Album review: Spectacular premiere recording for Sebastian Fagerlund’s Cello Concerto by Nicolas Alstaedt, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Hannu Lintu

Over the past fifteen years or so, Sebastian Fagerlund has written an amazing series of concertos, including ones by saxophone (2004), clarinet (2005-06), violin (Darkness in Light, 2012), guitar (Transit, 2013) and bassoon (Mana, 2013-14). Premiered at the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg on 15 February 2019, Nomade (2018) for violoncello and orchestra marks the composer’s latest foray into the genre, now caught on disc by Fagerlund’s home label BIS.

Recorded in conjunction with the Finnish premiere performances at the Helsinki Music Centre on 10 and 11 April 2019, Nomade is committed to disc by its dedicatee Nicolas Alstaedt, together with the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Chief Conductor Hannu Lintu, longtime champions of Fagerlund’s music.

The thirty-minute Nomade is conceived in six movements and two orchestral interludes, played attacca, save for a general pause between the third and fourth movements, resulting in an overall structure somewhat similar to Elliot Carter’s Cello Concerto (2000). Joining the virtuoso solo part, there is an orchestra of strings, duple winds and brass, augmented in the lower registers by bass clarinet, contrabassoon and tuba, with key contributions from harp, piano, timpani and three percussionists adding up to Nomade’s intriguing sonic realm.

As implied by its title, Nomade’s dramaturgy deals with search, perhaps manifested by its wondrously elusive, captivating melodic lines and spellbinding orchestral hue. The music comes into being with splendid six-bar espressivo opening, emanating niente on the lower registers, coloured by Thai gongs, marimba, timpani and harp.

Following the opening gesture, the soloist joins, entering his evocative main line into the movement’s fabric. A dialogue between the cello and various orchestral groupings ensues, as the music starts to assume its initial sonic identities. In the manner of evaporating mists, the movement’s shapes emerge gradually in more solid forms, until some ninety bars later, brass pulsations herald the transition into the vehement agitato, molto ritmico second movement.

A thrilling tableau with dazzling interlockings between the soloist and the orchestra, the second movement is a sonic adventure par excellence. Almost cinematic in its expressive whirl, the movement is followed by a wonderful misterioso orchestral interlude, with its series of slow pulsations for percussion, strings, winds and, eventually, brass. On the last bar, the pulse is picked up by the soloist, launching into the vivace capriccioso third movement.

Living up to its name, the third movement is a play of hide and seek between the soloist and the orchestra. Another marvellously visual affair, the brief vivace cappricioso is a gorgeously animated virtuoso piece, bringing the first half or the concerto to its electrifying close.

At the core of Nomade lies its fourth movement, a terrific sarabande marked lento contemplativo. The movement opens with a grippingly reflective passage for solo cello, vibraphone, piano, harp and timpani. As the dream-like tableau unfolds, woodwinds, horns and low brass join gradually, with the textures yielding to a surreal, slow-motion dance. Layer upon layer, the musical fabric gains complexity, zenithing in a sudden fff burst, followed by a remarkable calmo, molto intenso section, where the solo line is coloured by distorted D string, resulting from a paper clip attached in front of the bridge.

A twelve-bar misterioso, poco tenuto interlude for strings leads into the espressivo, liberamente fifth movement. An intense search for cello and strings, the movement transits into an improvised solo cadenza, followed by an agitato closing for full ensemble. The final movement, esaltato, molto agitato is a veritable tour-de-force, with 165 bars of action-packed music for the soloist and orchestra. However, that is not the end.

Nomade closes with a riveting tempo primo, quasi improvisando coda, which brings the music back full circle. Escorted by repeated figures from harp and piano, combined with long-tones from the orchestra, the solo line gradually hovers back into the mists from whence it once appeared.

The premiere recording by Alstaedt, Lintu and the FRSO is nothing short of spectacular. Tremendously evocative, the solo part is treated with utmost virtuosity and sensitivity by its dedicatee, giving rise to a stunning realization of Faberlund’s masterful writing. The solo cadenza is in perfect accord with the thrilling musical arch of the concerto, splendidly completing the musical dramaturgy of the piece.

The multi-layered orchestral fabric is brought to life with detailed perfection by Lintu and the FRSO musicians. Ever carefully balanced, the orchestra teams up with the soloist seamlessly, providing numerous unforgettable moments of chamber music alongside compelling tutti patterns. Always fine-tuned to each other, Lintu and Alstaedt convey Fagerlund’s musical architecture with sublime mastery. Combined with clear-cut engineering from the BIS team, this is a premiere recording to cherish.

Sebastian Fagerlund, Nicholas Alstaedt and Hannu Lintu after a FRSO rehearsal for Nomade at the Helsinki Music Centre in April 2019. © Jari Kallio

As a coupling, the disc closes with another first recording. Water Atlas (2017-18) completes Fagerlund’s orchestral triptych begun with Stonework (2014-15), followed by Drifts (2016-17). With their shared musical material and uniform symphonic scoring, the three works may be performed together, although they are conceived as standalone entities.

The twenty minute score juxtaposes turbulent orchestral flow and musical stasis into ravishing instrumental drama, resulting in a sort of rondo form. As suggested by its title, the music is inspired by the multi-faceted dialogue between the maritime forces of nature and our human endeavors. Though not a symphonic poem per se, the score contains prominent innate narratives, while shunning away from any strictly programmatic interpretations.

In the course of its cyclical development, Water Atlas grows into an awe-inspiring orchestral canvas, providing its performers (and listeners) with absolutely gorgeous musical material. Premiered by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Osmo Vänskä in April 2018, Water Atlas was first heard in Helsinki a couple of weeks later, with Lintu conducting the FRSO. Their BIS premiere recording, in its turn, is a studio affair, captured on disc in sessions at the Helsinki Music Centre in August 2019.

Having performed and recorded the Fagerlund oeuvre extensively over the past years, Lintu and the FRSO have a firm grasp on the composer’s style, as their top-class outing for Water Atlas resoundingly demonstrates. Luminously phrased and beautifully balanced, the musical fabric comes off wonderfully throughout the score, from its moments of heated vehemence to those ethereal passages of static tensions.

With Lintu on the podium, Fagerlund’s musical architecture and instrumental drama join hands within compelling orchestral narrative, giving rise to a spot-on first recording. Again well served by post-production, Water Atlas is a piece that grows with repeated listenings. With this outstanding performance, one is glad to have many.

Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Hannu Lintu, conductor

Nicolas Astaedt, cello

Sebastian Fagerlund: Nomade (2018) – Concerto for violoncello and orchestra

Sebastian Fagerlund: Water Atlas (2017-18) for orchestra

Recorded at the Helsinki Music Centre on 10-11 April 2019 (Nomade) and August 2019 (Water Atlas)

BIS Records BIS-2455 (2021), 1 SACD

© Jari Kallio

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