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rjan MATRE (b 1979)
Konsert for Orkester (2014) [62:58]
Peter Herresthal (violin)
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Peter Szilvay
rec. 2017, Concert Hall, Oslo, Norway

In recent years two portrait discs have emerged which feature the music of the Norwegian composer rjan Matre. In 2012 Aurora released ‘Inside Out’, an orchestral disc centering on Matre’s eponymous clarinet concerto (ACD 5065), while three years later BIS issued an EP- length download of great relevance to this new release. It paired Matre’s Violin Concerto with an orchestral piece called PreSage (BIS 8005). Adaptations of both of these pieces actually feature within the present Konsert for Orkester; later BIS paired these works with similar pieces by Matre’s teacher Henrik Hellstenius on a full length disc (BIS-2152 SACD). Rob Barnett’s pithy review of this gets straight to its heart – I would paraphrase it and describe Matre’s contributions as ‘melodic spectralism’. Both works are certainly worth hearing and improve with familiarity.

On the present disc I detect music of greater clarity. It might seem paradoxical to say this in relation to a 62 minute work orchestral work entitled Konsert for Orkester; while this seems to translate straightforwardly as ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ the conceit of the work is far more complicated than that. Konsert here seems to denote the all-embracing concept of the ‘Concert’ (as in orchestral concert) itself. Both the content and the layout of the piece consider the rituals and practice of attending such an event (on the part of the audience) and of performing in it (from the perspective of the musicians), for example the layout of the venue, the structure of the programme (e.g. the old overture-concerto-symphony routine) et al; it even incorporates pre- and post-concert behaviour as well as the intermission. There is as much sociology in this idea as art. As a consequence, Matre’s Violin Concerto has been sort of edited into a ‘highlights package’ which forms the traditional concerto-with-soloist in the programme (directly before the brief ‘intermission’); conversely, PreSage, the original coupling on that BIS download has been extended into a four movement ‘symphony’ entitled ‘PreSage Revisited’. An eight minute ‘overture’ precedes the concerto, whereas other briefer movements address the rituals of the concert itself. If the idea seems sprawling, the reality is quite the opposite. This is effectively a continuous 63 minute orchestral piece. It is unfailingly gripping throughout.

Hild Borchgrevink’s instructive note tells us that as the punters entered the Oslo Concert Hall ‘prior’ to the work’s premiere the orchestra were already playing. This would have been the first ‘movement’ ‘Intrada I’; on the disc we hear a couple of minutes of audience chatter before we become aware of tinkling percussion and, in time, swirling, swelling strings which effectively swallow up the audience noise as ‘Intrada II’ starts. Offstage brass fanfares emerge cleverly from the back of the speakers. This is tentative music, suggestive of the germination of something much more expansive – there is something Sibelian about the brass and wind motifs and the tremolandi strings. What the composer seems to be doing here is challenging our preconceptions of where live music actually comes from, or should come from. This is about performing-space, and listening-space, within the live concert experience. It might be expected that the point is less likely to be register when listening to the piece in one’s living room, but the Lawo engineers have managed the sound expertly in this regard. One actively questions what one is hearing in the first five minutes of this work.

We then are swept without a break into the body of this Konsert. Gentle string chords and rustlings emerge from the dying brass fanfares of ‘Intrada II’. This is the ‘Overture’. It’s rhythmically spritely but gently spectral – little ostinati seem to connect the threads of the piece. Strings employ extended technique to enhance the pulse while a solo violin escapes the texture to trail the ‘Violin Concerto’ to come. The agitated and exciting music recedes briefly to accommodate a brief hymn-like episode – the playing from the Oslo Philharmonic is exceptional and when one starts to think of the traditional ‘point’ of an overture (as in opera) what Matre has provided completely fits, in that it previews certain features of the Konsert. The overture concludes with theatrical string glissandi which to my ears evoked swarms of insects or perhaps murmurations of starlings – it leads straight into the ‘Violin Concerto’ section, played inevitably by Peter Herresthal, the undoubted ‘hero’ of the BIS releases mentioned earlier.

He delivers, insouciantly, a repeated high note which launches this condensed version of Matre’s concerto. The high violin, low brass and grumbling deep percussion create a sense of infinite space. Matre’s writing is totally absorbing, but in this context it emerges as more purposeful and confident than in my previous encounters with his work. The static episodes are punctured by brass and percussion-led ‘interruptions’, perhaps signalling the movement breaks ‘within’ the movement. As this ‘highlights package’ proceeds new sounds unfold organically and most beautifully; the high-lying violin soars and trills above a twinkling celesta while the intricate violin passage towards the movement to my ears at least sounds oddly Hardanger-like (perhaps this is my ‘perceptual set’ in overdrive!). At this point the work inhabits deeply mysterious terrain.

Now a tam-tam stroke launches an intermission. We hear more chatter at the bar, odd wind and brass notes hover around – they would be incongruous in any context other than this one. More ‘tinkly’ percussion evokes the sound of glasses at the bar before a strange echo-like ambience ushers us back into the hall for the ‘Symphony’. This begins with PreSage Revisited , a ‘reflection’ of PreSage which also featured on the BIS disc, a work originally written for a concert which included Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ and is related to its ‘Sage’ section from the end of Part One. Matre’s music is particularly vivid here – he uses percussion liberally but always effectively, as well as drawing percussive effects from elsewhere in the orchestra. This panel is restless and urgent; its extremes of dark and light which suffuse the orchestration confirm its Nordic provenance. The other three movements in this ‘symphony’ section are a rich and elegiac ‘Lament/Berceuse’, which is expertly paced and seemingly built upon a repeated two-note ‘fanfare’ motif; as the music subsides at the end of this section all that seems to remain is the sound of a musical box. This elides into a weird ‘Minuet’ developed from scraping high strings and percussive winds – its quiet sounds often approach those common in the work of Sciarrino but the novel and attractive orchestration is only one feature – its rhythms are taut and propulsive. The ‘Finale’ is again launched by brass fanfares, and builds inexorably, with yet clearer melodic focus but rather than end the work decisively Matre melts the conclusion into a final Epilogue, restoring the sound of solo violin which weaves a thread of fragile sound, until the echoes of off-stage brass can be heard and we’re somehow back where we started.

There is absolutely no let-up in this extraordinary piece. A moment to reflect might be helpful, but the ‘Intermission’ doesn’t really provide one – its sounds are too interesting! Matre has created a massive orchestral canvas with epic sweep and few, if any longueurs. It helps to have a ‘road-map’ of the piece and the note helpfully provides one. As soon as one gets an inkling of what the composer is trying to achieve here, the sounds that emerge correspond rather well and, when one reflects further, the Konsert seems indubitably to be a genuine Concerto for Orchestra as each section of the Oslo Philharmonic get to enjoy several moments in the spotlight. Its players are superbly marshalled by Peter Szilvay who leads a thrilling performance of a deeply immersive piece. As for the recording – I have mentioned many reasons why conceptually and pragmatically this could have been a nightmare for the Lawo engineers. It is to their eternal credit that the results are anything but.

Richard Hanlon



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