More Chamber Music From Hvoslef


HVOSLEF: String Quartets Nos. 4 & 1 / Ricardo Odriozola, Mara Haugen, vln; Ilze Klava, vla; Ragnhild Sannes, cel / Octopus Rex for 8 Cellos / John Ehde, Finlay Hare, Markus Eriksen, Tobias Olai Eide, Ragnhild Sannes, Marius Laberg, Carmen Boveda, Milica Toskov, cel; Odriozola, cond / Concerto for Violin & Pop Band / Odriozola, vln; Einar Rettingen, pno; Håkon Sjøvik Olsen, el-pno; Peter Dybvig Soreide, el-gtr; Thomas Lossius, el-bs; Sigurd Steinkopf, perc / Lawo LWC1246

This, the latest in Lawo’s ongoing series of recordings of Ketil Hvoslef’s strange semi-minimalist music, presents but four works in a program running less than 50 minutes…but it’s clearly an intense 48 minutes worth of music.


The composer

As is usual for this very eccentric composer, his music, even in the String Quartet No. 4 which opens this disc, emerges in fits and starts rather than in a continuous musical line. Hvoslef is the master of gestures and mood, and although one eventually senses a continuity of form in his music, it is the individual moments that most capture your attention. Nothing he writes could be remotely be called “crowd-pleasing,” but at the same time it is always interesting and engaging despite its atonal (but not 12-tone) bias. Sometimes his music sneaks up on you, taps you on the shoulder, and then scurries to hide in a corner, moaning either defiantly or sorrowfully. In the first movement of this string quartet, he hits you over the head, disappears for eight to ten seconds, then comes back and hits you again before finally retreating into his corner. His musical moods are so schizophrenic that they make György Ligeti sound almost like Beethoven by comparison. If you examine photos of him, he appears to be an older-looking version of E.T.A. Hoffmann, writer of the very strange psychological “tales” in the early 19th centuries.

Sometimes, Hvoslef’s figures seem to be running backwards. This quartet, like so many of his pieces, is written in one long movement with slightly different moods and tempi, which vacillate rapidly and unexpectedly. Near the very end of the last movement, we suddenly hear the quartet break out into fast pizzicato figures, with a few upward war whops thrown in, yet it ends quietly.

Next up is Octopus Rex for eight cellos. Oddly, there is little pause between the end of the string quartet and the beginning of Octopus, and with the cellos starting out in an upper register it sounds, curiously, like an extension of the quartet…except that it’s not. Most of Octopus consists of rapid, edgy figures interspersed with sliding chromatic ones which completely blur the tonality. At one point, Hvoslef has some of the celli playing fast, sliding figures in the background while a few others are slithering around in the foreground in their upper range. Here, he almost delights in suggesting microtonalism, with a few (intended) harmonic clashes thrown in for good measure. Whatever this guy is on, I want some! (And remember, he has spent most of his life in an era when marijuana was illegal! Maybe he’s been growing his own?) Here, towards the end, we hear one lone cello playing in its altissimo register while the others play fast, bowed figures; then a passage in pizzicato before returning to bowed playing, again very fast as a coda.

Odder yet, the String Quartet No. 1 is also set in a predominantly lower key so that even the violins sound like violas, the viola like a slightly high cello, and the cello almost like a bass. Here, the music is much more sustained in places, even what you would call lyrical, but that doesn’t stop Hvoslef from exploding with his edgy, semi-fragmented motifs and musical gestures, eventually forcing the entire quartet into the aural stratosphere. Here, the buzz and scream like a swarm of gnats on acid, eventually quieting down at the 7:18 mark.

I admit that I had some misgiving about his Concerto for Violin and Pop Band, but then I remembered that the great (and vastly under-appreciated) Swiss composer Frank Martin wrote an excellent concerto using a rock band in the early 1970s. Hvoslef characteristically treats the electric guitar and bass as if they were classical instruments, writing pointillistic figures in his usual erratic rhythms. The use of the percussion is very light, mostly sounding like little “ticks” of sound on the periphery of the ensemble. The electric bass plays its own figures while the piano plays a running single-note bass line continuo of its own while the solo violinist runs through its own paces in the upper range. Yet Hvoslef also creates some colorful blends using the electric piano, an instrument that Duke Ellington also used to good advantage in his late years. The whole thing is very classically constructed, pop band or not; these musicians must certainly be not just good at their instruments but highly attuned to Hvoslef’s quirky harmonies and rhythms, and they do an excellent job here. At around 6:30, the violin indulges in some bizarre microtonal playing, then moves into a repeated figure over stiffly staccato piano chords. Finally, at 7:40, the drums begin playing a true rock beat while the violinist stick to his guns, or at least tries to, while the acoustic piano plays in a sort of boogie-woogie style between them and the electric piano plays figures that swoop down from above. Strange, indeed!

Eventually we reach the cadenza, played entirely a cappella by the violin, after which only the acoustic piano enters at first, then the drums, then the electric piano, creating a strange web of sound as the acoustic piano plays a running figure while the others just drop in occasional blips and bloops. But this is a piece so strange that you really need to hear it a couple of times in order to fully appreciate its brilliance within its quirkiness.

What else can I say? Hvoslef has done it again, given us a strange new world of sound to explore and enjoy. So there’s a little bit  of Peter Schickele in him. So what? I loved it!

—© 2023 Lynn René Bayley

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One thought on “More Chamber Music From Hvoslef

  1. Pingback: More Chamber Music From Hvoslef – MobsterTiger

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