For the penultimate work in my Lent Series exploring concertos, i’m turning to the innovative Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim, who died in 2010. He composed Spur for accordion and orchestra 40 years ago; the title is a German word meaning ‘track’ or ‘(foot)print’, which here, in part, relates to the sociological connotations that the concerto has for Nordheim:
The history of the concerto as a medium of communication is without any doubt closely interlinked with its role as intermediary between social convention and individual freedom and the process through which individual creativity is absorbed to become common property, leaving behind footprints and signposts in culture.
The programme note also alludes to the footprints made by the soloist on the rest of the players. And this, i think, is what projects most immediately, as the accordion’s very particular timbral qualities—which consistently blur the distinction between acoustic and electronic—make an instant impression on the orchestra, befuddling and inspiring it in equal measure. Low undulating buzzes, eerily static high pitches, wild dissonant scrunches, angular acrobatic leaps, each of these appear in the soloist’s music within minutes and, although they will eventually form the blueprint for most of their activities, the orchestral reaction initially seems not to have a clue what to do in response. They emit a huge burp, but then opt, via the strings, for an ethereal collection of slow-moving lines, providing the context for the soloist to quieten and become pensive. That gear-change was instigated by the orchestra, and as if reflecting on that point, the accordion becomes more forceful, resembling a surly, pocket-sized brass/wind section. Increasingly it acts as an agitator, a three-note motif gradually getting faster and faster until it triggers an outburst, and wild flurries from everyone present, up, down, in all directions. The orchestra settles, only for the accordion to let out a fortissimo cluster that gets them riled up again, a melody seemingly trying to break out while the soloist now practically dances on top of it. Having sagged to a halt, Nordheim uses the accordion to kick-start things again (sounding like a train gathering momentum), leading to a dense, multi-layered dithyramb of a tutti before subsiding into heavy-laboured lyricism, low brass and contrabassoon trying to find something in the dark. The music reaches its mid-point in a strange stasis from the soloist, answered immediately with a madcap cadenza, made up of cycling motifs, paralysed pitches, grace note hysterical outbursts and whoopee cushion-esque clusterbombs. It leads to what amounts to a duet with itself, both fast and slow, as though heavy breathing and hyperventilating at the same time. When the orchestra finally returns, they let loose another wildly unrestrained tutti—a thrilling few moments—before dying back into a complicated subdued texture, Nordheim imperceptibly ramping up the energy until it bursts. Spur ends in solitude though, the accordion alone making its way (or being pulled inexorably) down to its deepest register, where it shudders out of existence.
This performance of Spur took place at the 2012 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, by accordionist Frode Haltli with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Matthias Pintscher.