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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]
rec. 5-6 Apr 2011, Kultuuritalo Helsinki (concerto); 19-20 Dec 2011, Helsinki Music Centre Musiikkitalo
Hybrid SACD DSD Multichannel 5.0
ALBA ABCD359 SACD [62:16]

Nordgren’s symphonies have done well in the last ten years. At least there are now commercial recordings of all of them except No. 6, Interdependence (1999-2000), and the Chamber Symphony Op. 97 (1996). The pity is that most of this activity has taken place within the five years after the death of this Finnish composer. This Kokkonen pupil was born in the Åland Islands and apart from studying in Helsinki also spent some years working on traditional Japanese music at the Tokyo University of Arts and Music.
Let’s just get an overview of the symphonies on record and then turn to this disc:
Symphony No.2 Op.74 (1989)
Symphony No.4 Op.98 (1997)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Juha Kangas
Finlandia 3984-29720-2

Symphony No.3 Op.88 (1993)
Symphony No.5 Op.103 (1998)
Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra/Sakari Oramo
Ondine ODE 924-2
Symphony No.7 Op.124 (2003)
Summer Music Op.34 (1977)
Symphony No.8 Op.140 (2006)
Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Juha Kangas
Alba ABCD 288 (review)

Conductor Juha Kangas has clearly been something of a constant in this activity as he is with the current disc. I trust that he will also be at the helm for a further disc which I hope might include the missing Symphony No. 6 and Chamber Symphony.
The disc under review comprises two substantial pieces from the first half of the 1970s. In broad sketch each is in a comparable idiom and one that is modestly astringent admitting some dissonance. This is at the sort of extremes we might expect from Bartók and especially late Shostakovich.
The Concerto for clarinet, folk instruments and small orchestra is in five movements. The gloomy first finds Nordgren in desolation with the clarinet pursuing a disconsolate and keening plaint. This is music of quiet lakes and steely grey skies relieved only at 7:24 by a magical yet fleeting Sibelian ostinato. This is followed by a secretive, chaffing little dance. This is the first flash of folk music, underscored with an accordion. This is soon subsumed into more avant-garde material which in turn is subjected to some uproarious Nielsen-like upheavals. After a morose or at least sad third movement the kantele - sounding something like a harpsichord - puts in an appearance in the fey and remote fourth. The finale is a jazzy caper. One could imagine a wildly agile Helston hobby-hoss. A whirling dervish of a dance takes centre-stage before more raucous growls and grimaces impinge as a prelude to large-scale cavorting by the clarinet. Towards the close there is a magically distant page or two which echoes Grainger’s Strathspey and Reel (4.10 and 4.48). The tensions that plague and galvanise this concerto are wound yet tighter and they end unappeased.
The First Symphony is in three movements. The first is Marssi - grimly laden with tragedy and haunted by a figure something akin to the Dies Irae played out in a thick and cloying atmosphere. The message is simply hammered home by a series of unaccompanied anvil clinks. Much of the end of this movement seems disconnected, unarticulated and episodic. The second movement is incessant and zany. I thought of Prokofiev and Kijé several times and also of Shostakovich in his wildest ballet moods. The music rises to emulate some giant engine - an oppressive force that is a stranger to remorse. The final Epilogeja ushers us into a dreamily uncomfortable and dissonant world and threatens to leave us there. Clicking and pattering sounds (Shostakovich 15) resolve into tension goaded by bell strokes and roiling brass. Then follows an extruded darkened shadow of the grumbling march from Mahler 1 before a final romantic afterglow.
Jouni Kaipainen, in his non-technical liner note, recounts that Nordgren was seen as a bit of an oddity by the Finnish musical establishment of the 1970s. From my perspective, while I may be jolted by the admixture of modernistic treatments and modest infusions of folk music, he seems less of an outlier and more of a mainstream figure.
Rob Barnett