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Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Taivaanvalot

Release Date: 01/12/2010 
Label:  Alba Records   Catalog #: 269   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Pehr Henrik Nordgren
Performer:  Ritva TalvitieMerja WirkkalaAnssi Hirvonen
Conductor:  Juha Kangas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ostrobothnian Chamber OrchestraCentral Ostrobothnian Chamber ChorusKaustinen Children's Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 0 Hours 54 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

NORDGREN Taivaanvalot Juha Kangas, cond; Ostrobothnian CO; Central Ostrobothnian CCh; Kaustinen Children’s Ch; Folk O; Ritva Talvitie (bowed lyre); Maerja Wirkkala (sop); Anssi Hirvonen (ten) ALBA 269 (53:44 Text and Translation)

Now and then one’s mistakes can be serendipitous. When a list of possible releases came in my e-mail including “Nordgren,” I mistook it for the Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim. Of course, it wasn’t; it was Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944–2008), a Finnish Read more composer whom I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know. So an accidental encounter leads to a revelation.

Nordgren’s Taivaanvalot (1984–85) is a cantata based on a legend from that wellspring of Finnish folk-myth, the Kalevala, central to the nation’s cultural consciousness (which has been a source for works by Sibelius and Rautavaara, among others). In his case it’s a tale of how the sun and heavenly lights were abducted, and then set free: mythic to the bone.

Nordgren made an inspired choice for this work that immediately launches it to a level of distinctiveness beyond many similar works: He incorporates an orchestra of folk instruments into the overall fabric. The sonic result is something both archaic and timeless. There is a whiff of medievalism here, but nothing self-consciously “historical.” The sounds are reedy, alternatively tuned, and haunting. We feel as though we’re getting to the actual sources that inspired Stravinsky for many of his “Russian” works.

For my taste, the two movements featuring text, perhaps because they have to balance advancing the story with the composer’s obvious hunger for new sonic realms, are a little less compelling than the purely instrumental ones. Of the latter, the Introduction sets the stage with truly otherworldly sounds. The third movement, “The Banishing of the Moon Swallower,” is a throbbing percussive showpiece that brings back that old saw “sonic spectacular” (but without irony).

And then there is “Intermezzo: The Cosmic Dance of Heavenly Bodies,” which is a piece like none you’ve ever heard. It features a live singer, bowed lyre, and a tape part that seems to include throat/overtone singing, open-form improvisatory layers, and non-classical instruments and ways of playing. Full of buzzing sounds, both vocal and instrumental, it sounds like some giant celestial calliope wheezing along into eternity. That may appear comic as a description, but if so, it’s only evidence of my inability to describe the effect accurately enough. It’s playful and totally beautiful at once.

These are great performances (but is it possible there is ever a mediocre performance in Finland?). Nordgren obviously died too young. The Nordic lands seem to cultivate a compositional aesthetic that values strong eccentric personal vision, rather than squashing it. We are all the beneficiaries.

FANFARE: Robert Carl
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Works on This Recording

Taivaanvalot (The Lights of Heaven), for choir, children's choir & orchestra by Pehr Henrik Nordgren
Performer:  Ritva Talvitie (Lyre), Merja Wirkkala (Soprano), Anssi Hirvonen (Tenor)
Conductor:  Juha Kangas
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra,  Central Ostrobothnian Chamber Chorus,  Kaustinen Children's Choir
Venue:  Kaustinen Hall, Folk Arts Center, Kausti 
Length: 53 Minutes 1 Secs. 

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