Yet again we are faced with recurrent questions surrounding stylistic ethics and the exclusivity of music about music. Rolf Martinsson’s AS [Arnold Schoenberg] in memoriam (1999) aims to reflect the ‘style, gesture and musical character’ of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, written exactly 100 years earlier. As a pastiche, it’s a triumph of fluid, convincing mimicry. To listen to, it’s gorgeous, calorific and disorientating. As an artwork, it’s somewhere between questionable and pointless.
In his Concerto for Orchestra, Martinsson quotes the three other works included on the disc (and many more from his own pen) as well as making extensive use of Golaud’s theme from Schoenberg’s Pelléas und Mélisande. On the former point, fair enough: the piece was written for one of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra’s immersion weekends when lots of other Martinsson scores were played. But beyond Sweden and indeed that weekend, doesn’t the gesture freeze us out?
As for Pelléas, Golaud’s music pings out of the texture with such wondrousness – with its burdened harmonies, raging angst and intoxicating melodiousness – that when it departs again you notice the comparative lack of character. Despite some wondrously skilful orchestral writing, it’s a problematic piece when so much of its supposedly personal feelings are filtered through another person’s. If the idea is to listen more technically, Pelléas’s presence makes that impossible.
Martinsson’s Orchestral Songs on Poems by Emily Dickinson sit somewhere between Sondheim, Korngold at his most syrupy and Disney songs. Even if you’ve little regard for any of those stylistic reference points, it’s hard to deny that these are the most intriguing works on the disc – orchestrated with true subtlety and delivered with a delectable feline poise by Lisa Larsson that proves their ‘singability’. Martinsson reacts as directly as the punters would expect when faced with words like ‘squirrel’ and ‘thunder’. But he throws in the odd non sequitur too, as on the word ‘harmony’. Otherwise, there is no question of Martinsson ever taking a hard route when he can take an easy one – the songwriter’s art, if not the composer’s. The concert overture Open Mind is a thrilling showpiece and a great advert for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic’s slick virtuosity. But its central, slow section really reminds you of someone else … yes, that’s it: early Schoenberg.