Momentum: Nordic Cello Concertos
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'Momentum: Nordic Cello Concertos' presents outstanding Danish instrumentalist Jakob Kullberg performing the solo part in three major contemporary works for cello and orchestra - by Per Nørgard, Arne Nordheim, and Kaija Saariaho. The release, on which Kulberg is accompanied by Poland's New Music Orchestra conducted by Szymon Bywalec, also marks the 80th birthday of composer Per Nørgard.
Jakob Kullberg and leading Danish composer Per Nørgard began their collaboration 15 years ago and it has developed every year since, resulting in several works from Nørgard written especially for the cellist. One of these is the piece which gives this album its title, the Cello Concerto No. 2, 'Momentum'.
Written for and premiered by Mstislav Rostropovich, the late Arne Nordheim's cello concerto, 'Tenebrae', is perhaps best known through its recording by Truls Mørk. On this CD Kullberg performs a new orchestration of the work for a smaller sinfonietta ensemble. The title denotes darkness and night - designating the Roman Catholic service of the same name. The cello also holds a prominent place in the works of renowned Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. The title of her concerto is 'Amers' which means "sea marks" or "bouys".
"Jakob Kullberg has an amazing control of line, and is always bang in tune even in the most finger-twisting passages." - Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph
Personnel: Jakob Kullberg (cello), New Music Orchestra, Szymon Bywalec (conductor)
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I should note that this production was also released as a limited edition vinyl + CD edition, available directly from the label, which will be of interest to Nørgård fans because the vinyl is filled out by two Nørgård solo pieces ("Solo Intimo" for solo cello, played by Kullberg, and "Turn" for piano, played by the composer). The vinyl + CD package is limited to 300 numbered copies, of which mine is already 127, so get yours today.
The earliest work on this disc is Arne Nordheim's 1982 cello concerto "Tenebrae" (in a later chamber arrangement). Nordheim was arguably the most important Norwegian composer of the 20th century. I had never heard his music before, but I knew he was a student of Vagn Holmboe in the 1950s. As the concerto began, I was happy to hear some of the severity and balance that distinguishes Holmboe's music. But "Tenebrae" goes on to be much more than a straightforward descendent of the Neoclassical or Nordic tradition. The piece is inspired by the Roman Catholic service of the same name, commemorating Christ's hours on the cross, where candles are gradually extinguished. Conflict gradually wells up in the piece and at about the halfway mark (12 minutes in) it gets loud and bombastic, and the use of winds and pitched percussion sounds much like electronic music (which Nordheim also produced).
I was impressed by "Tenebrae" and want to hear more of Nordheim's work. There is a recording of the original orchestral version of this concerto by Truls Mork on an Aurora disc, but I have not heard it yet.
Kaija Saariaho's "Amers" (1992) is a concerto for cello, orchestra and electronics, for me this composer's greatest work. While the orchestra bangs out gentle and ghostly ocean-like rhythms ("amers" is French for seamarks), the cello plays "as a sailor charting a course through a sea of sounds". The use of electronics here expands the cello's sound to new levels: furious bowing across the bridge gives bell-like chimes, a sound produced by pizzicato elastically reverbs. (The piece originally maked use of a special microphone specially developed by IRCAM that could isolate each of the cello's four strings and amplify or electronically alter them separately, though sadly this idea was abandoned before the present recording was made.) Over the course of the work, electronic alterations pull the cello "off-course"; in the first movement, only minor interference occurs, while in the powerful second movement the sound of the cello is violently shaken about.
All of Saariaho's cello works have been written for Anssi Karttunen, and you can hear his take on this concerto on a Sony disc. In the past I've been disappointed by other cellists' performances of Saariaho, but I was impressed with Kullberg here: the technical challenges are nothing for him and his performance has the mystery and poetry that the piece requires. That said, Bywalec's pacing is somewhat erratic, so the Sony disc remains the reference recording.
Finally, we have a world-premiere recording of a piece written specially for Kullberg: Per Nørgård's Cello Concerto No. 2 "Momentum" (2009). Its four movements progressively develop social relationships between the instrumental forces: Monologue (the ensemble only picks up on the cello line) -- Together (two musical strands coexist) -- Multiplictity (further interactions arise) -- Infinity (lines suddenly expanding endlessly). This is much in the vein of Nørgård's Symphony No. 7 of three years before: overtly melodic and rhythmically engaging, a sort of neoclassicism but a strange one. The music comes from Nørgård's fractal discovery, the "infinity series", so it is sure to entertain long-time fans of the composer who can pick up on the underlying basis.
The sound quality of these recordings is excellent, and although I thought the New Music Orchestra would be one of those no-name Eastern European ensembles one used to see on Naxos discs, they are entirely capable of performing these contemporary works.
I found the second piece, Nordheim's Tenenbrae (compsed in 1982) to be much more approachable. Commissioned by Rostropovich, the work has an easy to hear relationship between the isolation expressed by the cello and the also-named Roman Catholic service, as detailed in the liner notes. Those unfamiliar with this can also approach this work as though they were listening to the soundtrack to a science fiction movie - there is indeed some depth here.
The third and final piece is Saariaho's Amers (composed in 1992). It features electronic sounds that add to the unusual quality of the work, which starts with a somewhat uneasy ethereal line from the cello and then the orchestra, continuing into a strangely see-saw rhythm mixed with tentative music. On the whole, I thought the piece was interesting, but I really don't have the desire to hear it again either.
So this CD was a bit of a miss for me. I was intrigued by the Tenenbrae, but I'm afraid that this disc won't be spending much time in my CD player. Those that really enjoy contemporary works may find it worth their time, but those that don't gravitate to such music might be better off looking elsewhere.
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