Postures: Norwegian Harp Music
David BRATLIE (b.1972)
Credo Reloading (2007) [7:03]
Mark ADDERLEY (b.1960)
Postures I (2000) [1:34]
Postures II 2000) [4:36]
Wolfgang PLAGGE (b.1960)
Nocturne Sonata for Harp, Op.79 (1994/5) [20:20]
Bjørn FONGAARD (1919-80)
Concerto for Harp and Tape, Op.31 No. 28 (1976) [10:14]
Yngve SLETTHOLM (b.1955)
Ten Miniatures for Harp (2000) [22:05]
Sunniva Rødland (harp).
rec. 2018. Sofienberg Church, Oslo
LAWO LWC1183 [61:40]
This could, very obviously, be described as a niche issue. And even within that niche, it is somewhat specialised. I should say straightaway that I make no claim to be an expert on Norwegian music, let alone modern Norwegian music for the harp. Such limited ideas as I have about modern Norwegian music are based on a few works by composers such as Arne Nordheim, Klaus Egge and Harald Saeverud. Where the composers represented on this disc are concerned, I can remember hearing a piano work (‘Homage to C.P.E. Bach’) by Mark Adderley, some pieces for ¼ tone guitar by Bjorn Fongaard and a CD of works for violin and piano by Walter Plagge (In Circles:Sonatas, 2L, 2009). Otherwise my ignorance is complete, my expectations non-existent. Still, I am fond of harp recitals – I have heard quite a few since I moved to Wales almost 50 years ago. I was pleased to read in the biographical information with this CD that harpist Sunniva Rødland studied with Meinir Heulyn and Caryl Thomas at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. And, where the arts are concerned, I try to be open to new experiences – my attitude being summed up in the dictum attributed to Sir Thomas Beecham, “Try everything once, except folk dancing and incest”.
Since writing the paragraph above I have done some research. I now know that David Bratlie studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music and has since taught composition both at that institution and at the University of Oslo. He has written orchestral music, chamber music and electro-acoustic music. The titles he has given to many of his works suggest religious concerns, as in ‘Jesus, Din Søte Forening Å Smake’ (Jesus, to taste your Sweet Union), ‘Lamentations’, Vers la Lumière and, here, ‘Credo Reloading’. The title is worth thinking about. A credo (as distinct from the Credo) can refer to “a creed or formula of belief” (OED), but it can also indicate a set of beliefs or principles or principles which guide a person’s behaviour or, perhaps, an artist’s practice - so that Pauline Fairclough’s book of 2006 carries the title A Soviet Credo: Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony - or that others have sought to identify the ‘artistic credo’ of, say, Gluck or Varèse. The second word of Bratlie’s title is also interesting. At first glance I carelessly read it as ‘Reload’. But it isn’t the noun or the infinitive of the verb, it is the present participle. The indication, thus, is that the work ‘represents’ or embodies not a completed action, but a process. It is useful also to bear in mind the senses in which ‘reload’ is used in the context of computers, to indicate the process of updating. I can’t hear anything specifically ‘religious’ in this piece (though that may be because I am not sufficiently familiar with or attuned to, Bratlie’s musical language. I am therefore inclined to ‘read’ the piece as being about the composer’s ‘artistic credo’. In the booklet notes by Sunniva Rødland there is the following statement, “Bratlie has created a virtuosic work for harp, with many different layers that develop in parallel. The details are in constant development. One can sense that something is concealed in these layers – that there is a basic motif which, after continuous attempts to extract its substance, can be glimpsed on the surface”. Rødland’s language here (as translated by Jim Skurdall) might suggest either a ‘religious’ or an ‘artistic’ reading of the work – and perhaps we don’t have to choose between these ways of interpreting Credo Reloading, since both are processes of discovery. I suspect that only someone much more familiar than I am with Bratlie’s work could confidently affirm the validity of one or other of these possibilities. What I am happy to say is that listening and relistening to Credo Reloading has left me admiring both Ms Rødland’s technique and the inventiveness and imagination of David Bratlie’s writing. The somewhat busy accumulation which characterises much of the piece gives way to a quietly settled, even affirmative, conclusion This is a work to which I have returned several times and found new rewards (and pleasant new ‘puzzles’) on each occasion. It was commissioned by Sunniva Rødland and premiered by her in 2007.
Mark Adderley was born in Britain. He studied bassoon at the Guildhall School of Music from 1978-1981, before moving to Norway. There he studied composition at the Norwegian Academy of Music (1985-1992). His work has been played by some of the major performers in Norway, not least the Ernst Ensemble, established in 1996, which specialises in contemporary music. That Ensemble has played – and in some cases recorded – works by such composers as Sciarrino, Xenakis, Beat Furrer and Jonathan Harvey as well as by a number of Norwegian composers – including Adderley’s single-movement Harp Concerto All Plans Last Only Until the First Shot, premiered by Sunniva Rødland and Ensemble Ernst in 2010. I have listened to a live recording of the work, by the same forces, on Spotify; possibly this is the premiere performance (I dare say it can be found on other streaming services too). Rødland’s collaboration with Adderley goes back to at least the beginning of the present century. ‘Postures’, the second work on the present disc was premiered by Sunniva Rødland in 2007. The music of the brief ‘Posture I’ consists, for the most part, of sudden flurries of notes and their equally sudden dissolution, with few sustained lines. Something similar remains true of the longer ‘Posture II’, though here there are more developed passages. There are things I enjoyed, things that are pleasant and well-suited to the harp, in ‘Postures’, though I haven’t found these two pieces genuinely gripping.
I enjoyed Wolfgang Plagge’s Nocturne Sonata rather more. Of the works on this disc, this by Plagge is the one which remains largely within the mainstream of twentieth century writing for solo harp. Plagge’s chordal writing sets up some intriguing harmonies and he prolongs some of these in ways that allow them to grow and change slowly. The ‘night’ of Plagge’s Nocturne Sonata is by no means stormy or threatening, but it builds and sustains a romantically mysterious atmosphere. It is, without being experimental or notably innovative, a work of some compositional sophistication. Though I had heard – and admired – his violin sonatas on In Circles (see my opening paragraph), I knew nothing about Wolfgang Plagge. My respect for Nocturne Sonata prompted the desire to learn something about him. I have learned that he could reasonably be described as a child prodigy; at the age of 12 he made his concert debut as a pianist (in Oslo) and also had, for the first time, one of his compositions published. His career as a pianist was hampered by rheumatic troubles, though he performed as a soloist, with distinguished conductors and orchestras, across Europe. He has written chamber music (such as a sonata for trumpet and piano and a trio for flute, oboe and piano), works for solo piano and a number of religious compositions. He is, I suspect, a composer who ought to be better known.
The late Bjørn Fongaard – he of the ¼ tone guitar – is another intriguing figure, a much more experimental and modernist composer than Plagge. Fongaard studied at the Oslo Conservatory of Music, completing degrees in piano and guitar (1945) and conducting (1947). He went on to further private studies in composition. As a guitarist he was something of a virtuoso and largely earned his living as a studio musician and concert performer. As a composer he seems to have started out writing in a relatively traditional style, before the influence of models such as Webern and Schönberg led him down different paths. He developed an interest in microtonal music, but some of the works he wrote under this impulse failed to get performances because many musicians were alienated by his unconventional notation. He built a quartertone guitar and then a guitar “capable of producing any interval” (biography at the ‘Listen to Norway’ website). He composed a series of ‘41 Concertos for Instruments and Tape’, of which the work recorded here was No.28. It was written, like a number of his other works for harp, for the Norwegian harpist Elisabeth Sønstevold, but she wasn’t able to record it and she gave the original magnetic tape to Rødland when the two met in 2009. Rødland had the tape digitized, and performed the work in 2009. Fongaard, with his unusual playing techniques and his invented and prepared guitars can be heard on the tape. Unsurprisingly, the work occupies a sound-world radically different from Plagge’s. A lot of Fondgaard’s works carry titles revealing his interest in astronomy and space – such as ‘Galaxy’, ‘Mare Tranquilitatis’, ‘Universum’ and ‘Symphony of Space’ – and though this Concerto doesn’t have any such title it very much sounds as though it might have done, being music in which quite small sounds are inescapably resonant of huge spaces. A distinctive and fascinating piece which has made me seek out more of Fondgaard’s work.
With Yngve Slettholm’s Ten Miniatures – the original Norwegian title is ‘Ti Bagatellen’ – we are back with the solo harp. Slettholm has contributed to the musical life of Norway in many ways – through his own compositions, including works for choir, piano, orchestra, percussion ensemble, solo instruments, chamber ensembles and Brass Bands – and through his work as an administrator (at various times he has been Vice-President of the Norwegian Society of Composers, head of Arts Council Norway and Chairman of Ultima Oslo Contemporary Music Festival). In 2000 Slettholm was commissioned to write a short piece of around one minute for another Norwegian harpist, Adele Halten; he enjoyed writing in this ‘small’ form and followed this first ‘bagatelle’ for harp with more, eventually making a selection from them under the title Ten Miniatures for harp. Some (such as No. I) explore the range of timbres available on the harp; some (such as No. III) are assertive and forceful, while others (such as No. V) sparkle with energy and colour; some (such as Nos. IV and VIII) are ruminative. I particularly like the use Slettholm makes of the extreme registers of the harp (e.g. in No. X). Each of the ten ‘miniatures’ makes sense if listened to alone, but the ten of them also work well as a set. As everywhere else on the disc, Sunniva Rødland is an imaginative and technically assured advocate for the music. I can’t see that Lawo’s packaging anywhere claims that these are all world premiere recordings, but I feel sure that they must be.
In her introductory essay in the booklet for this CD, Sunniva Rødland recalls how in her early years as a harpist (she was born in 1977) she constantly searched, without the benefit of the internet, for new pieces to hear and learn. “I was overjoyed when I found music of composers unknown to me, and I was always excited to hear them for the first time”, she writes, adding later, “the search for new repertoire remains important for me, and it is in this work that I find inspiration […] my curiosity about what is out there carries me forward”. She concludes by saying that “this recording is indeed the very one I was looking for as a young musician – filled with pieces that can provide new experiences and inspiration”.
Critics and reviewers – in all of the arts – need curiosity too. Critics can all too easily become victims of, to quote James Huneker (Chopin: The Man and His Music, 1900) “misoneism, that hardening of the faculties of curiousness”, an affliction which, as Huneker observes, sometimes “affects critics of music so early in life and evokes rancour and dislike to novelties”. Being very much older than Sunniva Rødland, I become more and more aware of the need to avoid being trapped in the parochialism of time and place, to make the effort to remain curious. To return, briefly, to the opening paragraph of this review, listening and re-listening to a CD by a performer and composers of whom I had very little knowledge has been a valuable voyage of discovery and learning, even of renewal. Where the arts are concerned, if you “try everything once” you can find yourself wanting more of what was previously unknown to you.