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Toccata, concerto for organ and symphony orchestra (2014) [19:13]
Ophelia Dances, concerto for accordion and sinfonietta (2012) [22:10]
Symphony No. 3 (2010) [23:32]
Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen (organ)
Bjarke Mogensen (accordion)
Århus Sinfonietta/Henrik Vagn Christensen (Ophelia Dances)
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Henrik Vagn Christensen, Ari Rasilainen
rec. 2014-18, Symphonic Hall, Musikhuset, Aarhus, Denmark
DACAPO 8.226581 [64:56]

The booklet accompanying this fascinating, if challenging, disc, carries a comprehensive article by Nordic specialist and Gramophone contributor, Andrew Mellor. Danish composer Svend Hvidtfelt Nielsen’s name was new to me and in such circumstances I doubt if I am the only collector to turn first to the booklet, hoping for a bit of context. An introductory passage contains this sentence: “Hvidfelt Nielsen has always been interested in creating active polyphonic structures from which clear elements and procedural threads can be discerned. From the 1990s, the rhythmic and textural weave of his works underwent a process of refinement that only clarified the music’s workings further.” I had this in mind when listening for the first time to the Symphony No. 3, the earliest work on this disc, though placed last in the programme.

The symphony, in a single movement, begins in the depths and ends in the stratosphere, so at least one of the “procedural threads” identified by Mellor can be easily grasped. The composer’s “active polyphonic structures” are also reasonably evident but I confess to finding little help from them in perceiving where the music was going and to what purpose.

This is music with no tonal centre and little discernible pulse. It begins quietly in the depths of the orchestra with splashes of colour carefully placed above. Tiny fragments of material, too short to be called themes, are scattered about, frequently over long, held pedal points or slowly moving subsidiary elements. Indeed, this is how the main climax is achieved. The work proceeds doggedly upwards, to end with the violins and the winds in the highest regions. I found this last phase of the journey too long and drawn out and yearned for musical material with more substance and memorability. The closing gesture, however, is exquisite.

Ophelia Dances, a concerto for accordion and chamber orchestra, is an easier, more colourful listen. The twelve dances that make up the work are described in the booklet but the listener’s life would have been made easier by separately banding them on the disc. Added to this, four of them, dances 6-9, are played simultaneously, or, as Mellor puts it, “on top of one another”. I do wish, incidentally, that Mellor’s note had been less opaque. This is music that will be difficult for many of us, especially at first hearing. Sentences like “the accordion plays quavers out-of-sync with each other before ending the movement by splitting itself open in contrary motion” don’t provide much guidance.

There is far more variety of pace and texture in this work than in the symphony. The overall impression of greyness that I received from the earlier work is pretty much absent. I have no doubt that the solo part is challenging and that Bjarke Mogensen, for whom the work was written, rises splendidly to those challenges. That said, this is not a concerto that aims to demonstrate the soloist’s virtuosity, and indeed, in many passages, serious effort is needed to separate the soloist’s line from other strands of the texture. This is particularly the case in the many magical and highly evocative quiet passages. Indeed, the word ‘quiet’ is inadequate to describe music that is frequently situated at the extreme limit of audibility, with glass chimes much in evidence accompanying held, high notes from the ensemble and the soloist. I don’t know what the connection is between this music and the Shakespearian character, except that we are told the composer can “hear” Ophelia dancing. Whatever, there is plenty of variety and contrast in the work, with several passages where the music is rapid and highly rhythmic. At the end of Ophelia Dances I immediately wanted to hear the work again, which was not my reaction to the symphony.

Ophelia Dances begins with an explosive cluster from the soloist, but which is a mere whimper compared to the similar gesture that opens the organ concerto, Toccata. The composer himself brilliantly executes the solo part. The title is well chosen, at least for the opening passage which evinces constant and rapid movement, much of it in the upper reaches of the organ and the accompanying instruments. The fragmentary nature of much of this music coalesces into what the notes refer to as a fugue. I think this begins round about the 3½ minute mark but don’t expect anything that sounds like Bach! A later passage, portentously anticipated and prepared, could almost be a hymn, though its serene progress is hampered by repeated references to the opening detonation. The work closes with an extended tranquil passage that, once again, aims for and attains vertiginous near-inaudibility.

Toccata and Ophelia Dances can be appreciated on a first hearing, though neither work is without its challenges. If, for the moment, I find the symphony less compelling, I’m looking forward to seeking out the secrets that I suspect are hidden within.

William Hedley



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