Review: Hans Abrahamsen portrait concert

First published in the Guardian on 20 January, 2015

In the late 1980s, Hans Abrahamsen stopped composing for several years, stumped for direction. This biographical detail was hard to fathom during the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s portrait concert because the Dane’s music seems to know exactly what it wants to say, and how, and why. It doesn’t waffle or shy away; it contains much quiet mystery and evocation but never dodges the point. “The most interesting thing is an idea expressed using one pitch,” Abrahamsen told us from the stage, and that drive for clarity and concision sums up the evening.

The highlight was his First String Quartet, a work from 1973 that’s as much brazen manifesto as it is beautiful music. Ten fleeting preludes journey backwards from ferocious atonalism to full-on baroque pastiche; halfway through they reach expressive ground zero, just a pale cello note shorn of modernist, tonal or any other trappings. It was easy to understand why the Danish String Quartet — young players of conviction, agility and vivid gestures — had been specially invited for this performance.

After the interval came slightly nerdy insights into Abrahamsen’s habit of reworking old material. His orchestration of Debussy’s Children’s Corner has plenty of dark, buzzy sounds over which conductor Andre de Ridder took fastidious care, but it missed Debussy’s charm and spark. Ten Sinfonias is a remake of the First String Quartet for full orchestra that ups the colour contrast but dissipates the original’s stripped-back potency.

The newest work on the programme was 2011’s Double Concerto for violin and piano, with sisters Baiba and Lauma Skride as meticulous soloists. Abrahamsen’s recent language has become less urgently polemical, more suggestive, and here he uses the orchestra to paint wide, subtle landscapes onto which the solo instruments place delicate but definite objects. The piece spirits away — classic Abrahamsen move leaving us in lingering mystery.