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Pehr Henrik NORDGREN (1944
- 2008) Taivaanvalot Op.63 (1984/5)
Merja Wirkkala (soprano);
Anssi Hirvonen (tenor); Ritva Talvitie (bowed lyre)
Central Ostrobothnian Chamber Choir; Kaustinen Children’s Choir
Folk Orchestra; Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas
rec. (live) Kaustinen Hall, Folk Arts Centre, Kaustinen, Finland, 4-5 December
1999 ALBA ABCD269 [53:44]
Nordgren’s Taivaanvalot Op.63 (“The Lights
of Heaven”) is based on the Kalevala. It turns its back
on heroic - and not so heroic - deeds and instead focuses on
those parts of the epic dealing with the myth of Creation. In
doing so it taps into universal echoes throughout the world. “My
intention was not therefore nationalistic” (P. H. Nordgren).
In this respect it is closer to what I consider to be one of
Sibelius’ greatest masterpieces Luonnotar Op.70 than
to, say, the Four Lemminkainen Legends or the Kullervo
Symphony. More interestingly, too, Nordgren collated his
own text from variants of the Finnish epos compiled by Lönnrot
in the 19th century. While compiling the words, Nordgren
was clearly impressed by “the immense job done by Lönnrot … If Taivaanvalot is
not based on the Kalevala, it is at least a tribute to Lönnrot”.
The work is in five movements although the short instrumental
introduction and the second movement actually form a single entity.
The second and fifth movements are for voices and orchestra whereas
the third and fourth ones are purely instrumental. It must also
be mentioned that the composer devised an Intermezzo (“The
Cosmic Dance of the Heavenly Bodies”) for voice, bowed
lyre and sampler (including some throat singing) for inclusion
in the 1999 performance of the work, which is what we have here.
The Intermezzo was inserted between the second and third movements,
but is now presented as an extra track. This decision was made
with the agreement of the composer who felt that the Intermezzo
was stylistically at odds with the music of the other movements.
Now, however, it is possible to re-insert it after the second
movement by programming the CD player. By this token we can gain
some idea of what the 1999 performance was really like and we
can come to our own view on whether the composer was right or
Taivaanvalot is scored for soprano, tenor, folk instruments,
mixed chorus, treble voices and chamber orchestra. The folk instruments
include two goat’s horns, a reed pipe, a herdsman’s
flute, a bull-roarer, a percussion plaque, a shaman’s drum,
five 5-stringed and three 36-stringed kanteles and a bowed harp.
Incidentally, this is not the only example in Nordgren’s
output where he used folk instruments. He did so in a much earlier
work the Concerto for Clarinet,Folk Instruments and
Small Orchestra Op.14 (1970). The short introduction opens
with the folk instruments whose timeless sounds immediately set
the ritualistic tone of the work as a whole while imparting to
the music a surreal tone perfectly in tune with its mythic character.
This leads straight into the second movement (“The Bird
of Night and Day”) mostly scored for soprano, treble voices
and orchestra dealing with the creation of the Sun, Moon and
Stars. This immediately brings Sibelius’ Luonnotar to
mind for the text set by Sibelius is comparable to parts of that
set by Nordgren. Let me give just a short example:
“Tuli suuri uukon tuutsa
Meren viihkura vihhain…” (Nordgren)
(“A huge and manly wind arose
A furious storm at sea…”)
“Tuli suuri puuka
Meren kuohuille kohotti…” (Sibelius)
(“There came a great gust of wind
It raised the sea to a surge…”)
It goes further by telling how the Golden Egg was broken, thus
creating the Sun, Moon and Stars. The next movements (“The
Banishing of the Moon Swallower” and “The Forces
of Evil Hide the Lights in the Depths of the Underworld”)
are purely orchestral. “These [movements] were inspired
by primitive beliefs about eclipses of the moon and the sun” (Nordgren).
The final movement (“The Freeing of the Sun, Moon and Stars”)
tells how “the smith’s maiden, the wise virgin” eventually
freed the Sun, Moon and Stars by retrieving them from the underworld.
This is the only movement in which everyone joins forces. It
ends with an orchestral coda capped by a brief restatement of
the opening, thus bringing the work full circle.
The music of Taivaanvalot is vintage Nordgren, though
with faint echoes of Bartók - particularly so in the two
orchestral movements, but with many Nordgren hallmarks such as
string clusters, quickly resolved dissonant harmonies and much
forward drive and energy. The inclusion of folk instruments is,
as far as I am concerned, remarkably well judged, were it only
for the surreal touch they add to the more traditional orchestral
sound. This is undoubtedly one of Nordgren’s greatest achievements
and also a unique work in many respects. All concerned in this
performance obviously responded wholeheartedly and splendidly
rose to the occasion. Though recorded live, the sound is really
very fine thanks, too, to a particularly attentive audience.
This is a splendid release in every respect but why on earth
has it lingered for ten years before being released?
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