When he started his career in the early 1970s, the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen was associated with the "New Simplicity" movement, a Danish development roughly comparable to American minimalism. His pieces were built up from repetitive cells and readily graspable, and allusions to the classical canon were written in the most naive, simpleton fashion. He entered a long hiatus at one point, and when he returned around the turn of the millennium, his music had subtly changed. It is still simple, minimalist, but it's now inscrutable, mysterious, always holding something back in spite of its uncomplicated surface.
The remarkable "Schnee" for 9 players (2006-2008) continues this line of exploration. Abrahamsen had spent some time making arrangements of J.S. Bach's canons, growing fascinated with their steadily descending lines and stretching and bending of time. In "Schnee", he sets five groups of two canons each, with three "intermezzi" in which the players retune their instruments microtonally.
From the first notes of the first movement, "Schnee" (German for "snow") is a remarkably appropriate title: piano and violin play at the very top of their range, with the piano's tinking sounds and the violin's noisy string tone turning Bach into something very alien. As each performer plays his downward-moving notes, the total effect is like thick snow flurries, with the individual flakes blown here and there by the wind.
As "Schnee" proceeds, the canons get first vastly slower, and then much faster. Hearing the same kind of material in changing instrumentation and tempo makes the work a meditation on time and memory. On the face of it, there's very little musical content to "Schnee" -- it truly merits the label minimalist over the busy textures of Steve Reich or John Adams. But as a musical experience, "Schnee" is a moving spectacle, one that envelops the listener completely.
"Schnee" was written for the Ensemble Recherche, who perform on this 2009 Winter & Winter disc unconducted (difficult to pull off -- later performances have resigned to using a conductor). I'm surprised that there's no previous reviews here as I come to add mine. Each time it has performed, "Schnee" has generated a small sensation and I believe that the work is destined for classic status. I strongly recommend this disc to any lover of contemporary music (even those suspicious of minimalist trends).