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Arne NORDHEIM (1931-2010)
Spur (1975) [26:07]
Signals (1967) [8:35]
Dinosauros (1971) [9:42]
Flashing (1986) [10:46]
Frode Haltli (accordion)
Raoul Björkenheim (electric guitar), Hans-Kristian Kjos Sørensen (percussion) (Signals)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Christian Eggen (Spur)
rec. 2011, Store Studio, NRK (Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation)

The accordion has long been around on the fringes of contemporary music, but releases such as this and other substantial new works for similar instruments by the likes of Sofia Gubaidulina have seen it taking an increasingly mainstream role. Institutes such as my employers at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague started new departments for accordion not so very long ago, populated by seriously minded students who refuse to play sea-shanties or other stereotypical accordion fodder. Frode Haltli has already carved a name for himself with an ECM recording ‘Looking on Darkness’ (see review), and his inspiration to take up the instrument was through another accordion pioneer, Mogens Ellegaard, for whom the concerto Spur and the other works on this disc were written. The booklet notes have a nice anecdote on the subject of benign persistence which should be an inspiration for all players of obscure instruments. Ellegaard wrote Christmas cards for years to the great composer Vagn Holmboe, each time challenging him to write a piece for accordion. Holmboe eventually gave in, writing a four movement sonata and informing Ellegaard that he no longer needed to send Christmas cards.
The booklet is lively with fascinating snippets about the origins of the pieces in this programme, but we’ll stick to the music at hand. Spur is the masterpiece of the disc; a truly remarkable work full of inspired music and breathtaking effects from both the soloist and the orchestra. Just take in the glissandi in the first few minutes and you’ll be hooked. The recording engineers have taken the decision to put the left-right stereo nature of the accordion in each respective speaker, which always makes me think of a player with a vast instrument and very long rubbery arms. Aside from this quirk the recording is tremendous: deeply involving and endlessly fascinating portrayal of a work which is hard to describe without waxing lyrical about transparency of sound and a confluence of simplicity and complexity which results in a kind of intense profoundness of accessibility.
Pre-dating the quasi-timelessness of Spur, Signals sits very distinctly in the late 1960s avant-garde, the electric guitar and elements of angular serialism now parked in the artistic space reserved for ‘modern’ music which no-one really likes. This is however more than a mere 20th century museum piece, The six movements of Signals explore time-shaping improvisatory musical ‘moments’ in which the gestures of Webern are expressed by the more extreme sonorities of the percussive, plucked and puffed, or where miniature worlds of darkness, mystery and violence are presented, flashing past our imagination and consciousness.
Dinosauros for accordion and electronics is a grand theatrical demonstration of the accordion’s range and flexibility, the sounds of the instrument transformed through Mogens Ellegaard’s recorded playing, making this a kind of homage to the craftsmanship of both the composer and the original performer. With the tape an equal partner to the soloist, the integration and extension of the accordion’s sounds create a fascinatingly unified tapestry of sound which goes way beyond the weighty tread suggested by the title.
The final piece, Flashing, is derived from material already heard as the solo accordion cadenza in Spur. Taken out of context this still makes an excellent solo work, and Frode Haltli states that his versions of both “demonstrate the vast room for interpretation that lies in Nordheim’s music.” In other words, we are barely troubled by repetition, and in fact the points of recognition between the works appear as welcome friends. Flashing is yet further evidence that the accordion has much more to offer than the image conveyed by conventional expectation.
A minor gripe with recent Simax releases and other labels which use the same foldout packaging design is that the inner slot which holds the booklet is inevitably torn. CD cases of many kinds seem plagued by design weaknesses and I’m no great fan of the clattery old jewel case, but these cardboard foldout things aren’t the answer either. This is no place for such moans however, since the qualities of creativity, performance and recording on this release soar above all considerations of the mundane. If you’ve never thought of the accordion as anything more than an ethnic accompaniment or busker’s squeezebox, here is the very place to have your horizons widened.
Dominy Clements