01 July 2012
International Record Review
There seems to have been a sudden burst of interest in recording accordion repertoire in the last year or two, and so much the better. Part of the reason, of course, is the increase in the numbers of gifted young accordionists. The phenomenon began half a century ago in Denmark, and so it's fitting that this CD and these musicians should carry on the tradition. The piece that started it all off, in fact, is the work at the start of this CD, the late Ole Schmidt's Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro .
The story really begins in 1912, with the invention of the free-bass accordion, which liberated the instrument from the restrictions of previous versions, expanding its tonal and harmonic resource almost exponentially. Its potential went largely unnoticed until the advent of the Dane Mogens Ellegaard (1935-95), who began to play the accorcdion when he was eight but found as he grew up that there was almost nothing of any interest for him to perform. In 1957 the light-music composer Vilfred Kjaer wrote a concerto for him - 'a work of light character', as Ellegaard recalled, ' but anyway a beginning'. At that concert, also by coincidence, Ole Schmidt (1928-2010) was sitting in the audience. He didn't like Kjaer's composition, but liked the instrument, and told me this bluntly afterwards. So I challenged him to write something better. In 1958 he wrote Symphonic Fantasy and Allegro, Op. 20, for accordion and orchestra, which was the first really serious work for accordion written by a good composer. Bjarke Mogensen’s sparkling performance – given exemplary support by the Danish National Chamber Orchestra under the Norwegian Rolf Gupta – makes it plain why it made such an impact: not quite a quarter of an hour long, it’s cracking music, whatever the solo instrument might be. Sitting in a style somewhere between Hindemith and Vaughan Williams, it boasts contrapuntal clarity, a vigorous sense of onward drive and a steely good humour (something I discovered in Schmidt himself when we met around the time he conducted Brian’s ‘Gothic’ Symphony in 1980; he drank only champagne with lunch ‘as a concession to my doctor’). For someone who was launching a genre, Schmidt integrates the sounds of accordion and orchestra with astonishing fluency.
Anders Koppel’s Concerto Piccolo (2009) for accordion and strings is hardly less ingratiating. The first of its three movements (all around the five-six-minute mark), an Andante misterioso, sways forward with the accordion chattering to itself over a ticking accompaniment in the strings; the central Largo hints at a song theme, treated almost as background music for a 1950s film noir; and the ticking starts off the Allegretto scherzando finale as if it’s about to launch into Haydn’s ‘Clock’ Symphony but instead it remains an underlying ostinato as the accordion pirouettes above it and a tango rhythm gradually invades the texture.
I don’t recall previously hearing any music by the Hans Abrahamsen-student Martin Lohse (b.1971) – painter and poet as well as composer – but I shall certainly be keeping my ears open from now on, since his 16-minute In Liquid … (2008: an orchestral version of a work for accordion and piano from the year before) is unassertively lovely. It falls into four movements but the variety of moods obscures the structure in favour of an extended narrative. It opens with a disconsolate elegy over a pizzicato string bass; a march figure increases the excitement but soon fades, and a solo trumpet introduces a quasi-improvised cadenza, exquisitely rueful at first but increasingly assertive before the elegiac atmosphere of the opening returns. Lohse knows how to caress the ear and stimulate the mind at the same time: In Liquid … is all the more touching for the understatement of its emotional burden.
It’s astonishing that Per Nørgård’s Recall – written for accordion and symphony orchestra in 1968 and recast with chamber orchestra in 1977 – should be receiving its first recording only now, in this, his 80th-birthday year (the Koppel and Lohse works are also recorded premieres, as it happens). Not just because it’s Nørgård and thus worth close attention as a matter of course but because Recall is one of his most sheerly attractive works, ‘composed as a tribute to my recollections of the vitality of Balkan folklore’. The titles of the three movements – ‘Cantico Antico’, ‘Villanesca’ and ‘Rondino’ – give an indication of its light-hearted, buoyant appeal, with Nørgård tweaking the rhythms so that its energetic dances remain unpredictable. If you had Nørgård down as a ‘difficult’ composer – and his music can indeed be complex – here’s a work that requires nothing more than two ears and a sense of fun.
That’s perhaps the guiding spirit of this recital: though none of it is ‘light music’ in the general sense of the term, all four pieces start from the premise that life should be enjoyed, and here’s how. Mogensen, Gupta and colleagues catch that tone in their playing, with the result that the CD as a whole can hardly fail to make you feel better. I enjoyed every note of it and strongly suggest that you do yourself the same favour.