Anders Hillborg’s Strand Settings, four atmospheric songs to poems by Mark Strand for soprano and orchestra, received their UK premiere in February as part of Renée Fleming’s ‘Artist Spotlight’ residency at the Barbican.
The BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Sakari Oramo, who has also recorded the songs with Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic for release on Decca. The work sees Hillborg sustain an intense – often brooding – lyricism for over 23-minutes, with supple vocal writing set against drifting clouds of divided strings that are underlit by shimmering glass harmonica.
‘Balance wasn’t a problem in Hillborg’s Strand Settings… Oramo’s orchestra had a field day, floating ecstatically under [Fleming’s] burning recitative in the opening Black Sea, ambling into urban jazz in the set’s scherzo… mysterious, marvellously atmospheric and moving…’
The Times (Geoff Brown), 9 February 2016
‘However thrillingly scored, Hillborg’s vital, shimmering accompaniments never overpowered [Fleming], always allowing space for the voice.’
The Guardian (George Hall), 9 February 2016
‘Hillborg’s songs unfolded in huge unhurried paragraphs, Fleming trailing her phrases of memory and longing across the music’s static chords, like the stars against the night sky so beautifully evoked in the poems. Starry nights, huge "cosmic" chords, feelings of regret - how easily these elements could have congealed into something sentimental and facile. It’s a tribute to Fleming’s artistry, and Hillborg’s subtlety, that they never did.’
The Telegraph (Ivan Hewett), 6 February 2016
‘The texts have a very contemporary feel, poetic in structure but avoiding elaborate metaphors or archaic constructions. There is a dark, nocturnal quality to the texts that Hillborg puts across effectively… Fleming is given space to communicate the texts without the music getting in the way. And Hillborg’s setting of the English language is excellent. He doesn’t shy away from highly contoured vocal lines, but they always fit the cadence of the poetry. The orchestral interjections explore a range of styles: in the second song, the text describing a nocturnal urban setting, we get some snatches of jazz, a walking pizzicato bass and some riffs from the woodwinds. In the third, there is a brief episode of Steve Reich-like minimalism in the piano. But it all coheres, thanks to those long string pedals and the composer’s keen focus on the texts.’
The Artsdesk (Gavin Dixon), 6 February 2016