Nordgren’s Breakthrough 

It doesn’t happen too often that a relatively unknown conductor leads one of our first class orchestras with a programme of his own choice, consisting of totally unknown repertoire. In late november Juha Kangas, founder and chief conductor of the fabulous Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, made his debut with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. They played too contempary works from Finland – Erkki Salmenhaara’s Le bateau ivre and Pehr Henrik Nordgren’s Third Symphony – and two works by the German composer Günter Bialas (1907-1995), who was an important teaching figure in Munich. In first performance an occasional composition by Bialas, Walzer und Galopp, turned out to be a solid and harmless exercise in francophile neoclassicism. Violist Helmut Nicolai took the solo part in Bialas’s Trauermusik, a quite substantial and introspective work. One can sense the seeds of romantic feelings everywhere but Bialas never let them come out really. His language bears a kind of shyness detached from the world.
Both Finnish works argue in a more direct manner. Salmenhaara’s Le bateau ivre after the poem by Arthur Rimbaud was a kind of counter-revolution in 1965. At that time establishing himself as a modernist in the footsteps of György Ligeti, Salmenhaara continued in field techniques but suddenly used pure triads as basic material. The effect sounds like an imaginary meeting of dark, 'Tapiolan' Sibelius and Ligetian sound calculation. The whole piece might have its lengths but it explores a sound world totally of its own which very often seems to go on by self stimulation of the involved materials. It was not at all played for more than twenty years, and the Munich performance was the first outside Finland. It did historical justice to the piece and brought a composer who is totally neglected today into public’s eye.
The final piece in Kangas’s programme, given as a German première, was to be a real revelation marking one of the solitary peaks of symphonic writing towards the end of the millenium. Nordgren’s Third Symphony op. 88, worked out in relatively short time by the end of 1993, is pure existentialism.

Symphonically it has its references to the worlds of suffering and inner strife as embraced in major works by Mahler, Shostakovitch and Pettersson. But this work keeps together even more centrifugal forces condensed to the extremely short space of half an hour. The first movement, Lamentations, shakes the boundless whole world’s lament with sheer terror. The magical main theme of Nordgren’s opera The Black Monk guides the listener through the abysses of destruction. The second and fourth movements are short piano interludes symbolizing real life’s loneliness and functioning as neutral zones between the orchestral towerings. In the third movement enigmatically named Choral Nordgren is on his most personal track developping this kind of wonderous 'heteropolyphony' working as a pool of seemingly independent individuals only connected to each other by a kind of common destiny – strangely enough one gets the feeling this cannot work but finally it belongs together as if happening by itself. The fifth movement, Defiance, is an extremely aggressive and harsh quasi-passacaglia drowning its theme in ruthless contradictions. It leads attacca into the final Epilogue. The conflict between the inner world and real life’s terror rearises providing a kind of ultimate battlefield. Having triumphed the dark forces give way for an illusionarilly romantic, bitonal world including the 'Terrorist’s Romance' from Nordgren’s opera Alex, which slightly becomes dragged into the extensive last enhancement. Somewhere one can get the feeling that it is impossible to increase further on – but it goes on, and it works. It simply has to end because of the limits of physical power, but, as the composer says: "Sisyphos rolls on his stone…" The performance under Kangas’s baton couldn’t have been more idiomatic and compact and all the three nights became an incredible public success. Being quite neglected in his home country Nordgren (b. 1944) just has begun to become a cult figure in German music circles.

Christoph Schlüren

(Review for the music quarterly TEMPO, London 1997)