‘It is snow, it is snow!’ So sing the instruments – the words to be imagined are indicated over their parts – in Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee (2008), one of the most remarkable musical compositions of this century so far. Scored for two pianos and percussion with trios of woodwinds and strings, Schnee is an hour-long set of gradually crystallizing canons that are also musical portraits of snow: its flurries, how it blankets and blanks out the landscape, its delicacy, its cold.
Schnee when it first appeared – at Witten in 2008 and on disc the next year, in both cases played by ensemble recherche – seemed very much like a new start. However, Abrahamsen had written winter pieces for instrumental groups before, in his Zwei Schneetänze (1985) and earlier still in Winternacht (1976-78), the defining work of his mid-twenties, music as precise as it is evocative, a perfectly balanced mobile of shifting and often simultaneous images and references.
The Piano Concerto completed in 2000 also had deep roots in his past – in the turbulent lopsided ostinatos and the contrasting stillnesses of the piano studies (Ten Studies) (1983-98), and in the polyphony of type and topic that went back to Winternacht and beyond.
There are flakes, too, from Schnee, in his Double Concerto for violin, piano and strings (2010-11), such as the chilling-exhilarating quasi-unisons of high piano and string harmonic or the dancing figures of the two fast movements. Abrahamsen is a composer who has made the new start almost a way of life. We may feel we recognize his music, even as we recognize also its unfamiliarity, the sharp scent of new snow.