One of the more striking premières i’ve caught in recent months took place at the Barbican’s Total Immersion event ‘New from the North’, back in March. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that these events are no longer in the least bit ‘total’ and have come very far from being remotely immersive (bring back long weekends devoted to a single composer); on the other hand, it’s hard to sniff too much when the chosen locale is Nordic. Irrespective of genre, much of the most telling music of recent times has come from the Nordic countries, and the latest orchestral work from Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is just such a piece. Era was commissioned to celebrate the 125th birthday of Amsterdam’s rather wonderful Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Premièred there in January, it was presented at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.
In his programme note, Lindberg talks about specifics, but what comes across most forcefully—and very quickly—is how wholeheartedly the piece embraces the tone poem idiom. It may be tempting to think of most contemporary orchestral music—pithy titles and 10-20 minute durations—as being of that lineage, but for the most part, they’re really not. The tone poem demands a unique kind of dramaturgy, not necessarily programmatic in nature, but such that the clamour of its argument compels an audience into just that kind of headspace. In Era, Lindberg even goes so far as to invoke the spectre of the greatest of all tone poets, Richard Strauss, chiefly in the highly energetic, muscular ebb and flow of the work’s structure, but also in elements of the work’s harmonic language (tonally flirtatious) as well as its orchestration; it’s not hard to hear Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote lurking in the wings.
Looked at broadly, Era is a piece that’s pretty firmly grounded; it begins and ends in the deep register of the lower strings, and pedal points occur throughout. These basslines are catalytic, their most obvious product being fanfaric material, heard right at the start following a gruff arpeggio pile-up. But melody is a significant consequence too, and it’s impossible to ignore the fact that, despite the continual waves of dramatic shift, the work is above all driven by lyricism (indeed, there are times when the density of individual melodic lines brings Scriabin to mind). Lindberg’s intense outworking of his material—involving a rapid sense of development and multitudinous episodic lurches—makes it clear why the piece needs to be so grounded, preventing it from otherwise becoming a confused mélange. i suspect some will hear it as that anyway, and others may be put off by the way it seemingly explores so rigorously an intricate underlying melodrama (it’s not always much more than a hair’s breadth from the demeanour of a film score). But i think it succeeds—triumphs, in fact—by the manner in which it shows deference to these influences; Era is as majestic, abruptly troubling and soaringly beautiful as it is precisely because it taps into a host of potent sources and allows them to become fuel for a gruellingly dramatic but unequivocally abstract orchestral allusion. To compose music that sounds so fresh and yet so utterly familiar is no mean feat.
The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.
In Era I have built the piece from a powerful underpinning in the bass register, rather like a Bourdon or at some moments even a Passacaglia. I was thinking particularly of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony and the way the music evolves from the bass line, rising from low to high register. About half-way through, a second Bourdon is introduced and there is a confrontation between the two ideas. There is a single tempo throughout but, as with other pieces like Al largo, a relatively fast tempo in the foreground is related to a much slower underlying pace. This allows a strong monolithic build-up which should be suited to the Concertgebouw and its cathedral-like resonance, creating a strong dramatic impression overall.