin Concerto could lead to a sense of déjà entendu. This is not a criticism of Fagerlund, two of whose major works would not usually be part of the same concert program. Better, though, to give the album a break, or to listen to something contrasting in-between, than to go straight on.
Are you back? Good. In four principal movements connected by three brief interludes, and of similar duration to the Concerto, “Ignite” is a work of amazing, even terrifying, orchestral mastery. To be sure, you may be reminded here of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, there of Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, and elsewhere of Holst’s “The Planets,” Lutosławski’s “Concerto for Orchestra” and even a little John Williams — but never mind, Fagerlund is his own man and composes his own music. You can’t fake music this good; it can only come from deep inside you. Again, you may turn to Ms. Välimäki’s album notes to read what “Ignite” is “about.” I think it’s about a half-hour of thrills, chills and maybe even a little genius.
The performances and engineering on this album are beyond praise — bravi tutti! There’s no Spotify playlist yet, though there likely will be one soon. But you can sample and download (high-quality, please — the music demands it) the album here. Please do.