Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In concerts, we come to new pieces of music armed with expectations that have been set up by the title, by a programmatic description, or what we might know of the composer – at the very least even knowledge of a nationality or era can affect what comes into the listener’s mind. So as I think back to Royal Northern Sinfonia’s New Music from the North chamber concert, I wonder how much my abiding impressions of cold, sparse beauty arose just from knowing that the composers came from Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Estonia. If the composers had been Spanish or Italian, would I have had parched sun-soaked landscapes in my mind instead of brittle snow-laded pine needles?

Timothy Orpen © Benjamin Harte
Timothy Orpen
© Benjamin Harte
The opening piece of the concert gave us visual clues not just with nationality but with a title and description too: Hans Abrahamsen’s Walden (‘Woods’) for wind quintet was inspired by the memoirs of Henry David Thoreau, a 19th century poet and philosopher who spent two years living a minimalist lifestyle in the American forest. Abrahamsen reflects on Thoreau’s writing with music stripped down to its bare essentials, just stopping short of the point where we start to ask questions about what makes sound into music. Later, the music became more complex, ending in a broken, distorted dance, but the first movement was constructed from little more than pairs of notes, played with icy stillness by the five members of Royal Northern Sinfonia.

Sometimes place and history do leave an indelible mark on a composer’s output: Finland has a long tradition of clarinet playing, arising from the country’s folk music, and from Finland’s first composer of note before Sibelius, Bernhard Henrik Crusell, and today a number of Finnish composers have written works for clarinettist Kari Kriikku, including Magnus Lindberg. His Clarinet Concerto demands crazy extended techniques; tonight’s work, his Clarinet Quintet, also written for Kriikku demanded nothing more than continuously virtuosic playing. Streams of rapid notes were visible across the hall as a black blur across the music, the whole piece a showcase for Timothy Orpen’s talent, supported on a gentle cushion of strings. What was impressive was not just the fluency of Orpen’s playing, but the way he navigated the rapid leaps with an absolute even tone, that never lost its opulence either during the acrobatics, or when Lindberg pushes the clarinet right to the top of its register – I have never heard high notes on a clarinet sound so sweet.

The string quartet accompanying Orpen had already had their moment in the light, playing Larsson’s String Quartet no.3 Op.65, a piece that was less obviously ‘northern’, than the others, a well-polished, traditional string quartet, rooted in mid-20th century neo-classicism. The first movement alternated angry, jagged rhythms with a plangent solo line from first violin Kyra Humphreys over pizzicato. After a wistful opening the second movement launched into a pulsating tarantella-like dance, before the quartet died away in a nostalgically autumnal largo. The piece came alive with excellent ensemble playing from the quartet, particularly as melodic lines passed between the parts in the first movement, and in the gentle breaths of the last.

The quartet lived and breathed together as you would expect, but the piece that followed, Erkki-Sven Tüür’s Symbiosis, a duet for double-bass and violin demanded an entirely different relationship between its two performers, Sian Hicks and Sophie Appleton. The title suggested that the two parts were feeding off each other, each needing the other to survive, but still remaining as two independent organisms, and the music backed up the imagery as the parts shifted in and out of phase with each other. After a languid start, the piece picked up energy, with Sian Hicks at one point sounding like a bass guitarist in a rock band under Sophie Appleton’s wildly vigorous fiddle line.

Kaija Saariaho’s ethereal music was played a lot on BBC Radio 3 last year – first in their spotlight on female composers, and then in their Nordic season. Aptly, her piece Spins and spells for solo cello was played by former Royal Northern Sinfonia principal cellist Louisa Tuck, making a welcome return visit from her new position in Oslo. Spins and spells alternates between loose floating threads of sound (the spells) and rapid motifs in which Tuck’s bow seemed to be moving in circles (the spins), and is full of microtones, harmonics and glissandi, played on a re-tuned instrument. Tuck created a magical sound-world, ensuring that the music was never weighed down by the extreme demands of technique.

It’s hard to get away from the stereotypes of frozen Nordic music, but what this fascinating programme showed was under the surface of the ice, there is a thriving and varied musical ecosystem, that deserves far more attention. 

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