“I feel that quartets are in a way the genre
in which I am most at home. I use the instruments rather mildly,
without any great technical finesse.” These words by the late
Pehr Henrik Nordgren make it clear that his string quartets were
important in his large and varied output. To that medium he often
confided his most intimate inner self. His modesty about any lack
of ‘technical finesse’ is belied by his expert writing for strings.
This is as clearly evident in his many works with or for string
orchestra. His writing for stringed instruments never calls for
unusual playing techniques. He nevertheless called for some special
tuning such as scordatura (as in the first movement of the Tenth
String Quartet) or open string playing (as in the first movement
of the Eleventh String Quartet).
One of Nordgren’s musical models was Shostakovich; in its own way, the Tenth String Quartet pays tribute to the Russian composer. The first three movements mirror those of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. The first movement is a calm, almost otherworldly Nocturne quoting an early work Wood Anemones for Mother
, composed in 1958. This is followed by a boisterous Scherzo where the third movement, a beautifully moving Passacaglia is based on the cipher E-H-H-E derived from the composer’s name. This may be compared with the ubiquitous DSCH in Shostakovich’s music. The final movement Mattinata (“Morning Song”) “strives towards harmonic equilibrium”. The composer also suggests that he might have been recalling sunrise on the top of Mount Fuji in 1971. One of the players also plays a little bell evoking “associations with a ceremony in a Shinto temple”. The movement falls into several sections that are at times put into sharp contrast. The music, too, has a slight oriental touch reminding one of Nordgren’s stay in Japan in the early 1970s.
The Eleventh String Quartet, too, is in four movements. The brief opening prelude begins softly on open strings while the first violin’s open strings are tuned a semi-tone higher which creates some soft dissonance. The second movement opens hesitantly as if to restore normal tuning. This movement is conceived as a mosaic of sorts. “It is like a jigsaw of life, but things are not all as clear-cut as in life”. The next movement Lamentations
, the longest and the weightiest of the entire work, quotes material from the Fourth Symphony: a Chorale and an Ingrian lament. In effect, this predominantly meditative movement is interrupted by brief angry outbursts and is a fine example of Nordgren’s real, albeit rugged lyricism. The final movement is a simple prayer in which “a pitiful person is granted mercy”.
It might be all-too-easy to categorise the final works such as these string quartets and the massive Eighth Symphony as the composer’s “Intimations of Mortality”; but in these works he obviously glances back to his earlier years.
The more I get to know Nordgren’s music, which I have long admired, the more I am convinced of his importance as a composer. All through his life he proved a staunch individualist who strayed from any particular ‘school’, who remained his own self till the end of his composing career and for whom music was not just putting notes together but first and foremost a powerful way to communicate. These string quartets are no exception.
The Tenth and Eleven String Quartets were composed for and first performed by the Tempera Quartet, so no wonder that they play this music with all their heart. Recording and production are again up to Alba’s best. I now wish that they might be persuaded to record all of Nordgren’s string quartets.