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Pehr Henrik NORDGREN (1944-2008)
Concerto No. 3 for Cello and String Orchestra Op. 82 (1992) [25:11]
As in a Dream for Cello and 19 Strings Op. 20 (1974) [11:15]
Concerto for Viola, Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra Op. 87 (1993) [34:38]
Marko Ylönen (cello)
Lilli Maijala (viola)
Olivier Thiery (double bass)
Ostrobothian Chamber Orchestra/Juha Kangas
rec. 2018, Snellman Hall, Kokkola
Reviewed in SACD stereo.

In the booklet note for this release, Pehr Hendrik Nordgren is considered “among the most outstanding masters of this grossly underrated generation”, that is, the generation that fell outside the avant-garde wave of famous names born in the 1920s, and those who reacted against atonality and returned to tradition and easily recognisable genres such as minimalism. Nordgren has done well in numerous recordings on the Alba label and elsewhere, BIS and Finlandia to name two, but still doesn’t really have ‘household name’ status. Both As in a Dream and the Concerto for Viola, Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra Op. 87 are world premiere recordings.

This well-recorded and interestingly put together programme has a certain stamp of authority in the form of conductor Juha Kangas, founder of the Ostrobothian Chamber Orchestra, who was a friend of the composer from the late 1960s onwards. The Third Cello Concerto has some wonderfully lyrical moments, especially in the Adagio third movement, but is by no means facile in its idiom and in the contrasts between each of its four movements. It has a no-nonsense start, orchestra and soloist commencing simultaneously in a dark mood, but in music that is filled with subtle chromaticism and refined resolutions. Darkness moves toward mystery in the accompaniment of the second movement, with rhythmic pizzicati and other things going on in the orchestra. The solo part is balanced too loud to be able to hear what is happening in the sotto voce orchestra, and if there is any criticism to be had this would be mine. That Adagio third movement is exquisite, and the final Moderato – Allegretto combines previous ideas with an added dash of drama, spicing up the dark moods in the orchestra and whipping up climactic excitement before an extended cadenza-like solo and a dip in energy before the spirit of Shostakovich kicks off the violently virtuoso last section.

As in a Dream was originally written for cello and piano, and the version heard here is an orchestration by Juha Kangas. With microtonal aspects to the solo part and denser, cluster-like harmonies from the strings, this has a more abstract feel than the Cello Concerto, but lyrical expressiveness and high drama are never far away. As the title suggests, a dreamlike atmosphere pervades, but this has many aspects. We never quite reach Mahlerian nightmarishness but there are some tougher passages to traverse, and things are by no means always sweetness and beauty.

The Concerto for Viola, Double Bass and Chamber Orchestra includes piano and percussion to the strings, so another new sound-world opens up in an extended single movement work of substance and quality. The double bass is given jazzy pizzicato passages early on, and the clarity of identity between the two string soloists, wrong-footing us in their transposed sonorities (violin and cello would be more expected), and having richly fascinating dialogues that range between rhetorical discourse to eloquent arias. Christoph Schlüren’s booklet notes tell us that “the music passes through changing aggregate states like chapters in a novel”, and a first hearing doesn’t reveal structural clarity as a foreground feature. This ‘non-representational narrative’ is compelling however, and the guessing game is very much one of fascination rather than frustration. Orchestral colour and some fine effects of timbre stimulate our ears, while surprises break through a slow but ever ongoing momentum, defining each new musical space like the uniquely differing chambers of a discomfortingly surreal but richly ornate hotel.

This is a very fine SACD recording of an excellent orchestra and superlative soloists. These well-crafted works command your attention and repay repeated hearing, being full of imaginative content and some remarkable effects – the whole leaving an impression of dark and powerful multi-layered beauty reflected by the cover illustration, Unemla or ‘Dream’ by Hugo Simberg.

Dominy Clements

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