in Reviews

Transcendence and transparency

by Martin Anderson

"Take note not just of the eloquence of the cello lines but also of the transparency, the delicacy, the weightless loveliness of so much of the orchestral writing."

If you’ve ever got caught up in traffic in a major Indian city, you can begin to imagine what kind of impression Per Nørgård’s First Cello Concerto, Between (1985), might make – not that it sounds remotely Indian, but the combination of directed energy and apparent chaos, of everyone heading everywhere, attends most of the first movement and much of the third, where a dance element can also be heard. The central movement is a Bergian elegy, touching in its emotional restraint, but emotional nonetheless. I hadn’t heard the work for some time, to the extent that I came to it pretty well as to a new piece, and I was struck by just how much sheer fun there is in the lopsided vigour of the work

The first thing that struck me about Kaija Saariaho’s Notes on Light (2006) is that – entirely by coincidence, I’m sure – its rocking phrases directly recall the opening of Klami’s Kalevala Suite. Nor is it just a passing resemblance: in the opening movement the solo cello seems to obsess about the melodic shape that opens the Klami, though occasionally spinning out long, elegiac recitatives. The second movement bears the title On Fire, but it seems instead to evoke the teeming activity of a jungle – if you know Charles Koechlin’s 1939 symphonic poem Les bandar-log (the ‘bandar-log’ being a troop of monkeys in Kipling’s Jungle Book), you’ll be able to imagine the soundworld here, and Saariaho’s music has a similar sense of gleeful mischief. The third movement is where the emotional heart of the work is to be found, the solo cello seeming almost to be pleading for its life before an orchestra which returns with one grave accusation after another; Jakob Kullberg’s touching cadenza might almost be a closing statement to the jury. Saariaho’s orchestral writing here is little short of miraculous, the colours flashing past with kaleidoscopic brilliance and, between the occasional intrusive powerful statement, with the lightness of sunbeams. The emotion would seem to be spent, but there are two further movements to come: the fourth, Eclipse, is a brief, still intermezzo, rocking like the sea after a storm, and the fifth, Heart of Light (Eliot), an extended epilogue, a rueful glance backwards over still and empty landscapes.

Two half-hour cello concertos would be good measure for most albums, but BIS now adds Jakob Kullberg’s 2013 transcription of Nørgård’s first viola concerto, the two-movement, twenty-minute Remembering Child (1986). In the first the cello weaves another Bergian elegy over generally consolatory orchestral commentary; and it begins the second by quoting phrases from Gregorian chant, which the orchestra reacts with both anger and acceptance, veering between rhythmic good humour and existential doubt.

Perhaps the chief marvel of this recording – apart from Jakob Kullberg’s effortlessly poetic playing – is the sheer beauty of so much of the music. The style of both Saariaho and Nørgård might still be “difficult” for some listeners, but if you are one such, try putting your suspicions aside and take note not just of the eloquence of the cello lines but also of the transparency, the delicacy, the weightless loveliness of so much of the orchestral writing. 

Remembering - Cello Concertos

Nørgård Between – Cello Concerto No. 1;* Remembering Child – Viola Concerto No. 1 (arr. Kullberg); Saariaho Notes on Light***

Jakob Kullberg, cello, BBC Philharmonic, cond. *Michael Francis, **John Storgårds; ***Sinfonia Varsovia, cond. Szymon Bywalec