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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]
Experience Classicsonline

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 not.

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?

Hubert Culot



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