• Sebastian Fagerlund
  • Water Atlas (2018)
    (for Orchestra)

  • Henry Litolff’s Verlag GmbH & Co. KG (World)
  • 3(III:pic).3(III:ca).2+bcl.2+cbn/
  • 18 min
    • 26th August 2024, Rathausplatz, Vienna, Austria
    View all

Programme Note

Time was when the Finnish composers in the front line of contemporary music turned their back on the heritage of Sibelius, whom they labelled a ‘national Romantic’ (intended as a pejorative), and out with Sibelius went the idea of drawing inspiration from the vast arcs of the Finnish landscape. Sebastian Fagerlund has no such hang-ups about the stimulus he finds in the natural world. Water Atlas is the final work in an orchestral trilogy that began in 2014 with Stonework (2014) and continued with Drifts (2016–17). ‘Finishing the trilogy’, Fagerlund writes, ‘made me realise how much I have drawn from Nordic nature in my orchestral music. The grand Finnish archipelago and sea with its vast and open views as well as the islands with their raw, primary rock continue to provide me with endless inspiration’.

Stonework took its point of departure from considerations of the vast rocks that litter the Finnish countryside and seashore and the mythic importance of large stones in human ritual; and Drifts was suggested by the ability of wind and sea to transform huge shapes a grain of sand or a flake of snow at a time. Water Atlas – a joint commission by the Royal Concertgebouw, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra – similarly had as its ‘main inspirational starting point […] the abstract thought of water as an element – its endless and ancient cycle of circulation, evaporation and rain’. 

The desire to mirror that ‘endless and ancient cycle’ led Fagerlund – naturally rather than through a conscious compositional decision – to a structure that resembles a kind of huge rondo. After its explosive opening, marked Agitato capriccioso,the tempo broadens out in a passage marked Calmo misterioso, where little wisps of the earlier material skitter around like leaves in the eye of a hurricane. Dancing figures in the violas and cellos suggest the consoling presence of rain, but they presage instead another storm, with violent tattoos from the timpani and percussion (Fagerlund’s well-staffed percussion section requires four players). Once again, the violence abates and the music settles into an uneasy calm over a dignified chorale in the brass – a passage that Sibelius would surely have admired. After another surge in energy (where, in the score, the overlapping phrases in the woodwind look surprisingly like monstrous waves), another oasis of calm allows the piano and harp a brief duet – although the roiling of the deeper registers of the orchestra leave no doubt about the immensity of the forces involved. In another passage of what Fagerlund calls ‘austere calmness’, this one marked Misterioso, a series of woodwind solos sing out into the night, with those melodic wisps from the first episode and triplet tattoos from the trumpets helping to provide thematic coherence. Slowly other elements from earlier in the work recur and coalesce, Vivace molto energico, in a powerful and dramatic coda.

The world premiere of Water Atlas was given on 21 April 2018, by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Osmo Vänskä, in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam. The version heard this evening incorporates some changes to the closing pages that Fagerlund made in 2019.

Martin Andersson