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Nils Henrik ASHEIM (b.1960)
X1 (2005) [2:25] 1
Navigo, for violin and cello (1999) [6:26] 2
X2 (2005) [1:43] 1
Broken Line, for string quartet (2003) [13:36] 1
X3 (2005) [1:08] 1
Nicht, for voice and ensemble (2002) [14:35] 3
X4 (2005) [1:23] 1
Chase, for double string trio (2001) [14:47] 4
X5 (2005) [1:17] 1
1 Vertavo String Quartet: Berit Cardas (violin), Øyvor Volle (violin), Henninge Landaas (viola), Bjørg Værnas Lewis (cello); 2 Berit Cardas (violin), Bjørg Værnas Lewis (cello); 3 Isa Gericke (soprano), Tom Ottar Andreassen (flute), Hans Christian Bræin (clarinet), Sveinung Bjelland (piano), Eirik Raude (percussion); 4 Berit Cardas (violin), Øyvor Volle (violin), Henninge Landaas (viola), Aida-Carmen Soanea (viola), Bjørg Værnas Lewis (cello), Louise Hopkins (cello)
rec. 16 June 2005, 16-18 November 2005, 7 June 2006, Sofienerg Church, Oslo
AURORA ACD 5044 [57:26]

The Norwegian Nils Henrik Asheim works in many musical idioms; he has written orchestral works, chamber music and choral works; he has written for music theatre; a pianist and organist himself he has written works for these instruments; he also works in the field of electro-acoustic music; he is active in improvised music too. This present CD juxtaposes fully composed pieces with improvised pieces.

The brief improvisations are designated as X1, X2 etc. I say ‘brief’ improvisations but, as the booklet notes explain, these tracks are actually "extracted from an hour of improvisations made in November 2005 in between recording the other pieces". Of the ‘method’ underlying this session of improvisations I can do no better than to quote the composer’s own words: "I specified some guidelines and the ensemble listened inwards in a circle of sound". Whatever that means, precisely, it has to be said that these brief fragments are actually not especially interesting, explorations of sonority that don’t, in my experience, offer many rewards on repeated hearings (with the partial exception of the muted textures of X4).

The longer, composed pieces are altogether more interesting. In Navigo the two musicians are invited to find their own ways (to ‘navigate’) between scored sections. There are, as a result, interactions both predictable (from the score) and unpredictable. There are passages of genuine dialogue (though without a score one has no way of knowing how far these have been ‘designed’ by the composer, how far they represent the conscious ‘intentions’ of the two performers or how far they are mere ‘accidents’). There are also passages where the two instrumental voices seem to be operating in ignorance of one another (though, of course, each can hear the other) and like two ships ‘navigating’ in a thick fog, their encounters are both troubling and briefly revelatory. Of Broken Line the composer writes rather better than I could manage, and his imagery certainly evokes something (though, of course, the music is not in any direct sense pictorial and, other very different, imagery might also be employed) of the experience of listening to the work: "Bright reflections encounter something opaque and viscous. Above it and around it flies something clear and vulnerable. Frayed fireflies, indistinct contours of light. Subdued, delicate sounds barely connected. Soft, dense calligraphy and strong foregrounds in which a string quartet borrows the steadfastness of an accordion or pipe organ".

In Chase two string trios bounce some short passages, slightly more conventional in rhythm than most of the music on this disc, one against the other. There are moments here which sound almost Bartokian, though the music never has Bartok’s continuity and development. This is a striking and satisfying composition which has some real emotional weight; by comparison with both Navigo and Broken Line, here one is less tempted to have recourse to the adjective ‘experimental’, less likely to have one’s attention taken by the means and methods rather than by the ‘finished’ musical object.

The one vocal work included, Licht, is also interesting and appealing. For soprano and chamber ensemble, it sets three poetic texts (‘Einiges’, ‘Warum?’ and ‘Nicht’) by the painter Wassily Kandinsky (texts and translations are provided) taken from his volume Klange published in 1913. Klange, in its mixture of poems, prose and prints was part of Kandinsky’s ongoing fascination with the idea of the gesamtkunstwerk and closely related to his increasing use of musical terminology in relation to his new, abstract paintings, at the level both of title and aesthetic theory. For composers to work with Kandinsky’s texts (or, indeed, to respond to his paintings) has a particular aptness. Especially if those responses are as impressive as Asheim’s is. The frequent recourse to a kind of sprechgesang perhaps relates to Kandinsky’s friendship with Schoenberg; certainly the interplay of voice and instruments here seems to owe more than a little to the Schoenbergian tradition; in another sense, the vibrant, shining instrumental textures, the constant contrasts in dynamics, the varied use of instrumental colour, might all be thought to offer musical analogies with the intensely busy visual activity, in both line and colour, that characterises paintings such as Composition VII (1913) and Improvisation of Cold Forms (1914). Isa Gericke sustains the vocal role very well and the whole is an intriguing, richly suggestive piece.

Something of a mixed bag, in terms both of style and quality, the best here is ample reason for anyone with a serious interest in contemporary music to investigate this disc.

Glyn Pursglove


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