in Reviews

Drama, Dissonance and Dignity

by Martin Anderson

"Though it’s naturally heartening to see Finnish musicians on a Finnish label keeping up the stream of Nordgren recordings, it’s high time the rest of the world caught on to this remarkable music."

I don’t know whether it was Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s three years in Japan (1970–73) that gave him a taste for ritual or whether the Japanese fondness for formality merely reinforced an instinct hidden in the density of his earlier style. He once said that form in his music “is wholly based on the logic of the expression, the same logic that one would employ in telling a story or describing something”, and the Fourth Violin Concerto (1994) is a perfect illustration of that outlook at work. Cast in a single arch of 25 minutes’ duration, it has a structure that seems entirely generated by the narrative – although, of course, there is considerable craft at work under the surface. Dense, dissonant and passionate, the music seems to veer between background and foreground, the violin soloist – sounding more like a violist at the beginning of the piece – stepping forward to engage in exchange with the strings and then stepping back, almost as a priest or celebrant might lead a larger bodies of voices in, well, a ritual. The question-and-answer exchanges between the solo horn and the string orchestra, reinforced by their timbral distinction, make the sense of dramaturgy in Nordgren’s Op. 95 (1996) even stronger than in the earlier violin concerto; it, too, forms a single arch, this time 22 minutes in duration. It doesn’t take too much imagination to hear the work as a dramatic scena, with, say, an accused hero-figure urgently defending himself against a restive and potentially hostile crowd until the conflict is finally resolved. The thirteen-minute Rock Score (1997) gets its name for having been written for the concert hall in Kaustinen that’s hewn out of the granite of a local hill; the narrative here moves easily between dissonance, lyricism and dancing folk-rhythms.

Juha Kangas was Nordgren’s closest musical colleague for decades, and one images that, though Nordgren has been dead since 2008, Kangas must still miss him terribly; that may account for some of the astonishing intensity in these performances – but since the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra is one of the best ensembles of its kind anywhere in the world, we have lazily grown it expect it of them in any case. The Tonmeister, Simon Fox-Gál, has provided recorded sound that’s both immediate and detailed; and Christoph Schlüren’s booklet essay shows considerable empathy with Nordgren’s aims, and understanding of his means. And though it’s naturally heartening to see Finnish musicians on a Finnish label keeping up the stream of Nordgren recordings, it’s high time the rest of the world caught on to this remarkable music.

NORDGREN: A Finnish Elegy
Concerto No. 4 for Violin and String Orchestra
Rock Score
Concerto for Horn and Strings
Jari Valo (violin), Jukka Harju (horn), Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, cond. Juha Kangas

Alba ABCD 425