i’ve commented in the past about the number of contemporary composers drawn to writing violin concertos—they’ve been a regular fixture among the works premièred at the Proms in the last few years—but personally, i’ve always been more drawn to the cello concerto. Composers exploring this medium seem, almost unavoidably, to feel the urge to tap into things deep and profound—or at least, profoundly mysterious. This is definitely what pervades one of the more interesting CDs i’ve been sent recently, a disc that has been strangely ignored by most commentators. Showcasing the seriously impressive talent of Danish cellist Jakob Kullberg, together with the Poland-based New Music Orchestra conducted by Szymon Bywalec, the disc explores cello concertos by arguably the three most renowned Nordic composers, Per Nørgård, Arne Nordheim and Kaija Saariaho. Nørgård’s second cello concerto lends its name to the album as a whole—Momentum—and it’s a wisely chosen title, as the concept of momentum—or more specifically the way it manifests itself within a larger dramatic dialogue—seems to be of central importance in all three pieces.
Composed in 2009, Nørgård’s Momentum comprises four movements, titled ‘Monologue’, ‘Together’, ‘Multiplicity’ and ‘Infinity’; it was composed specifically for Kullberg (the second movement was in fact a wedding present), and his role throughout is one of dominance. Or perhaps ‘influence’ is a better word; certainly the orchestra in the opening movement is soft and hesitant, seeming merely to want to imitate the cello. But after a few anticipatory minutes the momentum of the overall title establishes itself, as does an interesting dialogue between soloist and orchestra; however, the interaction becomes increasingly pensive and introspective, even withdrawn, an attitude that persists even in the jocular, playful episode that’s eventually let loose in the second movement. The material here becomes flurried and strained, harmonically aloof, the cello adopting an obdurate posture that only half softens at the pattering of semi-resonant percussion at the end. The third movement is all about momentum but its rapidity is essentially an exercise in post-minimalistic stasis, abruptly halting just as it grows in complexity. If anything, these first three episodes almost seem to be suggesting that the concerto’s title is a red herring, and this seems to find confirmation in the final movement. Broad and widely-spaced overtures, resonant and aspirational, set the cello off, at first self-focused but later again forming a dialogue. Yet it’s only once the momentum falters, the tonality sliding out of kilter, that the movement—and the work as a whole—taps into real ‘Infinity’, the cello’s closing thoughts playing out over a weird but beautiful backdrop, another stasis of sorts, but this one vast and boundless.
Nordheim’s concerto for cello and chamber orchestra, which dates from 1982, is titled Tenebrae, a Latin word that means ‘shadows’ and has ecclesiastical connotations due to the highly ritualistic service of the same name celebrated in Holy Week (an example of which can be heard here). But those connotations seem irrelevant here, that title becoming the simple starting point for a brooding, episodic work in which each argument seems to be undermined by itself. It’s a distinctly sinister atmosphere, lines overlap and clash, pause, begin again, continually worried by trills and tremolandi. Momentum builds but ultimately leads back to square one. Like Sisyphus endlessly pushing his boulder uphill, the cellist makes repeated attempts to climb melodically higher, becoming bolder and brasher as it goes, but arrives back in its lowest register again, slithering over itself, dogged by yet more trills. A solo cadenza is matched by a tutti eruption, whereupon a strange, sombre march strikes up, a morose processional retreating into monotone oscillations, and successive episodes make similarly self-defeating attempts at taking a stand. The orchestra, initially rather surly, suddenly rushes forward—only to grind to a halt. A manic, individualistic melée explodes, and as the cello works its way out of this seething instrumental mass everything quietens and stops. The pauses don’t so much feel like moments of repose as instances of bafflement, and even a final big push from everyone—a busy texture over which the cello skitters, moving into its highest register—peters out following a percussive thwack, briskness giving way to a weird kind of stillness, serene yet dazed.
Saariaho’s concerto incorporates electronics alongside the ensemble, and was composed in 1992 to a commission from IRCAM and the Barbican; the title, drawn from French poet Saint-John Perse, is Amers, meaning ‘sea marks’ or ‘buoys’. The piece is cast in two parts, the first of which establishes the tone of the work as a whole, which is staunchly ethereal. The material is intricate, lines of filigree that seem graphene thin, and despite the instrumental activity—some of which becomes highly florid—there’s a sense of stasis, the music not venturing far from its point of origin. There’s something microcosmic about it all, like music within a snow globe. The electronics, as one has come to expect from Saariaho, are striking but subtle, and impressively well incorporated into the soundworld established by the acoustic forces. For some time momentum seems an entirely alien concept to this piece, yet eventually the cello finds impetus from somewhere (perhaps the metallic percussion) and drives ahead while most of the orchestra ebbs away. Saariaho’s concern seems to be to do with control, and the second part grapples with it even more forcefully. The percussion hold sway at the start, and easily brush aside an attempt from the cello to take the initiative. Only by moving into its uppermost octaves and becoming increasingly forceful can it penetrate through the texture, which is immediately rendered still and glacial. Attention moves back and forth between the soloist and the orchestra, culminating in a cello solo followed by an orchestra surge that levels everything, thereby returning to the equilibrium and diffuse focus that permeated the first part. The cellist almost robotically ploughs into the orchestral coda: shimmering, shivering, a wasted foghorn sounding over dying tendrils of half-light.
To listen to these three highly unusual and challenging works is to bear witness to the whole idea of a concerto being reinvented, and even turned on its head. Per Nørgård’s is the most collaborative (and, perhaps, the most accessible), yet interestingly seems to find transcendence only by letting go of its supposed goal. Arne Nordheim, on the other hand, offers an essay of thwarted efforts that makes for unsettling listening; there’s something ineffable in there somewhere, but a lot else besides. Kaija Saariaho taps into arguably the most well-established and quintessential concerto quality, showing us that, sometimes, the most interesting results come not from collaboration, but from the interactions and struggles of opposing forces. They’re magnificently thought-provoking compositions, and despite their differences, sit surprisingly well together.
The quality of the performances on this disc cannot be overstated; Jakob Kullberg’s playing is stunning, particularly as these three pieces establish very different roles for the soloist in relation to the orchestra. Speaking of which, the New Music Orchestra brings a remarkable degree of transparency to their performance; in the best sense, one becomes almost oblivious to what they’re doing, but that only allows the weight of this trio of musical arguments to come through ever louder and clearer. In every respect, this album is first-rate.
Released in their Aurora series by Grappa Musikkforlag, the album is also available with a limited edition accompanying vinyl record titled Memento, featuring two solo works by Per Nørgård (one played by Kullberg, the other by Nørgård himself). i’ve not yet had the opportunity to hear this, but on the strength of the CD, it’s likely to be rather special. The CD can be streamed in its entirety below.