Works for String Orchestra reviewed by Guy Rickards

Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje (b1973) is one of Norway’s leading composers and, by own admission, an uneven one. A born and vibrant improviser, she habitually carries over the  spirit of innovation into her composed works. The results do not always entirely satisfy her, as she concedes right at the start of the interview in the booklet for this fine new release, but the two works for string orchestra (without conductor) featured here she believes to be “actually rather fine.” I think her evaluation is absolutely spot on: These are both splendid additions to the repertory of string orchestral works and are performed with vivid clarity and precision by Trondheim Solistene, who in fact commissioned Pictures from a Sinking City.

From first performance of Pictures from a Sinking City, Trondheim Jan. 30 2020

The inspiration behind Tale of Lead and Frozen Light comes ultimately from Beethoven (the string quartet, Op 59/1, thematic fragments of which are reworked in the score), so its release at the end of Beethoven’s 250th anniversary year is very apt. It originated as her String Quartet No 1, Tale of Lead and Light, in 2011 and was released on Lindberg Lyd in 2015(2L106; readers may recall I reviewed it enthusiastically in April that year). By that time, it had already been expanded and recast for string orchestra and it is this version that has been recorded here. Expressively, the quartet’s course was irrevocably changed by the horrific events of 22 July that year when Breivik murdered 77 people. The larger, orchestral canvas amplifies Ratkje’s multi-layered response, the textures less spotlit, the musical depth multi-dimensional. The result is compelling.

So, too, is Pictures from a Sinking City (2019), a tone poem in all but name which was premiered by Trondheim Solistene in January 2020. The title will make most listeners think instantly of Venice, but rather the composer had in mind “associations with the myth of the submerged city, Atlantis, and to the destruction of civilisation.” (Not so far away from Venice, perhaps, then.) The musical discourse is here quite different, freer and more improvisational, in which Ratkje “inflicts a kind of compositional violence” on her material as a metaphor for the idea of destruction. Rarely has the notion of the collapse of everything we know been expressed so compellingly. Trondheim Solistene’s performances of both works are impeccable in their precision and musical understanding. They sound as if they have been playing both works for decades not a few years or, in the case of Pictures, weeks. Fabra’s sound is very fine, indeed. The playing time is quite short, but one needs time for reflection after encountering these marvellous works.

Record link

Translated to Norwegian and published at Dec 14 2020

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