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Nordgren’s impassioned obliquity

by Martin Anderson

"One imagines that Nordgren would have been thrilled by the playing of the Kokkola Quartet and their guests."

This chronological trawl through some of the chamber works of Pehr Henrik Nordgren (19442008) not only marks the tenth anniversary of his early death (he was only 64); it reminds us of what we are missing through the absence of his music from standard concert life. 

The sixteen-minute Third String Quartet (1976) rolls forth in a huge arch, beginning with an exquisite passage that begins as a chordal statement and expands into a polyphonic fantasia, its sense of hush and mystery slowly giving to impassioned debate, in a language descended from Bartók. The passion spent, the music closes in on itself and gently disappears. 

Equivocation, for kantele and string trio (1981), has a more ritualistic quality, not least because Nordgren plays the sounds of the kantele and the bowed string instruments off against one another, at some points suggesting characters in some formal relationship and at others the changing allegiances and groupings of a family drama, as the instruments exchange ideas and partners. I suspect that the influence of the Nōh plays he must have seen during his stay in Japan (1970–73) – and a sudden portamento from the first violin a couple of bars in instantly suggests the koto, the Japanese zither. At times, it seems (as Nathan Milstein memorably said of Stravinsky) to be ‘made of corners’, but that angularity often subsides to admit warmer, more lyrical material. 

Part of the achievement of Kodály’s Sonata for Cello Solo of 1915 was that for the first time solo-cello music didn’t sound like solo Bach, but later composers have paid the price by sounding like Kodály, and Nordgren’s solo-cello sonata (1992) sits audibly downstream from its Hungarian predecessor – although, of course, in a much more tonally liberated language. The last of its four brief movements, enigmatically entitled ‘Patch’, abandons the mild modernism of the previous three to sound an achingly lovely farewell. 

The first of the two movements of the String Quintet (2000) acts as extensive prelude, constantly changing shape as you listen, with a mini-violin concerto emerging briefly from mysterious oscillating chords. The second, twelve-and-a-half minutes long, is oblique: though the style is relatively direct, the argument is less easy to grasp, with the music seeming to emerge from silence for its dramatic outbursts and then retreat back into its corner before you’ve grasped exactly what it aims to say. 

One imagines that Nordgren would have been thrilled by the playing of the Kokkola Quartet and their guests; he might even have approved the occasional rough touch in the String Quartet and Quintet as evidence of their commitment. Lauri Pulakka contributes lucid booklet notes, and Simon Fox-Gál obtains vivid recorded sound. 

NORDGREN: Evocation
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 27; Equivocations, Op. 55;* Sonata for Violoncello Solo, Op. 83;**  String Quintet, Op. 110***
Kokkola Quartet, with *Eija Kankaanranta (kantele), ***Janne Virkkala, cello; **Marko Ylönen (cello)
Alba ABCD 421