Review by Beagle September 27, 2007 (11 of 11 found this review helpful)
|What does one hope for in a new disc? I have a soft spot for deep, detailed sound – but only if the music delights the mind. Here is a disc of engaging music served up in delicious sound.
I am a fan of IsoMike, DXD and all-tube recordings (until this disc arrived, I was playing and replaying Die Röhre, The Tube - Stuttgarter Kammerorchester ). I note no innovative technologies here, just pure recording excellence. Bravos to Simon Fox-Gál, Alessandra Galleron and Jonathan Stokes, the sound artists who transported the Ostrobothnians from Kokkola to my living-room. The soundstage is remarkably wide and deep, and positioning is precise. If anyone should find this sound ‘too reverberant’ – well, I beg to differ. This is the best string sound I can remember hearing. I usually reserve a half-star to make room for IsoMike etc, but this is so close I’ll round it to a full five.*
The chamber orchestra’s forces leap from intimate chamber to full orchestral sound sometimes in a heart-beat. The intimate moments present soloist performances with ensemble as good or better than many star trios or quartets. I am a bit overwhelmed when the full orchestra bursts into unison tutti, but so I should be! Some of this music is ironic, and it is amazing to see a large ensemble articulate the nuances of subtle humour. Bravo to the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra for excellence at all scales.
The music involves no ‘war-horses’, but some of it may be familiar (the Grieg and perhaps the Bartók); most of it is refreshingly new repertoire for SACD. It is pure strings (with a few percussive bow slaps). The twin themes are ‘fiddle’ and ‘folk’ but rendered on violin as thorough-composed, contemporary music. This music is also emphatically nordic with its fiddle roots in Norway, Sweden and Finland. Perhaps more composers should have spent a year in the north, instead of Italy. I will say a bit about each piece because much of this is unknown territory.
The first piece by Nordgren which gives this disc its name, presents four variations on a folk tune, each as a portrait of a traditional fiddler, e.g. The Plucker, The Thinker etc. I am immediately reminded of the Country-Western fiddling which was still a Saturday night event a few miles down the road from where I grew up. And why not? The area was settled by ‘scandahoovians’ as we called them; I’m a bit norse myself. North American folk music had to come from somewhere. But this isn’t just another Percy Grainger setting of Turkey-in-the-Straw; Nordgren uses the material to draw comic portraits. Only a few seconds into this disc, I knew I was going to have fun.
The second piece by Bruch is the least nordic work here; he writes from mild Germany and I hear no ice in his swedish melodies. It is Grieg Without Norway.
The well-known Five Romanian Dances by Bartók are a world apart from Bruch’s biedermeierisches tunes, although written at the same time. Many composers took the ‘nationalist’ path between the 1840s revolutions and WWI, but it was Bartók who raised authentic folk music into respectability. Is Bartók nordic? Finland and Hungary share a common linguistic root in finno-ugaric, but there’s more to it than that. As I noted in Bartók: Violin Sonatas - Annar Follesø, I get a strong sense of a “common Magyar/Norse immersion in a folk fiddle-culture”. Perhaps it is only their distance from the european centre, but perhaps there is indeed an older culture surviving in the periphery. I share the instinct of the ostrobothnians in putting Béla here. Several persons in my acquaintance who generally avoid Bartók find these quirky dances quite delightful listening. To my ears, this is the best, perhaps the ultimate recording of them.
I confess that it was Sallinen’s ‘Some Aspects of Peltoniemi Hintrik’s Funeral’ which drew my attention to this disc. There are several things that music can do; it can be sung with or danced to, or merely relaxed to. But it also seems to have the power to reinspire life itself, as Sallinen does here. Aspects has cast a spell over me ever since I discovered it on a Kronos Quartet disc in the early ‘80s. This quirky, modal music is based on a very old tune, but it is also Sallinen’s very contemporary response to the shooting of an East German who was attempting to climb the Berlin Wall. All that would be no recommendation, were it not for what Sallinen does with this material. There are two themes (or three? the themes mutate into one another) mournful or joyous, or simultaneously both, all of which finally combine into a Credo of human courage: there is a corpse in the grave but the graveside mourners are alive. It is this music which I listen to when a friend has died – but also when I want to remember that the rest of us are still very much alive.
Rautavaara’s short Polka would fit better into Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey than into an ostrobothnian dance hall. The impression is of a traditional tune exploded to galactic dimensions, with threads of melody spanning parsecs. I can think of no better description, except to add that I like it very much.
Grieg’s Two Melodies, one dancey, the other lyrical, are Grieg at his truest: no inflation, no padding, just good old unacademic Grieg. They are not that different from Bruch’s tame swedishness, but they are genuine norwegian wood, not veneer.
Jalkanen’s ‘Slave of Estonia’ is one of the most engaging pieces on this disc, spacious and articulate. There seems to be a new tradition in which Sallinen, Rautavaara and Jalkanen are major figures. Its music is at once contemporary and ageless. Its tonality is beyond the classical frame but still tonal, i.e. modal; its rhythms are more interesting and varied than the broken mechanical beats which characterise much 20th century music. Perhaps it could be called “intellectual dance music”, unlikely to be danced to by the body but captivating to the mind.
* Other Alba SACDs can be sampled on the JPC site; Sidoroff: Panihida - The Chrysostomos Chamber Choir sounds very tempting, as does Saint-Saëns: Preludes & Fugues, Fantasies - Jan Lehtola.
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