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Pehr Henrik NORDGREN (1944 – 2008)
Concerto for Clarinet, Folk Instruments and Small Orchestra Op. 14 (1970) [28:47]
Symphony No. 1 Op.20 (1974) [33:13]
Christoffer Sundqvist (clarinet); Anna-Karin Korhonen (kantele); Ilkka Heinonen (bowed harp); Markku Lepistö (two-row accordion)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Juha Kangas
rec. Kultuuritalo, Helsinki, 5-6 April 2011 ( Clarinet Concerto) and the Helsinki Music Centre, 19-20 December 2011 (Symphony No.1)
ALBA ABCD 359 [62:16]

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 Elegiaco 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 (“Hiding Dance”) that rounds things off in high spirits.
Composed a few years later the substantial Symphony No.1 Op.20 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.

Hubert Culot

Previous review: Rob Barnett