PEHR HENRIK NORDGREN: Taivaanalot (The Lights of Heaven) – Ritva Talvitie, bowed lyre /Merja Wirkhala, soprano / Anssi Hirvonen, tenor /Central Ostrobothnian Chamber Choir / Kaustinen Children’s Choir/ Folk Orchestra/ Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra/ Juha Kangas – Alba ABCD 269, 53:44 **** [Distrib. by Albany]:
Modern Scandinavian music is a virtual iceberg to me; for every highly visible composer such as Allan Pettersson or Einojuhani Rautavaara or Poul Rouders, there seem to be ten composers out of sight and mind, waiting to be discovered. Such is Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944-2008), a Finnish composer with a large corpus of work, none of which I’d heard till now. What a way to make his acquaintance! Nordgren’s Taivaanalot is just about indescribable—or at least it could be said that one hearing is worth a thousand words—but I’ll do my best. First, however, some background to the music.
Pehr Nordgren studied with Joonas Kokkonen, whose brief fling with serial composition may have rubbed off on Nordgren; at least, serialism is an obvious influence. So, too, is traditional Japanese music. Nordgren studied in Japan in the 1970s and incorporated elements of its music in his work throughout his career. This influence seems to show up in certain quiet, tintinnabulary passages of Taivaanalot. When Nordgren returned from Japan, he settled in western Finland, in the Ostrobothnian town of Kaustinen, the center of Finnish folk music, and began a relationship with the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra that resulted in a number of orchestral compositions.
Taivaanalot was premiered at the Kaustinen Chamber Music Festival in 1985. It’s scored for standard chamber orchestra, including two percussionists, harpsichord, and piano, as well as mixed choir, children’s choir, soprano, and tenor. Nothing extraordinary so far. But to these forces Nordgren adds an orchestra of folk instruments: “two goat’s horns, a reed pipe, a herdsman’s flute, a bullroarer, a percussion plaque, a shaman’s drum, five 5-stringed and three 36-string kantcles and a bowed harp.” (A kantcle is an instrument of Finnish origin related to the psaltery, while a bullroarer is an ancient instrument comprised of a wooden slat with a piece of cord attached to it; when swung in the air by the cord, the slat makes a vibrating or humming sound.)
Taivaanalot is based on myths from the Kalevala, telling the story of the creation of the sun, moon, and stars from a swallow’s egg; their subsequent theft by the forces of evil; and their restoration by a wise virgin on a mission. Laid out in five sections, the work alternates purely instrumental bits with sections in which chorus and soloists recount the Kalevalic story.
The introduction to Taivaanalot starts quietly enough, with the lung-powered folk instruments playing, soon joined by the harpsichord. Together, they sound like a wigged-out Renaissance band, but a sedate one. This is perhaps the only section of the work you’d describe as sedate. Once the percussionists, both ancient and modern, let loose, they create a racket that reminds me of Varèse at his most decibel-laden. The music—as it portrays the huge, cataclysmic events told in the myths—is a strange amalgam of the traditional and the avant-garde, the tonal and the highly dissonant. At points, when the children’s choir and soloists sing, you might think you’re listening to something out of Kulervo, and then the strings will give out with edgy harmonics or glissandi, or the wind instruments will unleash a series of bleating dissonances, underpinned by the thumping off-rhythms of the percussion.
The notes to the recording explain, “In using traditional instruments Nordgren sought to expand the traditional classical sonority in a natural rather than a ‘digital’ direction, and in doing so to protest against technicalisation of the modern world and over-technological and scholarly trends in modern music.” One can certainly argue whether he succeeds or not, but compared to the sterile music of 50s and 60s serialists, Nordgren’s music has a rough-edged humanity about it that, despite the archaic trappings, manages to be both communicative and very contemporary.
The last section of the work is an intermezzo that was added for a later performance. The composer and conductor agreed it should be placed at the end, as an addendum to the work, since its style is somewhat different. In fact, the Intermezzo violates Nordgren’s own tenets in that it uses improvised tape music. But like the rest of the piece, it dovetails the archaic and the contemporary: along with the tape music there is the unearthly sound of throat singing, such as you hear in the rituals of Tibetan monks.
Thus Taivaanalot is a highly unusual experience, one that almost cries out for visuals so you can see what combinations of instruments are making all that incredible sound. It’s especially incredible to consider that this is a recording of a live performance. Kudos, then, to conductor Kangas and his alert, passionately engaged forces.
The recorded sound is quite good given the large forces and odd sonorities involved, though the balances are a little askew, as they often are in live recordings. The chorus is placed at a realistic distance behind the orchestra but in what seems a different, more reverberant ambiance. The modern orchestra is recorded close up, the folk instruments seemingly at a remove. Everything is crystal clear, but the spatial relationship among the performers is a touch odd. Still, I don’t want to make too much of this. Taivaanalot is a highly original work, and this is a recording worth hearing. I recommend it to all but the musically faint of heart.