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Xtended Hearts And Unheard Herds
Djuro ZIVKOVIC (b. 1975)
On the Guarding of the Heart (2011) [21:51]
Ragnhild BERSTAD (b. 1956)
xtend§ (2016) [14:26]
Jan Martin SMěRDAL (b. 1978)
(herd)STUDY (2015) [18:00]
Jan Erik MIKALSEN (b. 1979)
Jeger (2013) [2:48]
Silje Aker Johnsen (soprano)
Ensemble Ernst/Thomas Rimul
rec. 2017, NRK Concert Hall, Oslo; Jar Church, BŠrum. Norway
LAWO LWC1177 [56:05]

The Norwegian contemporary music group Ensemble Ernst has been around for almost a quarter of a century, and while this is its second outing on Lawo Classics (the first, ‘But’ was released in 2015 and featured works by Sciarrino, Nordheim and Orjan Matre – LWC 1085) the group’s recorded output could hardly be described as prolific. In fact I can only trace one review in the MWI archive, for a 2011 portrait disc of fellow Norwegian Sven Lyder Kahrs on the Aurora label; our critic was certainly impressed. The present compilation of four ensemble works from the last decade includes three by composers whose names are completely unfamiliar to me.

The exception is the most senior figure represented here, Ragnhild Berstad, whose rather yearning string quartet Toreuma was championed by the Arditti Quartet a decade or so ago and created a very positive impression at the time. The rather rambling notes (contributed by the composer Jon ěivind Ness) indicate that Berstad draws as much inspiration from the natural or man-made sounds of the environment in which she happens to find herself, as she does from traditional music or French spectralism. The present ensemble piece xtend§ tends toward the latter, despite initial flute gestures which might imply birdsong, or the scraping sounds that sporadically infiltrate the work which could conceivably evoke the ‘noise’ of the natural world. The calls produced by the soprano voice may also suggest ‘kulning’ - the herd calls that impinge on much Nordic folk and art music – while later in the work hints of cowbells and subterranean rumblings project fleeting moments of earthiness. Xtend§ offers listeners a spooky, rather claustrophobic vibe which is neither unpleasant nor life-changing. The material is imaginatively shaped and distributed among the players, but ultimately I feel the piece lacks a distinctive fingerprint.

The same could be said of Jan Martin Sm°rdal’s curiously named contribution (herd)STUDY. The collective noun incorporated in the title holds the conceptual key; it’s a study of pitches (and players) behaving either collectively (almost unconsciously – the ‘herd mentality’), as in its opening chiming repetitions or individually, as exemplified by the lonely, exposed lines that pull the strands of this rather Ligetian work together. Although the content is once again expertly laid out for the players I felt that (herd)STUDY too often resembled a primer of all-purpose modernism, with raw material that sounds almost improvised combined with sequences which some listeners might find repetitive and a little monotonous.

And repetitiveness is also the feature that most endured in my head after a couple of listens to the opening work, Djuro Zivkovic’s On the Guarding of the Heart. Its 22 minute duration seems longer. Ness’s introduction tells us that Zivkovic’s Serbian background (he now lives in Stockholm) manifests itself in his piano writing for this piece- it is percussive and redolent of the cimbalom, although the persistent use of the sustain pedal seems to leave a rather antagonistic impression. There is a raw primitivism to this music which fascinates at its outset but quickly palls through obsessive repetition and excessive astringency. While Zivkovic plays some interesting games with the resonance, delay and decay of his chosen instruments, the nuances of his writing (and there is subtlety – a residual melancholy underpins much of this music) are frequently overwhelmed by episodes which are either unnecessarily long-winded or too raucous by half. Towards the end of the work the brass collisions the composer effects project the power of Xenakis’ Eonta, but to an end which lacks the focus of that masterpiece. All the same, in On the Guarding of the Heart Zivkovic seems at the very least to be disentangling his art from the shackles of convention and pursuing a more adventurous direction than the composers of the two other extended works here, and consequently I’m much more likely to seek out his music in future.

The disc concludes with a brief encore: Jan Erik Mikalsen’s Jeger was one of a number of commissions from composers who were tasked with creating a piece of exactly 2 minutes 14 seconds duration to celebrate the bicentenary of the Norwegian constitution. The ‘Old Rangers’ March’ (Gammel Jegermarsj) is a military piece of national renown which here gets a rather Ivesian treatment; it plods and stumbles along, very much as though the players have spent too long in the beer-tent. It’s harmonised by ghostly strings and features an array of instrumental missteps and non-sequiturs. In the words of the late DJ John Peel it “ends rather abruptly”.

It’s an eccentric and appealingly whimsical conclusion to an occasionally illuminating but more frequently frustrating collection. The playing of the Ensemble Ernst under founding conductor Thomas Rimul certainly seems committed while Lawo’s recording is predictably detailed and vivid. The manipulated animal photographs that adorn the booklet provide interesting fodder for conversation, although the notes tell us too little about each of these works, especially those by Berstad and Sm°rdal. Ultimately then, the music is left to speak for itself – although none of these pieces really seem to have much of great import to say, alas.
Richard Hanlon

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