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Lars Petter HAGEN (b. 1975)
Paulines Piano I (Deep River – trad, arr Hagen) [2:03]
Three Transfigurations (2017) [6:42]
Harmonium Repertoire (2016) [18:06]
Sørgemarsj over Edvard Grieg (2007) [8:23]
Max F: Passage – Silence and Light Triptych (2002) [10:40]
Paulines Piano II (Maria og barnet – trad. arr Hagen) [2:27]
Cikada/Christian Eggen
rec. 2019, NRK Radio Concert Hall, Oslo, Norway

It’s six years since the Norwegian label Aurora released the first disc exclusively devoted to the music of Lars Petter Hagen. I loved it. That is to say I loved the sounds that emitted from my speakers. Hagen’s work seems to come with a lot of philosophical or sociological or psychological baggage. (I hesitate to apply the prefix ‘pseudo-’ to those adjectives). I don’t pretend to ‘get’ much (if any) of it – I have to admit that like my fellow reviewer Nick Barnard I was most attracted by the idea of To Zeitblom, a contemporary Hardanger Fiddle concerto, and having read a positive review of the disc elsewhere (by an individual who ‘gets’ Hagen’s rationale – and his jokes – apparently!) I took the plunge. It’s fair to say that while Nick didn’t respond so positively to either the music or its ‘theoretical basis’ (review) I found that all five works on that disc moved me deeply. And they continue to do so. While Hagen continues to compose he is also an agitator, a music administrator, an organiser of festivals, a curator; a doer as well as a thinker.

In an interesting note accompanying Harmonium Repertoire, this new collection of pieces for smaller ensembles (including a couple for an antediluvian upright piano) performed with consummate sensitivity by members of the mighty Cikada, Rob Young identifies the title of a recent Hagen sound installation Archive Fever as a phrase which might encapsulate this composer’s art and approach. Cognitive psychologists have spent the last century and a half seeking to systemise human memory but the very nature of human experience, the unpredictability of our emotions, the unconscious connections we make with specific places and the fluctuating moods in which we find ourselves arguably makes such an endeavour futile. During a visit to Eden Camp (a huge open-air museum dedicated to immortalising Britons’ day-by-day experience of World War II) in North Yorkshire a few years ago I overheard groups of elderly people remarking on the olfactory environment; its curators have cleverly incorporated the vivid smells encountered on the Home Front into the exhibitions and it was these that most acutely triggered specific, long forgotten details. I see Hagen in similar terms; an alchemist in sound, a distiller of essences who evokes a feeling, a glimpse, an echo by means of an engagement with past worlds that existed long before I did. Calling it ‘nostalgia’ seems just a little too simplistic – after all the word implies ‘pain’. Hagen’s music doesn’t hurt, but it does do odd things with my unconscious and creates a tangible sense of yearning for atmospheres, contexts, times, even smells I cannot know or even recognise. I am convinced that one of the means by which he does this in his music is by relegating (or even eradicating) the need for identifiable rhythm, enabling listeners’ to focus instead upon the sound itself, its timbre, pace, and especially its essential nature, which may (or may not) evoke experience, place or moment.

Thus in Three Transfigurations for string quartet, the source material may come from Richard Strauss, but this is implicit rather than obvious. The first of these miniatures is a Webernian aphorism and seems particularly bare, its harmonic shifts almost familiar, its textures barely formed. It’s succeeded by a study in timbre and pared-down melody, the creepy tremolandi at its outset triggering a sequence of brief two-note phrases, couched in a ghostly neo-romantic vocabulary yet presented in an atmospheric arc which counterintuitively seems remarkably cogent. The final Adagio seems to refer to the first piece and extend its reach in what might be seen as an attempt to access a particularly fragile memory which drifts in and out of the listener’s consciousness. This is rich music of profound concentration.

Harmonium Repertoire, the recent ensemble piece which gives the album its title is more explicit in terms of its links to the past. The harmonium has old fashioned domestic connotations and its singular sound dominates these shady, withdrawn movements. In contemplating the strange russets and sepias that emerge from the speakers perhaps the listener can readily experience a distant, impossible past. My personal experience of the harmonium is limited to its appearance in numerous scores by the inimitable Percy Grainger on the one hand and its presence in many of those arrangements of turn-of-the-century repertoire Arnold Schoenberg curated for the programmes of his Society for Private Musical Performance in Vienna. It is the spirit of the latter that informs the five movements of Harmonium Repertoire, as Hagen makes use of the notated harmonium parts from unspecified pieces by Mahler, Bruckner, Richard Strauss (again), Berg and Schoenberg himself for his raw material. On one level perhaps this is a subconscious nod from one curator to another. According to a wry note in the booklet by Cikada’s pianist, the work seems to owe its existence to Kenneth Karlsson’s apparent obsession with the instrument. As for the music itself, the first two movements each seem to depend on blended harmonium chords, and between which sustained notes and lonely textures from other instruments seem to peep. String harmonics play a key role in the second piece; after a gear change at 3:34 they seem to pierce the yellowing textures like a blinding ray of light which momentarily obscures the view. The third piece emphasises the grainy sounds of bow on string, while eerie percussion effects evoke rainfall. One is startled in the fourth piece when a sequence of deep string-led chords dissolves and an oddly familiar chorale emerges from harmonium and a pianissimo flute; the effect is magical and touching but simultaneously jarring in its presentation of what is for once regular, clear, sustained rhythm; the shock of the familiar, perhaps. I enjoyed Harmonium Repertoire very much; it struck home as a piece of tremulous beauty which tiptoes rather than dances on the edge of time and Vienna. I had to pause the disc at its conclusion to gather my impressions – I suspect it is a deliberate strategy on the part of composer and performers to limit the gaps between tracks – for much of this album movements seem to meld and overlap, and given Hagen’s ‘retromania’ (another lovely word culled from the notes) it heightens this music’s mystique.

Sørgemarsj over Edvard Grieg (Funeral march in memory of Edvard Grieg) was written for the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra in 2007, and is performed here in a reduction for chamber ensemble. The original features on the Aurora disc and left Nick Barnard both perplexed and cold. In that review he is certainly justified in “…..wondering why one calls a piece Funeral March if there is no element of a march to be heard….”; perhaps this is the piece which most overtly bypasses rhythm in that its title explicitly points to its presence. The note refers to Grieg’s exact contemporary Richard Nordraak, whose untimely passing he himself commemorated in a famous funeral march. Hagen’s piece whispers in the wind; at first hearing one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing happens, but repetitions reveal that it’s strangely affecting – chords and string textures seemingly allude to (known or unknown) folk traditions, hints of dampened bell sounds suggest music of memory rather than mourning, the boundaries that delineate notes, phrases, textures and harmonies are blurred, microtonal elements skew one’s sense of reality. There is a tortuously won sense of resolution at its end – even that splinters apart. I have absolutely no idea why this music touches me to the extent that it most assuredly does; one can listen too hard and think too much.

Max F, the ‘author’ of Passage – Silence and Light Triptych is evidently a pseudonym which means something to Hagen; in any case the work’s otherwise impenetrable title is absolutely no barrier to wallowing in its sound. If the opening panel Tower of Absence contains the ‘liveliest’ music on the album (there’s a surprising variety of timbre and a clearer sense of attack here compared to what’s gone before), the following movement shimmers and glows with telling use of piano, bells, drums and what sound like antique cymbals. At five minutes the final piece A Garden of Memories couldn’t, in my view be better named. It seems to last much longer. Time moves slowly. Silence plays a major role. This garden has been cultivated by juxtaposing tiny fragments of melody and texture. A weird clarinet and percussion (something like a muted fire-bell) duet threads its way through a soft undergrowth. A solo violin joins the ‘party’. The clarinet line permeates the entire piece. Eventually one becomes aware of another rare rhythmic element. The elephant in the room, or the garden, perhaps? I enjoyed A Garden of Memories very much, and although Kenneth Karlsson reveals that the triptych was inspired by Daniel Liebeskind’s extensions for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, for me the unexpected images this piece evoked were the opening sequence in Michael Bond’s immortal 1968 childrens’ TV series ‘The Herbs’, with its atmospheric Victorian walled garden and especially Tony Russell’s indelible theme tune. The mood of these two pieces could hardly be more divergent but as I suggested earlier, it’s a rum business, memory. Lars Petter Hagen understands this better than most.

I find Hagen’s pieces striking and rich. Those I have attempted to describe thus far are bookended on this album by two of his re-arrangements of old tunes played by Pauline Hall (1890-1969), a doyenne of the Norwegian music scene in the mid twentieth century and one of Hagen’s predecessors as chair of the national branch of the ISCM. He inherited her decrepit old upright and Kenneth Karlsson plays it here in Hagen’s versions of Hall’s arrangements of the spiritual Deep River and an old Czech folk tune Maria and the Child. They sound exquisite, a perfect prelude and postlude. This remarkable album touched me immensely although I suspect the singular, rarefied atmosphere of this music will not appeal to all. Cikada’s stately, sensitive and heartfelt performances seem to be superbly judged while Lawo’s sound is slightly dry which in this case perfectly matches all of these pieces. As for the 48 minute playing time –it’s just right: a little of Hagen’s concentrated, powerful music, as reassuring as it is disconcerting, goes a long, long way.

Richard Hanlon

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