The London-based Swedish composer Jonathan Östlund is one of those contemporary composers who writes music with natural poetic melodies and highly sophisticated harmonies, blending tradition with contemporary expression. So far, he has composed over eighty works in which poetry is the main source of inspiration. On this new 2CD set, which was recently released on the British label Divine Art, we have 16 chamber works, whose unifying element is the nocturnal atmosphere, mystery, fantasy wonderland; some songs with the texture of spun moonlight. This explains the poetic title collection: Lunaris.
The work ‘Lunaris’ itself provides both an introduction and conclusion of the double album. This Rautavaara-like song evokes the bird Cantus Arcticus, because it includes its voice;. There are vocals by Romanian soprano Ruxandra Ibric Cioranu with French pianist Blandine Waldmann; the final track, which connects the title track to another, significantly named Music at Moonrise, also features the Franco-American violinist Ariel Jacob Lang. The first seven tracks on the first CD are marked by almost romantically colored textures, more or less evocative of Debussy and Schumann, works for flute and piano and string trios. At the piano, performance alternates between the already mentioned Blandine Waldmann and Bulgarian pianist Yoana Karemova, with the excellent Dutch flautist Eleonore Pameijer and Swedish cellist Lidia Hillerudh. I love the adventurous trio composition ‘The Wizard’ in which we even hear flashes of art-rock elements. The first highpoint in this two-hour presentation of Östlund’s chamber music, however, comes in the last four tracks of the first disc. These form the string quartet ‘Reverie-Jeux de pluie’ in which we hear the London Cellini Quartet; here is a compositional structure informed by Shostakovich and Prokofiev, in addition to the drama, emotion and dynamics, which are compounded indeed with spicy dissonances and stunning gradation.
The second CD opens with the sumptuous three-movement ‘Night-struck’ for cello and piano duo, performed by Norwegian pianist Einar Steen-Nokleberg and the Russian cellist Alexander Zagorinsky. After that, the piano is again taken over by the great Blandine Waldmann, whose style of performance whether displaying tenderness or vigor, with a typically robust, earthy and rhythmic keystroke, has the ability to simultaneously express even the innermost emotions. It shows in the delicate five-minute solo Winter Vigil and in conjunction with soprano Cioranu in a magnificent pearl with the title ‘Reve et Lune’.
However, not only the moonlight and night are sources of inspiration for the creative Östlund. It is also Pierrot, the pantomime character of Harlequin from commedia dell’arte, in ‘La Féerique et Pierrot’ for soprano and piano. Sensibly the composer has avoided comparison to Schoenberg, as the piece remains more rooted in traditional tonality and melody, plus a meditative mood. In Östlund’s music, there are also animals, in this case a frog – mischievously brisk in ‘The Frog Pond’ in which bassoonist Ursula Leveaux (from London’s Nash Ensemble) plays alongside pianist Waldmann. The most substantial composition is then almost 28-minue ‘Miroir d’un mirage’ for solo piano (Waldmann). The title refers to Ravel’s piece ‘Miroirs’ and tells the medieval love story of a knight errant and the water nymph, whose name is contained in the six movement titles: Ondine. The music flows with extremely flexible interpretation, with both dramatic climaxes and romantically soft sections , with variations in color, texture, emotion and narrative expression. Full of passion, emotion, fatality…