Proms 2018: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3 (UK Première); Rolf Wallin – WHIRLD; Bushra El-Turk – Crème Brûlée on a Tree (World Premières)

by 5:4

Quite apart from anything else they may embody, this year’s Proms premières have occupied pretty much the entire span of the profound—trivial continuum. At its most extreme, this has been exemplified by the most recent new works, which have ranged from a compositional exploration of infinity culminating in a state of enraptured transcendence invoking mysticism, Rilke and Rückert, to a recipe for making custard.

The source for British-born, Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk‘s short, culinary song Crème Brûlée on a Tree is a Thai cookbook by chef Andy Ricker that includes a recipe for custard using the smelly, so-called “king of fruits”, durian (the title possibly comes from this NPR article about the fruit).

If the custard’s taste is of the “love it or hate it” kind, then El-Turk’s music could hardly be more fitting. It does precisely one thing for five minutes, presenting the singer (Wallis Giunta in this première performance at Cadogan Hall on Monday) in the role of an eccentric chef working through the recipe with great drama to the essentially arbitrary strains of a sous-chef piano accompaniment (Michael Sikich). Music working so hard to sound hilariously madcap often ends up falling very far of the mark, and Crème Brûlée on a Tree is sufficiently one-dimensional that you’ll either be tickled by its simple-minded silliness or repelled by it for precisely the same reason.

Considerably more elevated in inspiration is Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin‘s new violin concerto WHIRLD, premièred on 21 August by Alina Ibragimova with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Edward Gardner. In his programme note (see below) Wallin talks about fractals and alchemy, and their concomitant organic, unpredictable results. Wallin takes Dutch chemist Johann Conrad Barchusen’s book Elementa Chemiae as specific inspiration for turning the soloist into a flamboyant bird, passing through the four stages of the alchemical ‘magnum opus‘: nigredo (blackening), albedo (whitening), citrinitas (yellowing) and rubedo (reddening), rendered here as four interconnected movements.

At first glance, the nature of the soloist’s material – and, through processes of imitation and something that sounds akin to ‘imprinting’, much of the orchestral material too – is extremely fluid and improvisational. Its material is often positioned at an interesting liminal point between melody and embellishment, veering quite wildly, trills and glissandi everywhere. Earlier on, there’s a sense of distance – or, at least, disagreement – between soloist and orchestra, the latter actively ominous in its interactions in the first movement. This is reduced thereafter, the orchestra audibly reinforcing the violin in albedo, extending its unstoppable stream of consciousness into a loud climax like a demented fanfare, and ‘catching’ and sustaining the soloist’s pitches in citrinitas, leading to a lovely diaphanous episode of harmonics (becoming a melody) over muted strings. Moments of clear interaction and dialogue such as these are highly engaging (and, in terms of Wallin’s orchestrations, strikingly beautiful), but it’s impossible to ignore the violin’s most fundamental character trait, which tends toward unrestrained, never-ending floridity, to the extent that its ostensibly improvisational nature is rendered moot by such garrulous rambling in what becomes an overindulgent torrent of mere notes. It’s not problematic enough to derail WHIRLD – the piece is far too interesting for that – but there are too many times when one wishes, just for a moment, that the violin would simply shut up. Yet despite how assertive the soloist is – and the unfortunate lasting impression it leaves – the specifics of what it’s doing are surely not the point of the piece: the real interest in WHIRLD is to be found in the aforementioned interactions between the violin and orchestra, the ‘chemical reactions’ if you like, and their capricious cause-and-effect outcomes. It’s perhaps strange advice for a violin concerto, but WHIRLD makes its best impression by not focusing on the soloist but on the bigger picture and its combined machinations.

The eight symphonies by Danish composer Per Nørgård are among the most significant contributions to the genre of the post-war era. Yet while one can chart particular developments running through them, his symphonies could almost be said to be characterised more by their differences than their similarities. Certainly, only the most perspicacious of soothsayers could have predicted, in the wake of the markedly contained turbulent energy of Nørgård’s Symphony No. 2, that his next symphony would aspire to and attain consummate serenity.

The work’s two movements approach this conclusion from opposite directions. The first is concerned with rising from the depths, a ladder of harmonics ascending from their fundamentals. These rising figurations are matched by falling ones, developing into a rich texture where, like a network of superimposed Shepard tones, up and down and rising and falling are so intermingled that direction and orientation become entangled and complicated. Nørgård breaks this apart with a massive rising series in the brass – which starts out sounding like Strauss and ends up like an inversion of Messiaen’s Dieu parmi nous – leading to music tremulous at altitude. Some sense of where the symphony is going is intimated by what follows: a drone-rooted stasis that, even when bold and exciting figurations appear within it, remains unchanged and timeless, begging questions about where we are, where we’re going, and what any or all of it means. The understated answer is found in the slow, drifting atmosphere that ensues, stately and seemingly enormous, like a time-stretched chorale. This sensibility of quietly majestic drift permeates the second half of the opening movement, particularly a remarkable sequence two-thirds through where a deep drone exerts itself so powerfully (reinforced by organ pedal notes) that it dominates the orchestral activity as if a huge electric current were being passed through it. Brass chords that sound uncannily cadential lead to a glistening conclusion disappearing in string tremolandi, the location from which the second movement begins.

Where the first ascended, the second descends, developing a series of shivering pulsations into a light, playful texture that even borders on minimalistic behaviour. Nørgård half buries a melodic idea in the music – the makings of it on the piano, reflected and referred elsewhere – but keeps his options open, veering away from the romanticism of this to a more robust broken-up sequence that, in hindsight, has something heraldic about it. Whereupon we enter a world somewhere between a fantasy and a dream, ushered in by harps, soft recorders and wordless voices. For a time, everything drifts, floating in a cosmic, prismatic soup of infinite scale, Nørgård only with great care pushing things forward and increasing their complexity. As a consequence, in the wake of the climactic passage that follows it seems impossible to work out how we got there, but before we’ve had time to get our heads around it the music has reduced to soft trills and tracery in the winds, xylophone and organ. Only now do the voices embark on their collection of texts, beginning with a surprisingly rambunctious rendition of the 8th century Marian hymn Ave maris stella – which speaks of stars and oceans and, ultimately, access into heaven – that, due to the way the orchestra continually suffuses it with colour and radiance, maintains a sense of abundant bliss. This continues through the ensuing lengthy meditation drawing on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, increasing further the emphasis on the voices. Their articulation of the words is more convoluted yet, harmonically, the music sounds ever more tonally focused, coalescing round shifting centres. Nørgård pares everything back, but at the final line of the Rilke, “fühl, daß der ganze” (perceiving that the whole), projects the symphony into pure radiance, rich and overflowing, ecstatic. The orchestra had practically vanished during the last few minutes, but a reminder of their presence acts to trigger the start of the end: a peaceful coda using words by Friedrich Rückert and Walter Scott (from the latter’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’ in Lady of the Lake), and a return to a now final state of suspension that could seemingly continue into eternity. Amazing.

The first UK performance of Nørgård’s Symphony No. 3 was given on 20 August by London Voices and The National Youth Chamber Choir with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Dausgaard. It’s hard to know which is the more incredible: the symphony itself or the unfathomable fact that it took the UK over 40 years to get round to performing it.


Per Nørgård - Symphony No. 3
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Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3: Text
Ave Maria, gratia plena…

Ave maris stella
Dei Mater alma
atque semper virgo
felix caeli porta.

Singe die Gärten, mein Herz, die du nicht kennst; wie in Glas
eingegossene Gärten, klar, unerreichbar.
Wasser und Rosen von Ispahan oder Schiras,
singe sie selig, preise sie; keinen vergleichbar.

Zeige, mein Herz, daß du sie niemals entbehrst.
Daß sie dich meinen, ihre reifenden Feigen.
Daß du mit ihren, zwischen den blühenden Zweigen
wie zum Gesicht gesteigerten Lüften verkehrst.

Meide den Irrtum, daß es Entbehrungen gebe
für den geschehnen Entschluß, diesen: zu sein!
Seidener Faden, kamst du hinein ins Gewebe.

Welchem der Bilder du auch im Innern geeint bist
(sei es selbst ein Moment aus dem Leben der Pein),
fühl, daß der ganze, der rühmliche Teppich gemeint ist.

Du bist die Ruh, der Friede mild,
die Sehnsucht du, und was sie stillt.
Ich weihe dir, voll Lust und Schmerz
zur Wohnung hier mein Aug’ und Herz.

Uns dein Schutz bedeckt.

Hail Mary, full of grace…

Hail star of the ocean,
Kindly Mother of God
and maiden for ever,
our propitious gateway to heaven.

Sing, my heart, of the unknown gardens,
gardens poured out as in a glass, clear, inaccessible;
sing of the water and roses of Ispahan and Shiraz,
sing that they are blessed, and beyond compare.

Show, my heart, that you never miss them,
that their ripening figs are intended for you,
that you move through their airs, growing as in a vision,
through the blossoming branches.

Do not be misled that sacrifices are needed
because of the past decision: to exist!
You entered the web as a silken thread.

Whatever the image to which you cling most closely
(even though it is a moment in a life of pain)
perceive that the whole fine tapestry was preordained.

You are quiet and gentle peace,
you are desire and that which assuages it.
I pledge to you, full of joy and sadness,
my eyes and heart as your dwelling-place.

If thy protection hover there.


Rolf Wallin - WHIRLD
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Rolf Wallin – WHIRLD: Programme Note

The world is a whirl, and every whirl is a world, we have been told for thousands of years by ecstatic mysticists. And in the last century, our sober scientists have confirmed that it is a fact.

In this violin concerto I have returned to the puzzling and mystifying “whirld” of fractal mathematics, where the straight rules of numbers open up into the realm of swirling clouds, meandering rivers and mezmerising bird flocks. When these so-called chaotic mathematical patterns are projected onto music, strange melodies come to life; like plants, like animals that move in fascinating, unpredictable ways. The dry numbers give birth to surprisingly emotional melodies – yearning, serene, strident, jubilant.

In the process of making a violin concerto out of these melodies I have felt like the old alchemists, who brought the chaotic massa confusa through a process of dissolving and coagulating, evaporating and solidifying, in order to bring forth the magical Philosophers’ Stone, to make precious metals, to heal illnesses, or to make life out of dead matter. And more important for many of them, as a process of personal spiritual healing and transcendence.

Sir Isaac Newton, father of modern science, was surprisingly one of these magician-scientists who studied alchemy with utmost seriosity. Another of them was Johann Conrad Barchusen, who in his beautifully illustrated Elementa Chemiae depicts the alchemical process as a dove flying up and down in the fuming laboratory retort, meddling not only with the four elements, the sun, moon and planets, but also with a lion, a dragon and a self-eating snake. Our soloist is like this bird, flying through the four vessels of Nigredo (blackening), Albedo (whitening), Citrinitas (yellowing) and Rubedo (reddening). These four movements are played without interruption, only separated by narrow channels centering around a single pitch.
—Rolf Wallin


Bushra El-Turk - Crème Brûlée on a Tree
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Chris L

a surprisingly rambunctious rendition of the 8th century Marian hymn Ave maris stella

If that’s the passage I think you’re referring to, it always reminds me irresistibly of the Mos Eisley cantina music from Star Wars. (Apologies if that’s ruined said passage for anyone, particularly given that the Nørgård came first!)

a return to a now final state of suspension that could seemingly continue into eternity

Well, to indulge for a second in the parlance of my adopted home county, it in’t called t’Infinity Series fer nowt!

Paolo Zanirato

About Per Nørgård: on 16 September there will be the reissue of “Expanding Space – Electronic music in three parts, for synthesizer (Roland Jupiter 8), piano and field recordings” (2 LP/Digital Download), originally issued in 1987 on a double cassette tape by Fønix Musik.

Daniel D

Thank you so so much for Nørgård 3! I discovered his music thanks to you (the 7th) sometime ago and later on I purchased his fabulous 3rd on CD. I could go to this concert and I was about to click on the booking for a ticket but family first and I missed it.

Really appreciated.

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