Rarely do pieces with exclamation marks in the title end well. Usually they’re a sign of desperate over-enthusiasm, and presage a pandering piece of peppy schlock, so determined to be relentlessly upbeat that all concerns for musical quality are cast carelessly aside. There are exceptions, but they’re few and far enough between that I approached Rehnqvist’s Arktis Arktis! with some trepidation. Happily, my misgivings were misguided.
Even tho Karin Rehnqvist (b 1957) is quite well known in her home country of Sweden, she doesn’t get a lot of press in the English-speaking world, which means my ability to sketch her biography is somewhat limited. Born in Stockholm and raised in Nybro, Rehnqvist studied music pedagogy and composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. While still a student there, she became the conductor of the Stans Kör (a professional choir), a post she held from 1976 until 1991. After some time outside the academy, she was appointed a professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in 2009, the first female to hold such a position. (I’d say something snarky, but I’m pretty sure there are still a lot of conservatories out there that haven’t cleared even this low bar yet, so . . .)
Her most famous works are probably her vocal works, especially the ones that incorporate the Swedish tradition of kulning, a method of calling cattle and goats traditionally used by female herders of those creatures in the Scandinavian valleys (there’s even a piece where such calls are deployed to mock misogynistic Finnish proverbs), but she’s written extensively for orchestra too, and those pieces get a lot of air time as well. Arktis Arktis! (2000–1) is in the latter category, and was inspired by a trip she took to the Canadian arctic in the summer of 1999.
“Not always beautiful. Not always white.” Those are the words Rehnqvist uses to describe her impressions of the arctic ice, and they might apply equally to the first movement, “Breaking the Ice”. Jagged, discordant blocks of sound jostle and shudder together in the strings, while long, keening lines loom in and out of view in the woodwinds and brass behind them. Two minutes in, this noisy outburst cuts off abruptly, leaving a sparse, cold landscape built from eerie whispers and uncomfortable silences. Motion is very slow, but it never stops entirely, suggesting, perhaps, the implacable grinding of ice against ice. Towards the middle of the movement, the brass seem to be trying to start some kind of chorale, but they are thwarted by irritated groanings from the lower strings. Eventually, however, the long stasis reaches a breaking point, and the music returns to an amped-up version of its initial outbursts. Even as the tumult swirls around it, this is music of immense space and patience; it can allow these yawning chasms to sprawl extensively without any danger of running out of time. And indeed, the movement ultimately frosts over again, ebbing gradually into a frigid silence before one final violent outbreak.
Queasy shudderings usher in “Between the Sea and the Sky”, which focuses on the tundra: Its creatures, its bright small flowers, the particular quality of its light. While the impersonal frigidity of the first movement is still lurking about the edges, there is much more room for tenderness, even playfulness here. It’s music that, while still sparse and slow, is now suffused with hints of warmth. The first blossoming of this warmth unfolds into an ecstatic, shimmering sheen of sound — like giddy froth whipped up into brightly illuminated air — and at first the music that follows seems to suggest a plunge back into the icy depths, but as it rises, it thaws, suggesting the languid movements of soil and stone. A second glittering climax ensues, and the earth turns, leaving the rest of the movement to fade into thin, cold air.
Vibrancy and warmth have no place in the “Interlude in Darkness”, and understandably so. Dissonant interjections and uneasy, sliding strings conjure up the thick, disorienting arctic fogs, fogs that brought cloying darkness and headaches even in the peak of summer. Abruptly, the mist clears, and the movement lurches into a reprise of the first movement’s opening, with its disintegrating foundations and windswept upper reaches. A sweep up into the highest reaches brings us without pause to “Yearning”, the finale.
In this movement, the upward sweeps continue, little escaping tics that dart away from the lurching, mechanical lower voices. These, too, gradually climb, but something goes wrong, and they plunge back into the depths. A second attempt likewise falls flat, but the third is more determined and continues pushing until a chain of glittering climaxes leaves the violins alone squealing in their upper reaches. Another icy plunge follows, but the shapes seem clearer now, more lyrical. It is as if we are leaving the gridlock of the ice floe behind to sail once more out into the open ocean. The individual lines overlap and weave together, lifting the music into a space that, if not warm, is suddenly free of the impersonal arctic chill, free to rhapsodize and flow. Free to yearn. There is one last rising gesture before the music slips away, leaving us, instead of resolution, memories of mysteries and frozen vistas indifferent to human scales.