Nordgren’s Fourth Symphony 

After the triumphant performance of his Third Symphony with the Munich Philharmonic under Juha Kangas in November 1997, Pehr Henrik Nordgren (b. 1944) has enjoyed a sudden change in fortune, at least as far as his home country Finland is concerned. Hot on the heels of the Third, Kangas gave the première of Nordgren’s Fourth Symphony with the Turku Philharmonic on 26 March in the orchestra’s home town, where all the composer’s symphonies have received their first performances. Bearing in mind Nordgren’s increasing profile as a symphonist, the question must be asked as to whether another orchestra should not leap into the breach and take up the challenge of asking this quintessentially existential figure to commit his symphonic thoughts to paper once again.
That the Third Symphony almost burst its seams due to immanent centrifugal forces at work in the six movements, it was unavoidable that he would have to explore some new vistas when conceiving the Fourth – a single movement 25 minute adagio that inhabits a dark world indeed. On the day of the performance, we visited the old cathedral in Turku together and, as we stepped into the penumbral shadows of the building, Nordgren turned to me and commented laconically: "Now we are entering the world of my Fourth."
The main ideas of the Symphony No. 4 are in stark contrast to each other. On one hand, they produce archaic melodic fragments in a minor mode, derived from ageless tunes from Ingermanland in Southern Karelia; whilst on the other hand, the cancerous chromatic nine-tone row grows threateningly out of the initial chord layed down by the full orchestra.

The contratemps between archetypal protagonists – represented by natural forces, the beautiful and the unifying pitted against the destructive, the reeling unsteadiness and the rootless – determines the overall formal development of the work. As a point of departure, Nordgren employs a primitive cell of pitch classes – three a flats followed by an f – taken from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov. The first ten minutes of the symphony are a never-ending struggle of desperation between the forces of creation and destruction, whereby the chaotic always stifles anything that might blossom. There is no glimpse of hope. Unexpectedly, this tortured obstinacy gives way to anxious lament. Mercilessly, the harshness of the original music is recaptured and, in a series of increasingly unrelenting waves, leads into the final "execution", to use Nordgren’s own aphorism. After everything has collapsed the cor anglais intones its mournful scale with the effect that the underlying tonal structure is finally unified. The calming nature of the final bars reveals an inscape of lost beauty.
Although the number of strings was nowhere near enough to cope with the onslaught of brass and percussion, the Turku Philharmonic, under Kangas’s tight rein, were wholly devoted to the cause. The Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra has commissioned a new work by Nordgren, and recently he was asked by the CBSO to arrange George Enescu’s Third Sonata for violin and piano as a violin concerto for Ida Haendel. The première is scheduled for September 1999, and will be conducted by Sakari Oramo.
Christoph Schlüren

(Review for the music quarterly TEMPO, London 1998)