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Per NØRGÅRD (b. 1932)

Cello Concerto No.1 (Between) (1985) [29:07]
Kaija SAARIAHO (b. 1952)
Notes on Light for cello and orchestra (2006) [33:15]
Viola Concerto No.1 (Remembering Child) (1986), adapted for cello (2013) [20:09]
Jakob Kullberg (cello)
BBC Philharmonic/Michael Francis (Between), John Storgårds (Notes)
Sinfonia Varsovia/Szymon Bywalec (Remembering)
rec. Witold Lutosławski Concert Studio, Warsaw, Poland, 1 September 2015 (Remembering); Philharmonic Studio, MediaCity UK, 17 December 2015 (Between)) 6 November 2016 (Notes)
Reviewed as downloaded with pdf booklet from
BIS BIS-2602 [83:28]

Whatever one’s views about the purpose of modern art may be, there is an undeniable sense of wonder about, in this case, hearing a work for the first time with no preconceptions and catching a glimpse of its message. This is what makes these works stand out amidst a backdrop of what can seem an incomprehensible world of modern music, as well as shining a light on the relationship between an individual and its environment.

The booklet notes describe Between as precisely this exploration of said individuality, a reaction to the times of the 1980s; the struggle to express within a world on the brink of change. The opening of the first movement, dominated by the voice of the solo cello supported by four other cello voices, is evocative of a modern dance performance, a single figure in the spotlight engaged in an unseen struggle of angular articulation and sudden shifts in dynamic. The orchestra emerges around the figure, building in intensity with ever-present dissonance. Throughout all of this, the soloist remains, quite remarkably, always in the spotlight, the soundworld revolving around him; the booklet describes “a large city bustling with heavy traffic and people moving in all directions”. One can almost hear the solo cello’s bewilderment, such is the vividness of the writing.

The second movement, called “Turning Point”, marks a complete change in its almost chorale-like chordal writing, but the harmonies constantly gyrate between respite and jarring, leaving the music constantly unsettled and rather foreboding. The BBC Philharmonic is wonderfully atmospheric in this section; I felt more colouring from the soloist would be required to give some sense of shape in the absence of a tonal centre or textural variation. It is only in the final movement that the orchestral and solo parts integrate, starting off almost Romantic in style, passing through moments of violence and repose. More tonal contrast is, once again, necessary to lift this movement to its full potential; the other performance on disc, with Morten Zeuthen on cello with Jorma Panula conducting the Danish National Radio Symphony Orchestra (Dacapo DCCD9002), brings more attack to articulation, more freedom to quieter sections and more obvious vibrato when the music calls for it, and hence more overall excitement to what is clearly a difficult score to interpret. The composer’s use of the pentatonic scale is, sadly, obfuscated by some intonation errors from Kullberg, most noticeably for about a minute from 3:00 onwards.

The second item on the programme is Kaija Saariaho’s “Notes on Light”; on the theme of the title, the first of the five movements was described in the booklet as “diffracted spectral chords that shine in the darkness”. The mysterious, slow-moving soundworld, filled with glissandi and percussive interjections, is quite mesmerising, and the soloist takes centre-stage with sympathetic tonal colouring from the rest of the orchestra. The second is entitled “On Fire”; the dialogue between soloist and orchestra is certainly heated in a fast-moving whirlwind of sound, but moments from the celeste take us back to the first and bind the piece together. I found the third, “Awakening”, particularly beautiful, the solo cello breaking over shimmering strings reminiscent of Neptune in “The Planets”; the writing certainly had an otherworldly feel to it, but for more emphatic moments where the music swells to a peak before ebbing once more, the transitions well-managed and coherent. The cadenza Kullberg has written for this moment towards the end of the third movement fits the piece well, using the extreme reaches of the instrument to create an eerie, mysterious lament. Once again, we see the relationship between the soloist and the orchestra in the spotlight, from antagonistic spirits to partners united in the vein of the music.

The final two movements feel like a pair, firstly an ‘eclipse’ of the soloist by the orchestra where the listener can practically hear the darkness rolling in, before the soloist returns for an attacca into the “Heart of Light”. The ambiguity remains – the soloist undoubtedly leading the orchestra with every build-up to a peak, but with the harmonics, glissandi and ponticello into the light or following the lower registers into darkness?

We return to Nørgård once again with Kullberg’s adaptation of Remembering Child for the cello. Though the composer emphasises that the work is not a requiem, the overall effect is certainly moving. Lyrical passages sound contemplative and lamenting, despite the only very occasional emergence of snippets of tonality; on the one hand, the ears grasp onto these snippets and bring out their beauty, whilst appreciating the Berg-esque beauty of the rest. It is here that the use of the cello in the place of the viola, in addition to Kullberg’s understated beauty of tone, pays dividends. In the second movement, moments of energy evoke pictures of a child’s life; interruptions of silence, bar broken notes in the cello or percussion, are all too clear in their meaning. Nørgård includes quotes from Gregorian chant, a Bach chorale and various “childish melodies and rhythms”. In comparison to the original, where the range and rounded nature of the viola’s sound allows the soloist to match and blend with the orchestra in a more sympathetic manner, I found the solo cello to stand out more as an individual, largely due to the variety of tone that the instrument is capable of in the extreme registers.

These works are superb examples of modern composition, showcasing a wide gamut of styles and moods. However, the star of the show throughout the programme is the concerto form itself, as the soloist’s role is brought into focus and put to the test. This is a considered programme, perhaps requiring some effort on the part of a newcomer to such music, but ultimately worthwhile; I was particularly impressed by the new adaptation of Remembering Child. Kullberg’s performances are not without their flaws, but his control over the sound he elicits from his instrument, particularly the tonal effects which bring the composers’ soundworld to life, has to be commended.

Colin C.F. Chow

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