Hellstenius Past and Presence LAWO LWC1229

Henrik Hellstenius (b. 1963) 
Past & Presence
As if The Law is Everything, for mezzo-soprano and orchestra (2017)
Still Panic, concerto for bass clarinet and orchestra (2016) 
Robert Schumann (1810-1856), recomposed by Henrik Hellstenius
Dichterliebe, Op 48 (selections) (1840/2015)
Tora Augestad (mezzo-soprano), Diego Lucchesi (bass clarinet)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2016-2020 Grieghallen, Bergen, Norway
Texts and translations included
Lawo Classics LWC1229 [62]

My colleague Rob Barnett has variously characterised previously recorded works by Hellstenius as “a capricious spider’s web of crafted fragments and fine graphene fibres” (In Memoriam – Violin Concerto No 2 – review). And “an active chattering and shifting collage of a soundworld” (the chamber opera Ophelias – Death by Water Singingreview). Having listened to and enjoyed both the discs in question, I once more doff my cap to my colleague’s astonishing knack of distilling the essence of an unfamiliar work’s sound and style into the CD review; the equivalent of an elegant haiku (give or take the odd syllable).

I certainly could not improve on each of those descriptors where the two original pieces on this recent Lawo disc are concerned. However, one feature which seems to be common to all the works by Hellstenius I have encountered to date is momentum; he ‘gets on with it’ – and this is a certainly the case with the three offerings presented on this superbly engineered Lawo disc. Kudos to Edward Gardner for taking up this composer’s cause. 

While all the music herein is as theatrical as one might expect from Hellstenius, the two vocal works, delivered with Berberian-like mercuriality by the versatile mezzo Tora Augestad, stand out in this regard. She is clearly suited to their expansive vocal demands; unlike Rob Barnett, I would argue that Ophelias (mentioned above) probably owes more to Ligeti than to Cardew and there is also a Weillian hint there – and both those influences seem to converge again in these two collections. 

As if the Law is Everything is a setting of lines concerning law (in the most general sense of the word) by the contemporary Norwegian lyric poet Øyvind Rimbereid. This half-hour sequence comprises seven numbers and is rendered in English. It encompasses a synthesis of spoken reportage (delivered by Tara Augestad with occasionally rather stern ‘Received Pronunciation’), the vocal extremes most listeners might expect to hear in cutting edge opera and everything in between. It is simultaneously compact and diffuse, the different numbers providing idiosyncratic commentaries on ‘law’, ‘the law’ or ‘laws‘ (eg. ‘of nature’) from the varying perspectives of poet, philosopher, the state and most affectingly of all nameless (female) individuals with first-hand experiences of ‘the law’: a fugitive thief, a judge, and a murder victim who has suffered the ultimate fate because of its inadequacies. While Hellstenius has compiled a colourful cycle which Angestad interprets most persuasively, I must confess found it meandering and strangely uninvolving, given its imaginative premise. As if The Law is Everything is perhaps just too clever for its own good.

Hellstenius’ ‘re-composition’ of half of the songs from Schumann’s immortal cycle Dichterliebe for voice and a smallish orchestra are beautifully realised and emerge in somewhat sinister terms. Familiar melodic fragments from the original are often exaggerated by doublings or presented in higher registers. Augestad is demure, almost cool, in Im wunderschönen Monat Mai and yielding amidst the strange, psychedelic orchestration of Aus meinen Tränen spriessen with its nagging repetitions. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne is measured in pace, the opposite of its customary breathless rush, yet its 70 seconds is still sufficient for a repetition of the text. Rippling tuned percussion drive Ich will meine seele tauchen. Windswept textures fail to overwhelm Augestad’s studied objectivity in Und wüssten’s die Blumen, die kleinen which adopts a robustly Romantic tone in its closing bars. It then segues into a delightfully coloured, even Weillian Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen which ends rather abruptly. The arrangement of Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen is ethereal and limpid; when the voice arrives it seems almost disconnected, by its conclusion Hellstenius has adopted a tone more akin to Bergian expressionism. The psychological disintegration is complete in a bleak yet compelling Ich hab’ im traum geweinet which reaches a catastrophic climax before its dissolution. Augestad is strangely mesmerising and Hellstenius’ tinkerings are kaleidoscopic and often inspired, yet I am still left asking, “Why?” One possible reading is that his fascinating arrangements are nothing if not hallucinatory and perhaps provide a portent for Schumann’s own tragic fate, in which case why not set the whole cycle? The absence of the concluding Die alten, bösen Lieder with its devastating instrumental epilogue seems particularly odd in this context. 

The two vocal offerings are separated by an imaginative concerto for bass-clarinet, Still Panic, Hellstenius’s response to Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s saxophone concertante piece Panic, a 1995 Last Night of the Proms succès de scandale. The angular, isolated notes that characterise its opening certainly recall the late English composer’s early style (the gesture is rife in pieces such as Tragoedia for example). Hellstenius ramps up the theatricality of the piece by emphasising the bass-clarinet‘s clownish qualities. Especially fruity subterranean timbres are intermittently followed by the soloist interjecting with a vocalised ‘ouch!’, a device which I found forced and irritating rather than organic and amusing.  Yet Still Panic, in general, projects a gentler disposition than Birtwistle (as indeed do Hellstenius’s works on the two earlier discs); his orchestration is in the main tastefully conceived and often sounds beautiful, its energy being rather latent than manifest. It is performed with effervescent confidence by Diego Lucchesi whose mercurial stylings are captured expertly by the Lawo engineers in a recording which optimally balances the soloist alongside the restless, neurotic orchestra. 

Andrew Mellor provides a typically detailed and perceptive booklet note which also includes the complete texts, although the clarity of Tara Angestad’s diction almost renders them superfluous. I enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Hellstenius’s busy, frequently agitated, music, although on this occasion I found the concerto to be more compelling and convincing as a composition than the vocal selections here, notwithstanding Tara Augestad’s enthusiastic and skilled advocacy. 

Richard Hanlon

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Track Listing
As if The Law is Everything:
1. The Law
2. To Be
3. The Stars
4. The Laws Of Nature (first part)
5. She Who Fell
6. The Laws Of Nature (second part)
7. Epilogue
8. Still Panic
Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (selections):
9. Im wunderschönen Monat Mai
10. Aus meinen Tränen spriessen
11. Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne
12. Ich will meine Seele tauchen
13. Und wüssten’s die Blumen, die kleinen
14. Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen
15. Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen
16. Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet