Swedish composer Jonathan Östlund, newly moved to London, has been composing and gaining increasing recognition for two decades. That doesn’t happen unless you create an amalgam of personal stylistic gestures that appeal to audiences. Östlund’s signature, like Debussy and Schumann in the great tradition, merges atmosphere, mystery, fantasy, and fairy tale. In this collection of 16 chamber works, the title Lunaris indicates a fascination with moonlight, the night, and nature’s creatures, both real and imagined. The sensation of Nachtmusik is so strong that one can approach these two discs as a single narrative of encounters by moonlight.
Östlund supports this perspective by bookending the program with a hauntingly mysterious sound, the cry of the black-throated loon ( Gavia arctica ), that, like the recorded birdcall in Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus , thrusts music and Nature together—it’s an amazing cry, reminiscent of coyotes and deranged (loony) spirits at the same time. As a scene-setter, Östlund’s one-minute miniature, Lunaris , employs a lyric soprano (Ruxandra Ibric Cioranu) in wordless vocalise and the piano (Blandine Waldmann) to imitate the notes of the loon’s song before the music finds its own improvisatory, rhapsodic response.
The main tradition of composers with strong poetic inclinations is to rely on both improvisation and rhapsody, so the thrust of Östlund’s imagination feels familiar on the one hand, while his personal vocabulary—striking, often repetitive rhythms, dashes of Shostakovich and Prokofiev, diatonic harmonies that bend in other directions, and remembrances of vocal traditions from Arabia and the Orient that decorate the lyrical line with melismatic flourishes—is markedly original. Impressionistic titles are chosen that Debussy would be happy to own ( Jeux de pluie, Rêve et lune, La Féerique et Pierrot ), but the music isn’t quasi-Impressionist. One senses instead the stomp of folk dancers and even a crossover number, Fantasia on Scarborough Fair , that treads the path of Percy Grainger.
The longest work here is a 27-minutes piano suite Miroir d’un mirage , that references Ravel’s Miroirs and underlines the homage by naming the six movements O-N-D-I-N-E (after a section of Gaspard de la nuit ), but that’s almost a misdirection, since we are not in the sparkling world of a water sprite. Östlund’s piano style is robust, rhythmic, and earthy, often relying on seed motifs as short as a single interval, which then get repeated and worked through without losing the germ of the idea. (Blandine Waldmann returns as the excellent solo pianist.) For a sense of mounting passion, my favorite work is Night-struck , a suite for cello and piano whose short three movements are entitled “Invocation” (given to cellist Alexander Zagorinsky alone), “Electrifying” (now joined by pianist Einar Steen-Nøkleberg), and “Astray.”
The imaginary character who feels central to the composer’s lunar fancies is Pierrot from the commedia dell’arte (not to worry, his version doesn’t imitate Schoenberg’s), evoked in verse by Östlund: “the moon was lulling Pierrot / whose ‘wine-ding’ road involved Bordeaux.” In other words, we get a dash of mischief, as in the burbling bassoon sounds in Frog Pond and some sweet lulling, as in a solo flute number, Air dans l’air . Solos, duets, and trios occupy much of the program, but I was impressed by a 12-minute string quartet, Rêverie—Jeux de pluie , where Östlund begins with chord progressions accompanied by twiddling cello, quickly moving into improvised territory that grows organically from those elements. The music is quick on its feet, ringing changes that last only a few measures while building through accessible harmonies to eerie passions—and that’s just the first four minutes. The rest of the piece, expertly played by the Cellini Quartet, displays the composer’s talent for long-breathed melody and Romanticism spiked with piquant flecks of dissonance.
Östlund’s artist’s bio lists a clutch of awards and festivals where his punning wit and earthy naturalism have been welcome. I’m happy to welcome those qualities, too, and feel enriched by stepping into his world of fancy free.
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