PEHR HENRIK NORDGREN: Concerto for Clarinet; Symphony No. 1 – Christoffer Sundqvist, clarinet/Folk ensemble/Finnish Radio Sym. Orch./Juha Kangas – Alba ABCD 359 multichannel (5.0) SACD, 62:16 [Distr. by Albany] (7/08/14) ****:
Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944-2008) was a genuine original. Finland has been known for producing all manner of talented composers, many of whom have a very unique voice, for some time but especially in the “line of Kokkonen.” Nordgren, like many of his peers studied at the Sibelius Academy at the University of Helsinki with Jonas Kokkonen, himself. Apparently, though, Nordgren found new music in Finland not conducive to some of his ideas; chiefly that of using folk materials in “modernist” ways, so he moved to Japan to study further. Nordgren, in fact, set up a composer-in-residence position for himself at Kaustinen upon returning from Japan.
There is a genuine eccentricity to be found in Nordgren’s music, to be sure. The Concerto for Clarinet and Folk Instruments and small orchestra is a prime example. The score does include some folk, provincial touches; such as a bowed harp, two-rowed accordion and the dulcimer-like kantele. However, aside from found melodies (in the second movement, Sermin Maija’s Ditty) or the formal use of the very informal Hiding Dance of the fifth movement; this is not at all a “folk”-sounding work. It is stylistically a pot-pourri and contains some charming moments reminiscent of rural life and music but it also has some spiky, twisting and abstract pyrotechnics for the solo clarinet (played here quite well by Christoffer Sundqvist.) This is a showy work for clarinetists to be sure but it may be just a bit bizarre and hard to follow for the average listener.
The Symphony No.1 is no less unusual but I found it a bit more compelling. This is a very interesting three-movement work with an atypical structure. The opening March that contains an odd, eccentric extra eighth-note within the phrase gives the section’s forward motion a bit of hesitation (as Jouni Kaipainen’s booklet notes state, a “limp”.) The second movement is based on a folk melody that the composer used elsewhere in The Fiddler’s Favorite Tune. The trumpet solo that echoes this tune makes the piece sound very odd and “Shostakovich-like” for a bit. The movement itself is titled Concerto grosso after its formal plan. Lastly, the finale Epilogues is a swirling, bizarre type of polyphony in which one more folk tune (maybe appropriately called “I can’t help being a hot-head”) intrudes upon the texture. This eccentric and some bizarre piece ends with unexpected respite on A-flat major. There is nothing typical about this work but I did enjoy it a bit more than the Clarinet Concerto.
I think the music of Pehr Henrik Nordgren may be a heady exercise for some and frustratingly asymmetrical for others. He was certainly an original and an independent voice even in a country known for innovative composition. The performances are top-notch here and the sound quality of this SACD is terrific. You may or may not like this stuff but it demands a listen.