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Trace of Lament
Ginge Anvik (b. 1970)
Gaute Storaas (b. 1959)
Ex Alia Parte
A Nordic Year
Henrik Skram (b. 1973)
The Dinner
Audun Sandvik (cello)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Thomas Klug
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra/Per Kristian Skalstad
rec. 2018/20, NRK Radio Concert Hall & Lille Sal Concert Hall, Oslo

Requesting a disc of unknown (to me) contemporary composers on the basis of some favourable thirty-second samples is a lottery. I have done it before, and been very disappointed by works that start promisingly and then descend into hard-edged modernism or uninspired dullness. So it is with great relief that I can report that this disc of works by three Norwegian film and TV composers is really quite excellent throughout, and is very likely to feature in my Recordings of the Year.

All five works feature a significant solo part for cello, played by fellow Norwegian Audun Sandvik, a name new to me. He is the driving force behind this album, asking the composers to write either a new work or adapt an existing one for him. The three shorter works - Ostinat, The Dinner and A Nordic Year - which are, in general, lyrical and moving, are placed around the two more substantial and modernish works, a programming choice that works very well.

Ginge Anvik has established a compositional career in Norway, despite his self-acknowledged struggles to read music (this might be seen by some as disqualifying him from writing anything decent, but Paul McCartney seemed to muddle through alright). Anvik describes his method as “trial and error”, and in the case of Ostinat, even more of a learning process as he had never written for solo cello. It is an adaptation of music written for a film (De naermeste – The Closest), which was scored for piano and strings. It is a beautifully romantic work, the cello supported by lush strings, and perhaps the most traditional of the five works. It is mostly slow and lyrical, with one surge of passion. This reflects the bleak story told in the movie, where a dark secret hides beneath an apparently sunny surface. The title might suggest something Philip Glass-like, but there is actually very little ostinato.

It is, therefore, ironic that the first movement of the next work – Gaute Storaas’s Ex Alia Parte – is ostinato on steroids. The title apparently derives from the structure of the work, where each of the three movements (this is the only multi-movement work on the disc) is given to a different register of the cello: the first to the middle, the second to the extreme high end, and the third to the low. The slow middle movement includes a very substantial cadenza, where Sandvik is able to demonstrate his considerable abilities, but always in the service of the music. Storaas‘s background is in jazz and rock music, and the hard-driven final movement has definite links to the latter. Don’t let that deter you – this is a very fine work, which many other composers would have labelled as a concerto. The other Storaas work - A Nordic Year – that closes the disc is very different. It is an extension of the main theme for a television series of the same name, rhapsodic and influenced by Swedish folk music. In the original version, the solo instrument is the nyckelharpa, a keyed fiddle, which became a challenge for composer and soloist when shifted to the cello. It is to their credit that the folk influences are totally convincing in this guise, and the piece is a quite glorious, almost ecstatic rhapsody.

Of the three composers, Henrik Skram has the most conventional background, with studies in composition at the Guildhall School in London. The Dinner is another work with a film origin (90 Minutes); the notes don’t indicate whether it has been adapted for the cello. If the rest of Skram’s music for the film is of the same quality as this, I should like to hear it. Emerge is an unusual work, a swirling mass of slow music, guided by the cello. The notes contributed by the composer talk of “musical situations where the perception of tonal grounding is constantly evolving”, which may (or may not) help you. His analogy to a huge flock of starlings creating cloud shapes that are constantly changing, is perhaps more useful. At over sixteen minutes, it possibly swirls for a little too long, but at no time does one feel that the music is going nowhere.

The composers have each contributed the notes on their own works, which is very welcome. Gaute Storaas writes “my main objective was to write something that Audun would like to play, and audiences … would like to hear”. I can only applaud that sentiment – too many new contemporary composers seem to think that melody, rhythm and harmony are worn-out clichés. These five works are excellent examples of what I feel modern classical music should be: respectful of five hundred years of tradition of Western classical music, but through instrumental, harmonic, textural and other devices, recognisably a work of now. What a shame that another work couldn’t have been found/written to fill the disc more.

The audio quality is very good, the cello sounds magnificent, though in the cadenza of Ex Alia Parte’s slow movement, there are some audible breathing noises from Sandvik. They are not enough to be distracting, but suggest that the microphone was perhaps a little close. Audun Sandvik is a name to look out for – I was very impressed by his playing, and the two Norwegian orchestras are very good as well.

Having not had high expectations for this disc, its excellence has been a wonderful surprise. For those whose preference in contemporary classical music requires the presence of the three elements that have been the basis of Western music for so long, this should be very welcome.

David Barker