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Knut VAAGE (b. 1961)
Bumerang (Boomerang), for string quartet (2011) [13:29]
Rabalder (Uproar), for piano (2018-19) [21:18]
Svev (Levitate), for piano trio (2017-18) [26:46]
Ricardo Odriozola, Mara Haugen (violins); Ingrid Rugesæter Eriksen (viola); Ragnhild Sannes (cello)
Einar Røttingen (piano)
Valen Trio
rec. 2019, Gunnar Sævigs Sal, Grieg Academy, Bergen, Norway

This is the first all-Vaage album to have been issued for some time. I was deeply impressed by his piano concerto Gardens of Hokkaido when I first heard a Norwegian radio broadcast a decade or so ago; it later turned up on a superb Vaage orchestral portrait disc on Aurora (with Cyclops and Chaconne - review). I was swift in seeking out more work by the same composer on the same label – there is an album of ensemble pieces (review) and a creepily psychological chamber opera Someone is Going to Come after Jon Fosse’s acclaimed play (review). More recently a couple of pieces have emerged on disc, a meaty, 40 minute setting of the Song Of Songs for soloists, choir and orchestra (Høgsongen, on Lawo LWC 1140) and the fascinating pot-pourri Mylder (Multitude) on the compilation album Variations over Variations (Aurora ACD 5096). All these works are challenging yet attractive; in each Vaage demonstrates absolute mastery of texture, shape and pacing. There is nothing to my ear about his style that seems archetypally ‘Nordic’, although dark colours certainly predominate in the opera and in Cyclops.

This new disc presents a trio of chamber and instrumental pieces. To my ears they inhabit an altogether more forbidding world, but one which reaps dividends for attentive, interested listeners over time. In my head these three works play with one’s brain using textural and harmonic means not altogether dissimilar from those which might be familiar to admirers of Galina Ustvolskaya – it’s just that Vaage co-opts a plethora of extended instrumental techniques (in solo or ensemble contexts) to forge an entirely new form of expression; some of the sounds he achieves in the piano trio Svev for example seem entirely novel, yet there is never a hint of tokenism. Repeated listening confirms they each have their place, and the piece coheres quite unexpectedly. All three pieces here work in a similar way. I guarantee they will exhilarate those listeners who are sufficiently intrigued to go beyond the initial playthrough.

The string quartet Bumerang (Boomerang) is the earliest work on offer and is nothing if not quirky, a descriptor that could easily apply to all three items on this disc. It projects benign anxiety, its restlessness reinforced by a lot of tremolando, which is no great hardship for this reviewer; it’s my favourite string texture. Vaage puts it to effective use in the conveyance of a quartet sound which veers between shimmer and din. Percussive pizzicato and sul ponticello evoke classroom ADHD. A hovering high violin trembles betwixt the fibres of a sonic backcloth which at times evokes skiffle. Breathing sounds imply that some of the kids have nodded off while the restless ones fidget incessantly, yet Vaage’s strange choices prove more effective than one might expect, if listeners are sufficiently game to cut him some slack and are not exclusively in thrall to the quartets of Haydn and Beethoven. For all its fearlessness and diversity, Bumerang offers plenty of recognisable timbral and melodic waypoints to help one drop anchor. Its coda seems unexpectedly haunting. Bumerang constitutes an invigorating wake-up call to players or listeners who value the string quartet form. The four players here live it and love it. I suspect it furnished Vaage with a number of ideas for the couplings here.

The booklet note compares the twenty-minute piano work Rabalder (Uproar) to the impact of experiencing the sound of a high waterfall. It might be loud for the majority of its duration but tune in and you’ll hear the poetry. The comparison to Ustvolskaya certainly applies here. Rolling waves of bass dissonance both keyed and strummed inundate the senses. A couple of vocal grunts and a rising arpeggio humanise the experience. After an isolated resonant high note, one is exposed to a sequence of repeated subdued chords, an unassuming moment which in classic Vaagian style becomes the listener’s familiar landmark throughout the piece. The chords re-occur and demarcate sections which feature, inter alia. elbows on wood in dialogue with strange rubbery chirrups, slammed doors, an ancient maritime chronometer and a strangulated underground boogie-woogie in the bass. Ordered ugliness mutates into hard-won nirvana. A disarming series of three further loud vocalisations at 12:25 imply the surpassing of a pain threshold – at first they fail to arrest the din but in time this yields to a markedly more subdued mood which persists to the end of the piece. Terse lyricism peters out and leaves the subdued chords, the last vibrations of the uproar, and single notes which tentatively coalesce into semi-melody. Rabalder’s peculiarly ethereal conclusion employs an electronic device called an e-bow which transforms one of the chords notes into a sustained high drone, until someone switches it off. Einar Røttingen’s performance is devastating – his immersion in Vaage’s singular piano world is total.

The recent piano trio Svev provides a logical conclusion to this terrific disc. Vaage expertly blends the singular string sounds familiar from Bumerang with the hefty and light timbres heard in Rabalden. We are told that the essence of the word Svev implies levitation or lightness, even‘an elegant way of hanging without gravity’. In common with the piano piece, the trio embodies a number of interlocking elements. There is a palpable tension between carefully organised (and surprisingly agreeable) timbral features and elegantly shaped composition. From the outset the mood is experimental and playful; traditional ideas of rhythm, melody and harmony peek through intermittently and in so doing refresh the ears and renew one’s interest. Vaage plays around some more with extended techniques. A strange pizzicato party happens between 3:30 and 4:30; gently psychotic buzzing passages and metallic strummings connect and separate sections as though they’re being tightened or loosened by a screwdriver. Experimental passages whereby the instruments seem to be seeking common ground effortlessly morph into elegant, neat shapes. It may be a piano trio but it’s never obviously so, nor is that a bad thing. Svev dances as well as floats. The magical conclusion – clearly another Vaage trademark – involves an unfolding fan of breathed melody which seems to radiate almost imperceptibly until its final extended exhalation. It’s inexplicably moving. Svev presents unprecedented combinations of sound which are simultaneously comforting, disquieting and mysterious.

There are six different performers on this disc. All of them are completely inside Vaage’s style. They each play as if their lives depended on it. Perhaps Einar Røttingen is the overall winner for his dazzling heroics in the naked Rabalder. Lawo’s sound wants for nothing. Urgently recommended to the curious though not necessarily to the faint-hearted.

Richard Hanlon

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