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Arne NORDHEIM (b.1932)
Listen (1971) [10:17]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111 (1822) [25:16]
Arne NORDHEIM
Listen – Inside Outside (2005)* [12:00]
Mats Claesson (live electronics)*
Einar Steen-Nøkleberg (piano)
* rec. concert, University of Aula, Oslo, 14 October 2006. Other venues and recording dates not stated. DDD.
SIMAX CLASSICS PSC1269 [47:38]



It is very difficult to fathom the purpose of this CD. Prospective purchasers wanting only Steen-Nøkleberg’s Beethoven would be better served by the 2-CD set from which this sonata has been extracted (PSC1218); in any case, they would be short-changed here, paying full price for just 25 minutes of music. In fact the whole disc is short value at less than 48 minutes: CDs of Beethoven’s late sonatas usually weigh in at 60+ minutes. Those wanting just the Nordheim, as the CD cover helpfully points out, can find Listen on another disc entitled Mine Musikkgleder – ‘My musical pleasures’, if my rusty Norwegian serves correctly (PSC1134).
 
The cover is hardly likely to attract the casual purchaser: a cardboard sleeve in black and white, simply carrying the words ‘Nordheim Beethoven Nordheim’ linked by some scrolling, in something like the modified black-letter script one finds in old Norwegian buildings and ‘Einar Steen-Nøkleberg piano’ in a more modern font; even the titles of the works are not given, though they are stated in a very large font on the back. The whole thing forms a gatefold, with the CD in a plastic tray inside the folds. I have previously expressed my preference for this arrangement, which avoids the frequent problem of broken plastic cases, but such gatefolds usually come with a shiny dirt-resistant surface, whereas the matt white of this Simax CD would, I imagine, easily become soiled. It certainly does not look enticing for a full-price issue.
 
Einar Steen-Nøkleberg is, as the booklet puts it, “reknown (sic) for his readings of both the classical and the contemporary repertoire.” On the basis of the Beethoven performance here and on the evidence of the recordings of Grieg’s piano music which he has made for the Naxos label – not mentioned by Simax, naturally – I can concur: this is a fine interpretation. But why would anyone wish to pay full price for one Beethoven sonata when there are excellent alternatives? Those seeking a single bargain-basement CD would find a recommendable version of Sonatas 30-32 by Jenö Jandó on Naxos (8.550551). Better still, for those prepared to tolerate well-re-mastered 78 sound, Schnabel on Naxos 8.110763, enthusiastically recommended here on Musicweb by Colin Clarke in March 2005 and by Christopher Howell in August 2005. Otherwise there are first-rate 2-CD mid-price couplings by Brendel, Kempff, Arrau, Ashkenazy and Pollini.
 
Of course, Beethoven’s music was regarded as revolutionary by his contemporaries and this is especially true of his late quartets and late piano sonatas. In the quartets he frequently establishes tuneful passages which he then, as it were, throws recklessly away and in the sonatas he not only explores the boundaries of music itself in a similar way, exploring counterpoint and variation in particular, he also pushes the instrument itself to its limits – limits which were constantly being expanded as technology produced instruments with greater possibilities. (Ironically, of course, his progressive hearing loss made him less and less able to hear these new possibilities.) I am sure his contemporaries, including its dedicatee Archduke Rudolph, would have been just as puzzled by his final piano sonata as I am by the Nordheim works. Just to look at the forest of notes in the score makes the would-be pianist quail – at least this would-be pianist who never got beyond Grade 5! (There is a wide range of Beethoven’s piano music scores, including Op.111, at Sheet Music Archive).
 
I know that it is irrational of me to respond to Messiaen’s more adventurous pieces and not to those of his pupil Boulez – a colleague long ago used to drive me and most others out of the common room by playing Le Marteau sans Maître – or to respond positively to re-workings of older music by Respighi (Ancient Airs and Dances, etc.) and Stravinsky (Pulcinella) yet reject what Nordheim has done with Beethoven. And yet … I find it hard to believe that much of today’s avant-garde and experimental music will still be listened to in two hundred years or that music-lovers like myself who are puzzled by it will be regarded in the same light as we now view Beethoven’s less enlightened contemporaries.
 
When I listen to, say, Officium (ECM445 3692), on which Jan Garbarek accompanies the Hilliard Ensemble in early music on the saxophone, an instrument which the original composers could not have dreamed of, I understand the ways in which a modern artist is offering an alternative view of the music of the past and I respond – in fact, I respond all too well to Officium, a favourite of my wife’s, but a recording to which I can listen only in small doses, because it moves me to tears. With the Simax CD I have no peg on which to hang my thoughts. As the Irish joke has it, if I were going there I wouldn’t start from here.
 
Perhaps I might have responded more adequately if I had been given more indications of what Nordheim and Steen-Nøkleberg had tried to do, some kind of guide which took me by the hand and showed me the way. This is why I think it so deplorable that many bargain CD reissues carry few or no notes: how can a new generation learn what to look for if they have no guide? As it is, all I hear is experimental notes and, in the electronic piece, experimental sonorities – sounds which fail to add up to music for me. The notes do not even indicate whether both pieces are based on Beethoven: Nøkleberg’s note in which he tells us little more than “I love Listen” seems to imply that only the second work, Inside Outside, was thus inspired. To tell me that this piece “feels unrestrainedly exposed” does not really help me any more than does Nordheim’s own note that he has made “little-regarded phenomena audible and eventually accessible – in a similar way to Opus 111, perhaps.” What a world of meaning lurks in that word “perhaps”! To the suggestion that these phenomena (whatever they are) have been made accessible prompts me to respond with the last line of DH Lawrence’s poem ‘Bat’: “But not for me.” I did try – I even looked on Simax’s web-page but found there only the notes printed with the CD – but it didn’t work.
 
After all this, it seems almost irrelevant to comment on Steen-Nøkleberg’s Beethoven. His playing certainly justifies the praise included with this CD and the high value which has been placed on his recordings of Grieg’s complete piano music. For an appreciation of his performances of the Grieg and of Sæverud’s music, see Patrick Waller’s recent review log on this site and for the view that his participation in the Simax recording of some of Tellefsen’s chamber music is “quite superb”(see review).
 
His playing at the start of Op.111 is about as maestoso as one could imagine. In this opening section alone he shows himself to be attentive to every change of mood from maestoso to allegro con brio ed appassionato and to every dynamic mark, from pianissimo to the fortissimo of the allegro con brio section, all this while negotiating the most difficult fast two-octave runs and other traps for the unwary. (How do you play a note marked sfp?) Everywhere else the playing is of the same high quality, right up to the wonderful diminuendo>pp ending which still has the capacity to catch modern audiences out – is that really the end? After that magical close, Listen-Inside Outside totally destroys the mood.
 
The recording is good throughout. If nothing else, I must allow that the engineers have enabled the live performance of Inside Outside to achieve its sonic intentions.
 
Brian Wilson
 



 


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