In Memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren
Pehr Henrik NORDGREN (1944-2008)
Concerto for Saxophone Quartet, String Orchestra and Gong, Op. 108 (2000)*† [22:36]
Arvo PÄRT (b. 1935)
(1977/2007)† [11:04]
Áskell MÁSSON (b. 1953)
Quatrain (2005)*† [19:08]
Kalevi AHO (b. 1949)
In Memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren (2009)‡ [10:29]
*Raschèr Saxophone Quartet (Christine Rall (soprano sax), Elliot Riley (alto sax), Bruce Weinberger (tenor sax), Kenneth Coon (baritone sax))
†Lapland Chamber Orchestra/John StorgÅrds
‡John Storgårds (violin)
rec. 11-13 August 2010, Rovaniemi Church, Finland. Stereo/Multichannel 5.1
ALBA ABCD 322 [64:06]

The Finnish composer Pehr Henrik Nordgren was certainly prolific, with more than 140 works to his name, 32 of them concertos. In his liner-notes Timo Ruottinen makes the point that the latter are more accurately described as ‘concerto-like’, as they don’t always follow the traditional pattern of soloists pitted against a larger ensemble. That, and the intriguingly titled Concerto for Saxophone Quartet, String Orchestra and Gong, certainly whetted my appetite for this piece. As for Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, it’s more familiar, but Icelandic composer Áskell Másson’s Quatrain and Kalevi Aho’s In Memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren – the latter scored for solo violin – are new to me.

Also unfamiliar are the Raschèr Saxophone Quartet, although John Storgårds and the Lapland Chamber Orchestra made a lasting impression with Aho’s huge Symphony No. 12 ‘Luosto’review – which was one of my Recordings of the Year for 2008. In passing I simply must mention two exceptional sax discs I’ve heard in recent years; 20th-century quartets from the Tetraphonics – review – and the Berlin Saxophone Quartet’s set of Renaissance arrangements (review). The unique sound of these feisty foursomes is addictive, especially when the repertoire – and playing – is of such high quality. Speaking of which, the Aho symphony is one of BIS’s very best Super Audio CDs; the Tetraphonics SACD is just as astonishing in its presence and timbral sophistication.

Finnish label Alba caught my ear with a collection of homegrown organ music – review – which suggests their SACDs are on a par with those offered by fellow Finns Fuga. Indeed, the gong that introduces the Nordgren concerto will make you think you’ve unwittingly wandered into a bell tower, such is its impact. This is clearly a recording of great immediacy and range, the saxophones’ distinctive timbres superbly caught. Influences? Hard to tell; in its more static moments there’s a nod towards Japan, where Nordgren studied in the early 1970s, whereas the more trenchant writing might recall Shostakovich. In any event it’s a lively, highly virtuosic piece, full of character and contrast.

A terrific opener, this, and proof – if it were needed – that these Laplanders and this quartet are supremely talented. The more intense, tightly focused passages are simply thrilling in their mix of exoticism and urgency; even the lyrical moments – not to mention those equivocal harmonies and strange glissandi – catch one’s ear, helped by a recording of rare fidelity and refinement. And what a sensible balance, dynamic extremes easily accommodated without the need for constant knob-twiddling. Even more impressive is the fact that the Red Book layer sounds so good, vying with the Super Audio one in nearly every respect.

I must confess I’m not a great fan of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s particular brand of minimalism, but I have enjoyed Spiegel im Spiegel, Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten and Fratres. The last, which exists in a number of guises, is played here in a version for orchestra. The composer’s so-called ‘tintinnabular style’ is evident from the outset, those bell-like sonorities and chord sequences punctuated by spine-tingling thuds from the bass drum. It may be rather slow moving, but Fratres has an artless, aching beauty that always catches me by surprise. I doubt you’ll find a better played and recorded rendition than this.

The remaining items are no less arresting. Áskell Másson’s punningly titled Quatrain certainly highlights the contrasting timbres of these four saxes, blending perky cross-rhythms with piquant sonorities. The throatier voices and the light, more songful ones are very well captured, the orchestra playing with precision throughout. As with the other pieces on this disc, Quatrain is accessible without sounding anodyne; whether it’s the shimmer of bells, silvery winds or chuffing rhythms I found myself marvelling at the originality and tonal variety of this genial creation.

Conductor John Storgårds swaps his baton for an instrument in the concluding piece, Aho’s In Memoriam Pehr Henrik Nordgren. The composer has chosen the simple, elevated tones of a lone violin for this most beguiling tribute. There are no histrionics here, just a light, rarefied sound that soars and sings most beautifully. Anyone familiar with Aho’s œuvre will delight in the directness of this lovely, almost flute-like, solo. StorgÅrds’ melodic fluency and purity of line are just remarkable, the instrument sensibly placed and naturally recorded.

Alba really must be congratulated for lavishing so much care and attention on what is surely peripheral repertoire. It all comes down to production values; everything about this release breathes quality, from the pieces themselves to the top-notch artists and first-rate sound.

I urge you, take a punt on this one; it’s sheer, unalloyed pleasure.

Dan Morgan

Sheer, unalloyed pleasure.