Over the last few years Alba have recorded a number of works by the late
Pehr Henrik Nordgren. He has almost become a house composer and so much the
better for he was important: a refreshingly independent artist whose music
is never indifferent and quite often repays repeated hearings.
The release under review usefully gathers two fairly early works in which
several hallmarks are already in the making if not yet fully realised. An
example is Nordgren’s reliance on folk material which will later be more
intricately integrated into his music.
The Clarinet Concerto Op.14
calls for a few
so-called folk instruments although these are used quite sparingly. The
music is sometimes based on existing folk tunes collected by A. O. Väisänen
published in 1928. The work is cast in five movements of which the first is
by far the longest and the most developed. It opens slowly as a
processional. Then, true to the movement's title, (“Spirits”) it
becomes more varied and capricious. Only at the end do some of the folk
instruments join in (kantele and bowed harp) thus creating a slightly eerie
atmosphere. The second movement (“Sermin Maija's Ditty”) based on the
eponymous folk tune is a short Scherzo in which bowed harp and accordion
lend a rustic flavour but the music is not without irony - “a little
boy's naughty pranks”, as Jouni Kaipainen describes it. The ensuing
is a beautiful song-like movement but it, too, has its
darker moments. The next is a short bridge akin to an accompanied cadenza
leading into the somewhat longer concluding Quodlibet
Dance”) that rounds things off in high spirits.
Composed a few years later the substantial Symphony No.1
is rather imposing and the young composer seems to be
flexing his muscles and throws in many ideas without apparently knowing
where he is heading. Repeated hearings tend to demonstrate that some of
these ideas actually possess a real symphonic character, were it only thanks
to their being repeated throughout albeit in various guises. The first
movement is a “sturdy”, stubborn, heavy-footed march offering little relief.
The music does not really develop but proceeds by accumulation and
repetition of sometimes disparate elements. The second movement (“Concerto
grosso”), a ‘collage’ as Jouni Kaipainen has it, is by far the most complex
from the formal point of view. It opens as a 'normal'
meditative slow movement but the mood quickly changes and highly contrasted
episodes intervene in quick succession disrupting the initial flow. The
music at one time reaches a climax out of which the trumpet “toots” a folk
tune (“The Fiddler's Favourite Tune”) that Nordgren will use again
some time later in his delightful work for strings Portraits of
Country Fiddlers Op.26
(1976). The effect is quite surreal.
After a forceful climax there arrives a short blurred or dimmed reminiscence
of the folk tune played by the harpsichord ticking away before a final
flourish. The final movement “Epilogues” (note the plural) is supposed to
round off the symphony in an assertive manner but it just manages to bring
it to its ultimately ambiguous conclusion. In short: Nordgren's First
Symphony is a fairly impressive, though rather enigmatic achievement that
does not yield all its secrets that easily. I am not at all that I have
identified all of them although I enjoyed the experience of a vivid
imagination at work.
With this recording of Nordgren's First Symphony, all his
symphonies but one (actually the Sixth) have been or are available in fine
modern recordings. Juha Kangas has enjoyed a long working association with
Nordgren's music; he actually played the part for bowed harp at the
first performance of the Clarinet Concerto. He is obviously completely in
tune with the music and these performances are but another proof of his
commitment to this composer’s music. Besides having conducted a number of
recordings with his Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, he also conducted
recordings of Nordgren's symphonies both on Finlandia (Symphonies
No.2 and No.4) and Alba (Symphonies No.7 and No.8).
This is yet another superb release that clearly deserves the highest
praise for excellent performances, magnificent recorded sound - even
when heard on my standard CD player - and detailed and illuminating
insert notes by composer Jouni Kaipainen whose music also deserves wider
exposure. More please.
Previous review: Rob Barnett