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Frank NORDENSTEN (b. 1955)
Organ Concerto No. 2 (2010) [32:48]
Organ Concerto No. 3, Les visages du temps (2012) [37:22]
Dan Ren Dahl (organ)
The Norwegian Wind Ensemble / Tore Erik Mohn
Borg Vokalensemble (3)
rec. 2013, Frederikstad Cathedral, Norway.

Frank Nordensten’s early training as a musician included studies in piano, organ and harpsichord, and while his catalogue covers a wide variety of genres, organ works are a central part of his compositional output. The 1964 Marcussen & Sn organ in the cathedral in Fredrikstad is an instrument which Nordensten says “helped shape me musically”, and his clear affinity for the instrument resonates in the expert way he exploits its qualities in both of these concertos.

These two concertos contrast widely in terms of their concept and content. Concerto 2 opens with dramatic confidence, almost brashness, but with a sense of uneasy mystery beneath the fanfare-like gestures. Nordenstein describes it as “a virtuoso dialogue between the organ and the orchestra… There is no deep philosophical attempt to create any illusions here.” This music is not all bluster and display however, and even in the energy of the first movement there are moments of reflection and repose. The second movement has the subtitle Schattenspiel, conjuring a space in which the mysterious tonality-blurring harmonies are developed with instruments that chase each other in a slow ballet of canonic chasing and imitation – the wind-band sonority of dramatic chorale-block moments reminding me a little of parts of Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum. The third movement is a brief Scherzo infernale with stabbing chords from winds and organ in rhythmic syncopation, serving as the prelude to a final Allegro that takes its time in rolling out and delivering on the promise of material that allows for a wide variety of instrumental jousting and impressive musical development.

Concerto 3, as its subtitle Les visages du temps suggests, “is inspired by the prevalence of time.” The titles of its nine movements refer to celestial bodies ranging from the Moon and various planets to satellites and other spacecraft. The score unexpectedly calls for a vocal chorus as well as the organ and orchestra, though you have to dig into the booklet to find out who is doing the singing. This leads to some intriguing effects, with instrumental lines arching over sustained notes from the organ and a bed of slowly shifting choral harmonies in the second movement, Moon. This is by no means a conventional organ concerto then, but is full of imagination and moments of potent imagery. Nordensten admits that his idiom can be seen ‘old-fashioned’, but this comes from a creative standpoint that seeks to explore emotion rather than intellectual abstraction: “My motivation is communication and I always strive to communicate on a level that can be universally recognisable.”

The results in Concerto 3 are a bit of a mixed bag. The music is always well crafted, but the work hovers a little uneasily somewhere between a concerto and a cantata of some kind. The Borg Vokalensemble is decent enough, but not as professional as you might expect for a recording like this. There are some fragile moments which have their own appeal, but there are also little corners where intonation can be an issue. There also isn’t much variety of colour in the singing, and this is a bit of a mismatch against the needle-sharp team of the Norwegian Wind Ensemble. In the end it all seemed like a lot of effort for not much emotional return, but that’s only my own highly subjective response. If you fancy a musical trip through the stars then this is certainly a fascinating place to let your imagination float along this composer’s particular tramlines.

Presentation and sound quality are both up to Lawo’s usual high standards, and there are some striking sounds to be heard here. Concerto 2 is the more overtly impressive of these two works, but Concerto 3 has individualistic qualities to which you may warm more than I did. I have a sense that the high-flying concept of this work doesn’t sit quite as well with the composer’s idiom than I’d hoped it would, but it despite the quality of the music it doesn’t speak to me all that much about time.

Dominy Clements

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