Nordgren’s Bold, Compelling “Taivaanvalot”

cover ABCD269

NORDGREN: Taivaanvalot (The Lights of Heaven) / Ritva Talvitie, bowed lyre; Merja Wirkkala, sop; Anssi Hirvonen, ten; Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra & Chorus; Folk Orchestra; Kaustinen Children’s Choir; Juha Kangas, conductor / Alba ABCD269 (live: Kaustinen, December 4-5, 1999)

My discovery of the phenomenally original and interesting Finnish composer Pehr Nordgren (see my review of Storm – Fear here) led me to hearing other works by him. One of those singled out in the booklet for special attention was this secular folk oratorio Taivaanvalot or The Lights of Heaven, performed and recorded during the composer’s lifetime but not released until 2009, a year after he died.

This is clearly the work of an exploratory and ingenious musical mind. The work is primarily modal, not atonal like some of his instrumental music, albeit with some strangely bitonal passages where the “folk orchestra” consisting of bowed lyre, two goat’s horns, a reed pipe, a herdsman’s flute, a bull-roarer, a percussion plaque, a shaman’s drum, five 5-stringed and three 36-stringed kanteles play a half-tone off from the regular orchestra. Here, too, Nordgren uses both a conventional adult choir and a children’s chorus in addition to two vocal soloists.

I had no access to a text for this work, but Hubert Culot, reviewing the CD upon its initial release for Music Web International, gratefully provided a brief synopsis, which I hereby quote from for the benefit of non-Finnish-speaking listeners:

Tainvaanvalot is a large-scale oratorio based on ancient Finnish creation myths…Nordgren uses a full range of modern compositional techniques, like Stravinsky in “The Rite of Spring,” to evoke a primitive culture. The short introduction…leads straight into the second movement (“The Bird of Night and Day”) mostly scored for soprano, treble voices and orchestra dealing with the [breaking of the Golden Egg and the] creation of the Sun, Moon and Stars. The next movements (“The Banishing of the Moon Swallower” and “The Forces of Evil Hide the Lights in the Depths of the Underworld”) are purely orchestral. “These [movements] were inspired by primitive beliefs about eclipses of the moon and the sun” (Nordgren). The final movement (“The Freeing of the Sun, Moon and Stars”) tells how “the smith’s maiden, the wise virgin” eventually freed the Sun, Moon and Stars by retrieving them from the underworld. This is the only movement in which everyone joins forces. It ends with an orchestral coda capped by a brief restatement of the opening, thus bringing the work full circle.

Those of you who listened to the music on the Storm – Fear CD will recognize several of Nordgren’s trademarks as a composer, but here he often bypasses conventional classical form to emphasize the primitivism of the work. Low basses rumble, upper strings glisten, and both brass and percussion (including a piano) have their say even when the folk orchestra is not present. Happily, our soprano soloist, Merja Wirkkala, is superb in voice control, pitch, diction and musicianship, thus contributing rather than detracting from the whole. The third section, “The Banishment of the Moon Swallower,” consists almost exclusively of percussion, much like George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique but focused more on the lower instruments than the upper ones (no xylophones). Although an oratorio, a great deal of the music is instrumental; in fact, the soloists and choruses only seem to pop their heads in now and then for color. In the fourth section, “The Force of Evil Hide the Lights in the Depths of the Underworld,” the folk orchestra and percussion fall away and Nordgren sticks to conventional instruments used in a style that sounds like a cross between Stravinsky and Bartók (think of The Miraculous Mandarin). Indeed, the music is so gripping that even a professional reviewer like myself can easily get caught up in its originality and drive and simply forget about analysis!

Several reviewers of Nordgren’s music have lamented the fact that until recently—meaning, of course, after his death—he was virtually unknown in the West, whereas Einojuhani Rautavaara (his older contemporary), Kaija Saariajo and Esa-Pekka Salonen are very well known. I concur. It’s kind of like knowing about Zoltan Kodály without ever having heard of Bartók. Kodály was an excellent composer, no two ways about it, but Bartók was even more original and interesting. In the fifth section, “The Freeing of the Sun, Mood and Stars,” the tenor soloist and adult chorus sing strophic lines reminiscent of Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, followed by a rhythmic section for both adult and children’s chorus with percussion in a fixed rhythm that puts you suddenly in mind of Carl Orff. But I’m not trying to suggest that Nordgren was consciously imitating these composers, simply that his inspiration led him to a simulation of primitivism, and in classical music both Stravinsky and Orff had left some great hints for him to follow. Certainly, his orchestration is more colorful than either, and considerably denser than what Orff achieved. An edgy, atonal string passage accompanies the tenor solo at one point (Anssi Hirvonen, who has a solid if not a particularly beautiful voice), which then develops further when the soprano and chorus enter the fray. The music continues to develop and build in intensity, sweeping the listener into its powerful vortex. I have no idea how long it took Nordgren to write this piece, but it almost sounds as if the whole thing just spun out of his mind in one long burst of inspiration.

After a pause—extremely necessary after such powerful music—we get to the last piece on this CD, “Intermezzo—The Cosmic Dance of the Heavenly Bodies.” This is dominated by something that sounds a great deal like a didgeridoo, along with sparse winds, bowed lyre and goat’s horn, with the tenor singing a vocalise while the women’s chorus (and possibly also the children) sing long-held notes behind it all. A primitive rhythm eventually finds its way into the music as it evolves. At the end, naturally, it just fades away into nothingness. Cool stuff!

I cannot recommend this album highly enough. Strange yet powerful and emotionally moving music, played and sung with deep commitment, and well recorded to boot.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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