Ib Nørholm: Tavole per Orfeo
07 June 2012
Lynn René Bayley
I began listening to this CD immediately after ending Gene Pritsker’s chamber opera on William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, partly because the liner notes indicated that it would be something along the same lines. It is not. Ib Nørholm is, in fact, an excellent composer with a very individual style combining tonal and atonal techniques into extremely interesting structures and often-singable melodies. Moreover, he scores over Pritsker in that he knows how to through-compose; that is, he knows that music must have a beginning, an end, and a middle. It can’t just stay in one place, going nowhere, saying nothing.
I must also say that half of the delight in listening to this disc is Else Torp’s singing. Not only does she possess a clear, pure voice and excellent diction, but she knows how to caress a line and, when called for, there is a fair amount of good humor in her delivery. This is especially true of the song “Life is Long and Good, in the first set on this disc. Nørholm’s style, at least insofar as Still Life goes, is to use the guitar as an important voice, creating snaky countermelodies and rhythms. His music almost always seems to be rhythmless; that is not to say that it doesn’t have any rhythm, but one cannot count beats as one listens. If you try, you’re bound to get lost; but the point is, you don’t have to try. Just being involved in the listening experience is good enough.
Awakening, the opening song of Blomster fra den danske poesi, is more conventional both melodically and rhythmically. In fact, the guitar here eventually gets into rhythmic strumming, and it almost sounds like a pop folk tune—but not quite. Genesis, the second song, also starts like a popular tune but continually takes left-hand turns in the harmony. (Interestingly enough, it reminds me in some ways of Kurt Weill. I wonder if that is a conscious influence.) The third song, Hymn, almost (but not quite) has the feel of a lullaby, while The Stream meanders in, well, a streamlike way.
Nørholm’s Tavole per Orfeo, on the other hand, is a mini-drama for soprano and guitar. The three poems on which it is based are lines written not for Orpheus but for Eurydice, and are separated by somewhat free-form guitar solos. In this way, Nørholm makes a dialog of the piece, with the guitar representing, in pure music, Orpheus’s responses. Once again, bar lines are so blurred that for the ear they cease to exist. The second song, Eurydice Mocking the Rocks Dancing to Orpheus’s Song, is more of a Sprechstimme piece in which Torp plays percussion and indulges in some really funny vocal mockery before moving into atonal humming, more laughter, singing, and some extraordinary high notes in 'alt'. The third song, Eurydice’s Blood, is more like the first, angular but more of a sung piece, while Per Pålsson’s guitar meditation following it is his longest of the three, slowly ebbing in both tempo and volume as soft plucked notes in the upper reaches of the instrument’s range lead into fast murmuring chords for the end.
Flowers from the Flora of Danish Poetry returns us, stylistically, to the type of music used in the opening cycle, except that three of the four songs are much shorter. Whispers of Heavenly Death, set to the poem of Walt Whitman, is one of the most interesting pieces on the CD. Here, the music mirrors the rhythm of the words perfectly, even to creating a rippling guitar accompaniment to the text “ripples of unseen rivers, tides of a current flowing.” I am also rather surprised that Nørholm sets the poem in English, as Scandinavian composers are often more comfortable with English-language poetry in translation.
This is a fine, interesting recording of music by a composer I was not previously familiar with. I can’t say that, for me, it’s a keeper, but I certainly enjoyed the listening experience.