Per NØRGÅRD (b.1932)
Helle Nacht – Violin Concerto No. 1 (1986-87/2002) [26:20]
Spaces of Time (1991) [20:06]
Borderlines – Violin Concerto No. 2 (2002) [22:51]
Peter Herresthal (violin)
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra/Rolf Gupta
rec. August 2010, Stavanger Concert Hall, Norway.
BIS BIS-CD-1872 [68:29]
Now considered one of the most significant and influential Danish composers after Carl Nielsen, Per Nørgård has for a long time been one of the most respected names amongst his peers, as well as establishing a strong reputation in Europe and further afield. Extending a line which includes teachers such as Vagn Holmboe and Herman D. Koppel, Nørgård’s work is a mixture of the challenging and the deliciously gorgeous, aspects which are superbly poised in the works on this BIS recording.
This is more heavyweight repertoire than many of the piano works I had a look at from the Capriccio label a while ago (see review). As Helle Nacht – Violin Concerto No. 1 shows in its opening, Nørgård is unafraid of using material with simple charm – in this case a quote from a song composed when the composer was still a youth. The title ‘bright night’ deliberately refers to a state of ambiguity which the composer compares to the light/dark blend in northern summer nights. This is expressed in music which is often transparent and enigmatic, even when the energy levels are high. There are beautiful moments of serene chamber music, rich textures and striking melodic lines, but this music which is difficult to pin down: those enigmatic elements run through the entire score, and Nørgård doesn’t offer us easy options in terms of thematic development and relationships. Think of the luminosity of the Alban Berg concerto, but shifted into a sort of parallel universe where the language is sifted and re-organised into something with a lovely abstraction which keeps you fascinated, but also keeps you guessing.
Spaces of Time is, as the composer has stated, conceived as a suite or a set of variations. The ‘spaces’ of the title are independent, but the borders between sections are blurred by lack of interruption, and the piece can be heard as a through-composed work. The piano part is highly significant, at times with concerto-like prominence. Nørgård’s development of his own technique for polyphonic musical exploration is an important element, and there is at times a feeling of inchoate searching – of a ‘work in progress’. The ‘toing’ of Chinese gongs was all the rage in 1991, so this can to a certain extent also be seen as a product of its time. Mystery and exploration crystallise from 8:17, where a more cinematic treatment of the material threatens to take over. Diffuse timbres and firmly rhythmic motifs exist side by side, open tonalities join with dense clusters, and melodic clarity derives from shapes without apparent beginnings or endings.
Borderlines – Violin Concerto No. 2 further develops the concerns of ‘transparent polyphony’, as Harald Herresthal writes in the booklet notes, “[Nørgård] works with time, musical layers and interference phenomena. Many individual parts talk together, but without overpowering each other.” The word ‘borderlines’ is taken as referring to the two different tonalities in the orchestra: Western ‘well-tempered’ scales, and darker microtonal notes derived from string harmonics. “A built-in lament with brief glimpses of hope and future”, this is a piece which demands even more from the listener than the previous two works. There are moments of remarkable beauty, such as towards the end of the first Moderato movement. The reflectively inward-looking second movement is fascinating but restlessly chilled in atmosphere. Melodic recognition drifts through space at us from the opening of the final Andantino semplice, but this disarming opening becomes something ‘expansively forward-thrusting’, serving up further challenges of added turbulence and intensity.
Borderlines has been recorded before on the DaCapo label (see review), and Helle Nacht has been part of the Chandos catalogue for many years (see review), though the version in this BIS recording is with revisions done in 2002. Having these pieces together on one disc and performed and recorded to the very high standards with this release make for a highly desirable, indeed indispensable CD for contemporary music fans. Per Nørgård himself writes of Peter Herrestal’s superlative performances in the booklet: “Behind the appeal of the beautiful sound and the pure, emotional eloquence, there is an almost supernatural virtuosic sorcery which makes the experience multi-dimensional.” I certainly couldn’t sum it up any better.
Dominy Clements
Supernatural virtuosic sorcery.