PER NØRGÅRD: Helle Nacht – Violin Concerto No. 1; Spaces of Time for orchestra with piano; Borderlines – Violin Concerto No. 2 – Peter Herresthal, v./ Ida Mo, p./Stavanger Sym. Orch./ Rolf Gupta – BIS CD-1872 [Distr. by Qualiton], 68:29 ****:
The front and back covers of the CD booklet show a vital-looking Per Nørgård, whose bright, engaged countenance little betrays the fact that he will turn eighty this year. It must be the intellectual curiosity and constant development of a musical idiom that keep contemporary composers such as Nørgård on their mettle, composing long into their twilight years. Presumably, he is still perfecting the idiom on display in these three compositions.
All three demonstrate in different ways Nørgård’s mode of serial composition that he dubbed the “infinity series,” in which serial compositional techniques are applied not only to melody but to rhythm and harmony as well. The result is a sense of an ever-shifting musical landscape in which a variety of technical resources are employed to effect this outcome. For example, Spaces of Time (1991) “hails from the beginning of the period when Nørgård employed a method of letting different scales and multidimensional tempo complexes move independently of each other, in order to arrive at a new form of polyphony.” Nørgård does this by creating several separate musical “spaces” that move alongside one another though at different tempi. The series of interactions among these spaces, often raucously dissonant, form the basis of the polyphonic treatment in the work. The piano is not treated in soloistic fashion but instead inhabits one of the spaces in the fabric, sometimes a part of the overall orchestral texture, sometimes brought with manic energy into the foreground.
Helle Nacht (Bright Night) (1986–87/2002) was conceived as a violin concerto, the violin introducing a tonal, almost Romantic theme at the beginning of the work and constantly introducing new material or commenting on previously stated material in true concerto fashion. The piece takes as inspiration summer nights in Denmark and attempts to create chiaroscuro tone painting based on the interplay of light and dark as evinced in a nocturnal landscape. The original published version of the concerto bore a photo of the Danish night sky in which a dark foreground of hills and trees was superimposed onto a bright celestial display, “but” as Harald Herresthal writes, “it is also possible to perceive the sky as the foreground, or the dominating element of the photograph. In a similar way, Nørgård has wanted to create music ion which melodies, timbres and rhythms form a transparent web.” Again, because the conceit here is a layering effect in which sky (light) or earth (dark) can either take center stage or step into the wings, there is a feeling of constant shifting, sometimes favoring the dominance of a pervasive brightness (as in the last movement, with its scintillating tintinnabulations, like a musical star map) or of dark contemplation (the subdued slow movement). At other times, the music embraces a quicker oscillation between the extremes, verging on interpenetration.
One of the techniques that Nørgård uses here and in his Second Violin Concerto (2002) is a variety of forms of “interference” that keep the listener disoriented as to tonality. This seems to have the same effect as dissonances in polyphonic writing, where the musical lines collide in ways that require ultimate resolution. One of these interference techniques is “beat tones,” pitches that sound simultaneously and which are so close to others (separated by a mere microtonal pitch) that “vibrations result. These can be speeded up or slowed down by allowing the pitch of one of the tones to approach that of the other, or distance itself from it.” In the Second Violin Concerto the layering effect comes from the opposition of two different, competing tonal worlds (hence the subtitle Borderlines, a place where the two worlds meet). One tonality is based on the Western twelve-tone system, while the other is based on, according to Nørgård himself, a system “as foreign to the ear as the dark side of the moon to the eye, with micro-tones generated as harmonics on the lower string instruments.” The opposition of the Western system of equal temperament and the weird harmonics in the cellos and basses creates a fascinatingly varied musical conversation, punctuated by untuned percussion, which adds a purely rhythmic commentary to the dialog.
In a brief note, Per Nørgård expresses his appreciation for the work of violinist Peter Herresthal on this recording, praising him for his expressivity, beauty of tone, and virtuosity, all of which the composer calls on in his two violin concertos. Herrestahl and the Stavanger Symphony of Norway both show a great deal of stamina in this tough music, as well as consistent musicality. Perhaps the success of the orchestra’s involvement stems from the fact that it divides its time between two different artistic directors: Fabio Biondi, who is responsible for music from the Baroque and Classical eras, and Peter Sloane, who keeps the orchestra on its toes in the contemporary repertoire.
If you’re allergic to post-Webernian serialism, you will almost certainly shy away from this music. But if you’re interested in the ways in which contemporary composers confront the problems of musical development and the often-intractable divide between diatonic and atonal music, or if you’re already a fan of Per Nørgård, here is an excellent survey of fairly recent concerted music that could be either a good entrée to or a way of keeping up with the work of a much-admired composer.
A grand tour of Beethoven’s Middle Period Piano Sonatas