Embarking on a creative life is not to be undertaken lightly, composing music being described to me once as a potentially dangerous activity. Stories and myths abound as to how that absurdly elusive, unquantifiable matter “inspiration” falls from on high, as notes finally onto a page. So, when the young Hans Abrahamsen’s compositional voice fell quiet for a number of years, Per Nørgård told me in 1990 that the Danish music community was waiting patiently for him to re-emerge, in his own time. Conceived in close collaboration with NTR Zaterdag Matinee, Ambrahamsen’s choice of his own works for this Asko|Schönberg concert spans this remarkable transitory period. Encountering works bridging this important moment of stillness, the programme was breath taking. 

Hans Abrahamsen
© Lars Skaaning

Transmitting a concert’s aims to the optimum, good writing in the accompanying programme book can be helpful. With exemplary clarity, while spinning a darn good yarn, Joep Christenhusz’ notes transmitted words so vivid and alive, that we were compelled to engage more in what we heard. 

Winternacht (1976-1978), by far the most conventionally programmatic of the works, is dreamy and impressionistic, soothing Nordic balm. In the words of fellow Danish composer Poul Ruders, Winternacht is “four introverted still lifes of velvety, dark iciness of a silvery night”. Absorbed into standard classical concert hall repertoire, if the golden section, something defined in music as “divine proportion”, can be heard with one’s own ears: surely this piece exudes it. 

Abrahamsen exhibits a unique pacing of stark, transcendental narrative, moving to points of occasional stillness: these hang, poised sporadically, suspended, as if musical punctuation of varying length caught midair. Nestling within an inherent strictness in language is an onward and urging, bumbling forward motion, achieved lightly in this breakthrough palette of exquisite instrumentation. The deftness of a feather, tumbling softly to the ground: no note, or phrase too much or too soon; each brush stroke of instrumentation is excellent in its simplicity. No wonder at all then that after Winternacht the composer needed time to rest, re-group and re-emerge.

Wald (2008-2009) came second on the programme, a work commissioned by Reinbert De Leeuw for the Schönberg Ensemble, the earlier incarnation of today’s Asko|Schönberg. Echoing signature elements of his unique compositional palette, scant voicings contrast with lush moments of fullness and colour, these shades and nuances perfectly traced through the ensemble by conductor Brad Lubman. Wald is a strong piece which romps lyrically along, skittishly teasing and fooling around, with an Andriessen-like percussive hocket peeking at moments; then as if in slow motion, gathering all dimensions to one focal point: a moment suspended, a pause to breathe in, before reassembling differently back together again. 

Precision ensemble playing exemplified in Wald and Schnee is vastly different to the cohesively grander Winternacht tutti. An ensemble’s intellectual grasp and ability to inhabit the performance of these works differently; an intuitive understanding of these different modes, underlines the reason for Asko’s position as one of the Netherlands’ benchmark ensembles, dedicating their oeuvre to the performance, and commissioning across decades of serious works, by serious composers.

Concluding this most personal programme, was Schnee (2006-2009) in which Abrahamsen wrestled with form, structure and materials viscerally to point of obsession during its composition. Exploring Bach’s idea of canonic form, using scant instrumentation in diminishing groupings, Abrahamsen explores the potentiality of circular time. In unique voicings – invoked shakuhachi, the brush of a pianist’s finger, sweeping her fingers across the keys with barely defined out-of-earshot percussion – Abrahamsen conjures music, transfixing the vast Concertgebouw Hall with a muffled, magical world, of intense singular sonic focus, where each sound fell simply into its right and perfect place.