Pehr Henrik NORDGREN (1944-2008)
A Finnish Elegy
Concerto No. 4 for Violin and String Orchestra, Op 90 (1994) [25:11]
Rock Score, Op 100 (1997) [12:53]
Concerto for Horn and Strings, Op 95 (1996) [22:16]
Juri Valo (violin)
Jukka Harju (horn)
Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/ Juha Kangas
rec. 2016/17, Snellman Hall, Kokkola, Finland
Recorded in Stereo and SACD 5.1 Multichannel
ALBA ABCD425 SACD [60:20]
Finnish Elegy (Suomalainen elegia) is the title of the haunting Hugo Simberg painting from 1895 which adorns the cover of this fine Alba issue; although it is broadly a century older than the three works which feature on this disc it is a perfect choice, tapping into the same kind of folk or landscape-driven melancholy which makes (for me at any rate) Nordgren’s music so compelling. The unconscious influence of topography on our psyche is a universal idea driven by local impulses; I have no idea why this indubitably modern, inscrutably austere music sounds Finnish, but it does. Nordgren was born in Saltvik in the Åland Islands (an archipelago off the South Western corner of Finland); he was raised in Helsinki (he regarded himself as a true ‘Helsinki-ite’ throughout his life), studied for some time in Japan (another formative influence upon him – indeed he took a Japanese wife) before settling in small town of Kaustinen, Central Ostrobothnia, significantly the Finnish folk music ‘capital’.
The local chamber orchestra and its long-time conductor Juha Kangas could not be accused of falling short in their duty to promote Nordgren; he is in effect their local composer. A glance through his output reveals a staggering number of works stipulating the use of a string orchestra, specifically this orchestra, while Juha Kangas was arguably his most important friend and collaborator. Over the years they have made at least nine discs dedicated to him on labels such as BIS, Ondine and Finlandia as well as Alba, who really seem to have grasped the Nordgren nettle of late – this is the third disc of his music from these musicians to have emerged in the last fifteen months. Which is as well; it says a lot about the relationship between the Finnish state and local record companies, and the ways both perceive their responsibilities in terms of preserving the work of national composers. Ondine, of course, looked after Rautavaara and his legacy splendidly throughout his dotage and Alba seem to be doing the same for Nordgren after his untimely death in 2008. While I am fond of Rautavaara’s music, many of his beautifully coloured orchestral works have more obvious surface allure than his younger compatriot’s; Nordgren is harder work for the listener, but trust me, the rewards are truly lifelong for the sympathetic connoisseur.
After the soloist’s craggy, declamatory gesture, the Violin Concerto No 4 settles into a soundscape of extended glacial chordal accompaniment and agitated activity from the soloist. This music is abrasive and discomfiting, and its rewards are certainly hard-won. At roughly the halfway point the soloist plays a brief passage whose undeniable folk-substance seems to have been raised from the soil itself, its lonely soliloquy backed by distant, strange pianissimo chords and gestures. If folk influence is a reference to humanity, its incorporation into so many of Nordgren’s scores creates textures which are as earthy as music can get, and this concerto epitomises this man-as-landscape idea majestically. Yet its direction changes; as if by magic the work seems to suddenly morph into a truly haunting folk lament at around 13:20, the ‘Finnish Elegy’ of the disc’s title, perhaps. At 19:00, the accompaniment takes on the character of a gentle harmonised drone, almost choral in nature, although the soloist still has to negotiate tricky material which needs to be carefully controlled in order to effect the concerto’s profoundly moving conclusion. The last five minutes of the work are as touching as the opening five are astringent. It’s a riveting work, grittily and authentically delivered by the Ostrobothnians, while the heroically hard-working soloist here is the orchestra’s former leader, the vastly experienced Nordgren specialist Juri Valo.
By now the allusively named 1997 work Rock-Score is possibly Nordgren’s best known piece; it has been recorded at least three times. It was actually written for the opening of Kaustinen’s Folk Culture Centre and in particular for its concert hall; it owes its name to the fact that this structure is literally carved out of the rock, and thus the score is a study in texture. It’s basically a sculpture-in-sound for 19 strings, which begins with a grandiose, slightly muddied major chord which suddenly dissolves into tectonic micro-activity; sustained drones, plucked and sul ponticello punctations before a climactic, dissonant chord is hard won, and dissolves again into soft, accordion-like waves of sound. Roughly a third the way through the piece a weird little folk dance seems to emerge from these seemingly immutable rock-like textures. These folk inflections then become more pronounced, until pizzicato bass sounds suggest a ghostly jazz presence, which suddenly seems to blend seamlessly with the folky rhythms. The unison D that concludes the piece seems oddly inevitable. The Ostrobothnian players project this rough-hewn, odd music in as raw a manner as possible, an approach which amplifies the directness of Nordgren’s voice. Hearing the piece in the surround option is to be made even more aware of somehow being ‘inside rock’. In fact of all the pieces on this disc, it is Nordgren’s deep focus on the properties of sound itself in Rock-Score that suggests it could have been designed to provide this kind of immersive experience. It is an engrossing multi-sensory ride, brilliantly performed and recorded.
Nordgren’s Horn Concerto of 1996 has also been recorded before. Here, the soloist is the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra’s principal horn (and native Ostrobothnian) Jukka Harju.. The concerto opens with an impressive, extended horn solo which is made to sound slightly off-kilter by strange microtonal inflections. Harju deftly colours his soliloquy with the use of a mute to create wonderful echo effects. An eerie, glassy quasi-electronic sounding chord finally arrives at about 1:25. Eventually the glowing, dissonant textures that predominate are distorted further by the strange microtonal passages that emerge from the soloist. At 4:40 there is another Nordgrenian hint of folk music. The atmosphere of the work seems to oscillate between stridency, desolation and a glowing ethereality. At roughly halfway, the mood changes; a horn cadenza (with occasionally abrasive string punctuations) affords Harju the brief opportunity for almost improvisatory freedom. Nordgren’s prescription of mutes throughout the piece demonstrates his unique sonic imagination, to the point that the horn at times resembles some kind of lyrical, colouristic super-instrument. In the final section of the concerto, from about 15:20, there is a pervading aura of monumentality; the strings are more decisive and assertive, the textures thicken and the work’s sense of scale just seems bigger. Those microtones suddenly seem more jarring and disorienting, while melodic and timbral shards seem to splinter from the piece’s structure only to be rapidly re-deployed. At 18:50 crisp strings prefigure a gently ascending three note gesture (tolling bells?) that repeats and leads this fine work home.
If Sibelius could characterise his work as “the purest spring water”, there is a palpable authenticity in so much of Nordgren’s music which suggests it has simply sprung from the Earth. These three magnificent pieces all receive consummate advocacy from the two fine soloists and Kangas’s Ostrobothnians. I think this is the third time Rock-Score has been recorded by these players and this conductor; they were also involved in the old Finlandia recording of the Horn Concerto with Soren Hermansson. That was a fine performance, but hearing the work in Alba’s first rate surround sound is akin to hearing it anew. The same applies to Valo’s account of the Fourth Violin Concerto; the competition here comes from John Storgårds and the Wegelius Chamber Orchestra (ODE 873-2); a fine, technically secure performance to be sure, in decent Ondine sound, but there is an extra degree of urgency in Valo’s account notably in the first half of the work. As far as I’m concerned, this disc provides more evidence to support the view that Nordgren will eventually be seen as the true heir to Sibelius.