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Jon Øivind NESS (b.1968)
Mad Cap Tootling – Violin Concerto (2003) [18:59]
Wet Blubber Soup – Cello Concerto (2002) [13:33]
Gust (2005) [12:04]
Low Jive (2007) [12:46]
Peter Herresthal (violin); Øystein Birkeland (cello); Catherine Bullock (viola), Dan Styffe (double bass) (Gust)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Rolf Gupta (concertos); Peter Szilvay (Low Jive)
rec. Low Jive: live, 6-7 February 2008, Oslo Konserthus; Gust: 25 June 2007, Lindemansalen NMH, Oslo; Concertos: 28-30 April 2008, Oslo Konserthus.
SIMAX PSC1278 [57:25]

 

Experience Classicsonline


I am probably being dim and dense, but I’ve trawled the booklet notes for this release in an attempt to find out the relationship between the predatory-looking big black pumas on the cover and elsewhere inside. Other than generating dynamic and exciting expectations I am so far flummoxed. I do like the cover however: the animals remind me of a Rorschach inkblot. The question remaining is then, does the music of Jon Øivind Ness indeed provide us with the new, the sleekshiny slipstreamed and the instinctively stylish, or just smelly old cats.

As is often the case with modern music releases, I could very easily write two subjectively accurate reviews reflecting entirely opposite poles. The first goes ‘wow!’ and the second goes, ‘for gawd’s sake switch it off!’ Both can apply to the same disc and the same listener depending on their mood, but the second does indicate something of the high-tensile demanding nature of much of the music on this release. It’s not that it is essentially ‘difficult’ music in the atonal squeaky-gate sense that has affected serious composition in great swathes of the last century, but as Henrik Hellstenius describes in his admirable notes, “A typical feature of Jon Øivind Ness’s music is short, rhythmic cells. Small musical building blocks are thrown together at frenetically high speed... we are given the impression of music moving along at high speed constantly presenting something new.” Later on he says “In what at first may seem to be a desire to confuse the listener, to maximise chaos or deconstruct any opportunity for continuous, linear development, there is coherence.” It is an abstraction which requires high-octane intellectual engagement, and these first impressions need to be broken down and evaluated before one can establish a real rapport with this music. I’m not saying we should only live off a diet of slow chorales, but as the Violin Concerto Mad Cap Tootling increasingly lives up to its name as the music progresses, I can imagine those of an already highly-strung disposition becoming rather twitchy and distressed. The first time I heard it was outdoors in a sunny park on my MP3 player, and the contrast between relaxed recreation and what was coming through the headphones seemed at odds. I was inclined to be argumentative; my initial response misunderstanding what at first seemed a chain of expertly performed tricks. I was challenging the music to talk to me in ways that were different to the apparent virtuoso trickery of placing lots of notes very close to each other, and allowing preconceptions to gum up my objective critical faculties.

Mad Cap Tootling begins with a sustained atmosphere, over which the soloist, dedicatee Peter Herresthal, weaves increasingly wild and frenetic cadenza-like violin lines. The title derives from the way in which former American president George W. Bush came across in the media, and there is a suggestion that these aspects are expressed in elements of the solo part. As a protest against the Iraq war, this is then a rock solid statement, filled with hammering rhythms and urgent contrasts. There is no indication of programmatic content, but I hear missiles or bullets flying and impacting at 7:30 very explicitly. Jon Øivind Ness’s relationship with popular music is alluded to in the introduction to the booklet notes, but there is little sense of post-modern irony that I can detect in this piece. The descending parallel chords introduced at 10:50 might be grim laughter – they are certainly far enough removed from Tom and Jerry cartoons not to raise a smile. The elegiac section which follows might be funereal wailing, and the half-erased question mark with which the piece ends provides no sense of relief or release.

Wet Blubber Soup, the cello concerto, emerges almost as a continuation of the violin concerto. On-off beat Petrushka/Sacre-esque orchestral pushing and pulling is an element in both pieces, and the intense fragmentary nature of both gives them a family identity. The title is a pun on a 10CC song ‘Wet Rubber Soup’, in a possible allusion to the ‘remixed’ nature of the material in both. Introduced by some purposely banal contrary-motion figures in the clarinet and bassoon, the most impressive section for me begins at 4:40, where a low, throbbing and uneasily shifting bass line suggests rather than states a harmonic progression of memorable force, guaranteed to make you sit up and take note. Jon Øivind Ness and I also share a liking for those endless ‘telegraph-wire’ sustained lines, and here they appear in the winds rather than in the strings which opened the violin concerto. This texture is extended later on, leaving room for the cello to describe filigree lines in the air with irrepressible harmonics. Assemblies of fragmented rhythmic blocks in the second half allude once more to Stravinsky. Towards the end they seem to imitate a faulty CD: dddd-booibooibooibooi-dogdogdog..., and after having been made to sound like an indignant foghorn once or twice earlier on, the cello is allowed a minutes worth of final enigmatically restrained coda.

The two final pieces on this disc are later than the concerti by a couple of years, and Gust is said to introduce a new direction in Ness’s music. Already released on a disc called ‘Bass Trip’ PSC1288 and written for the double-bass player Dan Styffe and viola player Catherine Bullock, the piece opens with a kind of ominous ‘Rothko Chapel’ feel, with the bass rumbling under more rhapsodic lines from the viola. Later on, the bass introduces its own harmonics, rising to join the tessitura of the viola, and contributes more thematically, while reminding us of the bass pedal at frequent intervals. This is a work of intriguing colour and variety, with some of the sweeping/brushing sounds which briefly appeared at the beginning of the violin concert also cropping up, and the whole thing setting up a constant synergy of disparate and confluent elements like a Socratic discussion. In the final bars the two players end up shouting at each other with their strings in a state of domestic dissolution.

Low Jive is described as “a dance, a jive, in the dark.” The intensity of the fragmented elements in the two concertos is more elongated in this piece, and as a dance it has a heavier tread. As the music unfolds the pace increases, but a preponderance of low brass and deep percussion keeps our feet firmly on the ground. There are elements in this piece which reminded me of the Polish aleatoric techniques of the 1970s, manifesting itself in some of the orchestral colouration, but also in the multiple-tempo layering which occurs, lending sections of the piece a sense of freedom such as one might find in Penderecki or Lutoslawski. The hand of the skilled collage composer is clearly at work however, with little images and memories popping out to surprise at any moment. This is virtuoso orchestral writing, and the players give the impression of revelling in every moment.

As a recording, this disc is a remarkable technical achievement, with the complexities and dynamics of orchestra and soloists held in tight and impressive balance. The SACD effect is of demonstration quality, and listening with eyes closed you can immerse yourself in worlds uncharted. The performances are all superlative, with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra playing out if its collective skin, and bringing together a collection of excellent soloists, all of whom have already established a considerable track record, and most as recognised names in contemporary music. I am already a big fan of Peter Herresthal. Jon Øivind Ness’s music is of a kind which requires a certain kind of patience and acceptance. Don’t expect to respond immediately in the same way as you might to less demanding post-minimalism or more overtly pop-influenced contemporary works. Experienced collectors and fans of modern music shouldn’t have much difficulty here, and for those this has to be a straightforward and absolute recommendation. If you expect to feel resistance then, on sampling a few measures, you may start with little more than a ‘hey, there’s something going on here – not sure what, but...’, in which case it’s worth persevering and entering a world which has a great deal to offer. My own first reaction was one of impatience with what sounded like ‘zap culture’ restlessness. I was missing the ‘humanist’ element of a certain kind of expression which requires a different kind of logic and emotional space. After giving my brain a chance to catch up however, I realised that this was a valid way forward, advancing the kind of intensity you can hear in something like Dominic Muldowney’s piano and saxophone concertos. Jon Øivind Ness has his own touch, and an individual approach which is hard to resist once you’ve allowed it to take hold.

Dominy Clements





 


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