Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944-2008)
Streams, Op 80 (1991)
Cello Concerto No 5, Op 135 (2005)
Chamber Symphony, Op 97 (1995)
Tuomas Ylinen (cello), Jyväskylä Sinfonia/Ville Matvejeff
rec. 2021, Mikaeli Hall, Mikkeli, Finland
Alba ABCD 521 
Streams is scored for a chamber orchestra: two flutes, two clarinets, piano and strings. The structure of the piece is fairly straightforward, as can be heard from the beginning. The work mostly consists of simple scales moving up and down. That can sound simplistic, but Nordgren varies these scales to ensure greater variety than might be expected. The whole is often tinged with dissonance and stringency. About halfway into the piece, the tempo accelerates into an agitated section that will soon lose impetus and move into a considerably calmer though not serene conclusion reminiscent of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memorium Benjamin Britten. Incidentally, this is not the only allusion to Pärt’s piece in Nordgren’s music – homage to the Estonian composer.
Cello Concerto No 5, one of Nordgren’s last works, is scored for what the notes describe as a Viennese classical sinfonietta with percussion – mainly bells and timpani – playing an important part. The single movement falls into two sections. A meditative, slow-moving opening section unfolds wave-like, sometimes interrupted by short-lived orchestral outbursts. This leads into the cadenza before the onset of the second main section characterised by strong and often restless rhythms moving along obstinately, block-like. After a short chorale-like respite, accompanied by tolling bells, the nervous music picks up again insistently, until it slowly dissolves into silence. This may be a technically taxing piece that requires well-judged pacing, but it is not of the virtuoso sort. Rather, it needs feeling and musicianship to achieve its aims. As much else in Nordgren’s output, the Fifth Cello Concerto may sound austere. That is quite deceptive, for much warmth and humanity can be found beneath the surface. Nordgren was not one to write an indifferent note of music, and this beautifully worked-out piece bears further proof if one needs it.
The Chamber Symphony was commissioned by the Lahti Chamber Music Society. It is scored for large chamber ensemble: a wind quintet, two percussionists, piano, celesta and string quintet. The work, too, is in a single movement and has three sections of unequal lengths. The first section is rather ambiguous, but it all sounds rather dark and foreboding. The second section sounds aggressive and climaxes in a fairly riotous episode. The third section, the longest, is mostly elegiac, mournful and, I would say, autumnal. One might sense Sibelius’s shadow hovering over the music, although some aleatory writing is entirely characteristic of Norgdren’s music. The appeased and becalmed ending of the Chamber Symphony may be one of the most gripping and moving piece of music that Nordgren ever penned.
Nordgren’s Chamber Symphony is a splendid piece of great merits, but he chose not to include it among his numbered symphonies, as he did the Symphony for Strings Op 43 written in 1978. Both works clearly among his finest achievements. By the way, Aapo Tähkäpää’s otherwise helpful notes say (without further explanation) that the composer cites two themes from earlier works. I, for one, was completely unable to spot them. That is a detail which should not put anyone off this fine piece and this superb disc.
Alba again did great work for Pehr Henrik Nordgren. Everyone concerned here serves his music wonderfully and deserves full marks for commitment, immaculate playing and very fine recording. They do Nordgren’s gripping, often beautiful music full justice. If it sometimes feels exacting and sounds arid, it is well worth the effort.
Hubert CulotAvailability: Alba Records
Please note that at the time of publishing, there appeared to be a security issue with the Alba website, so any intending purchasers may wish to hold off until the disc is available through Presto or Amazon.