Per Nørgård: Piano Works
17 June 2010
These collections of short piano pieces were composed over five decades by the very prolific Danish composer Per Nørgård (b. 1932). A pianist himself, Nørgård has also produced longer, more substantial piano works: two sonatas from the 1950s and pieces called Grooving
(1968) and Turn
(1973), which the booklet notes claim have "attained classic status."
The most immediately engaging music opens the disc: Animals in Concert from 1984/1997 and Cob Weaver and Other Secrets on the Way (a pairing of two pieces) from 2002, "cobweb weaver" being Nørgård's pet name for the common spider. Animals in Concert contains two tangos, "A Tortoise's Tango," which was Nørgård's contribution to pianist Yvar Mischakoff's "tango project" in the 1980s, and "Hermit Crab Tango-Esperanza" from 1997. The third Animals piece is "Light of a Night-Paul Meets Bird," a fantasia based on the exquisite Beatles song "Blackbird." If you know the song, you may remember the recorded birdsong, presumably that of a blackbird, heard behind Paul McCartney and his guitar. Nørgård transcribes the Beatles' birdsong riffs in the piano's high treble register and they dominate the second part of the piece. While the titles of these pieces are whimsical and the music has playful aspects, the overall effect is one of seriousness. In the tangos, dense, dissonant textures overcome the catchy bass line and polyrhythms undermine the pulse. "Secrets on the Way" takes its title from a short, philosophical poem by the great Swedish poet, Tomas Tranströmer, and was a birthday gift for him.
Nine Friends, each dedicated to a friend of the composer's, and Nine Studies, the two longest collections on the disc, seem at first to be random compilations, but they turn out to be carefully organized cycles of interrelated pieces. Nørgård compares Nine Friends to Elgar's "Enigma" Variations, in which we only know the dedicatees' first names. Its first movement is a dance-like, chordal piece in G Major that returns in variations in the third, seventh, and ninth movements. The other movements develop shared material of a slower, more chromatic sort. The nine short movements of Nine Studies are placed symmetrically around a midpoint, the fifth movement called "Intermezzo."
Ivan Hansen's booklet notes describe various procedures that Nørgård uses to structure his compositions, such as the "fractal infinity series." He writes: "[the term] ‘fractal' designates the property of, for example, visual form patterns that appear in a process of infinite ‘miscroscoping' where the figures reappear for the spectator in constantly enlarged segments of the original fractal form." The cover art illustrates this idea with a representation of what seems to be an infinitely repeating latticework pattern, a network of veins, or a series of paint cracks, some portions of which are shown in vastly smaller sizes than others. Musically, this suggests techniques of rhythmic augmentation and diminution. Another technique, used in Nine Studies and Four Sketches, and also used by Messiaen, is related to the medieval practice in which a "color" or melodic line is paired with a rhythmic sequence, a "talea" that always has one duration less than that of the numbers of notes.
But can these techniques be heard in the music? Possibly, with the help of a score, or with many more hearings, and maybe in "Cob Weaver," whose sound patterns create the aural suggestion of a spider's web, but in general, I don't hear the processes that Hansen describes, and I don't think it matters. Just as one can appreciate Schoenberg's music without following its serial procedures or Messiaen's without necessarily knowing the structures behind his harmony and rhythm, Nørgård's music can be enjoyed without extra technical knowledge.
In the piano pieces, I am most struck by his very careful choices of pitch and intervals and the coexistence of tonality and atonality within them. They are often lyrical, rhythmically unpredictable, and usually lean textured. At times, they bring Stravinsky to mind; at other times, Nielsen, with whom Nørgård shares a dry (Danish?) sense of humor, and in the denser passages, Nancarrow. I don't mean to make his music sound like an amalgam of 20th-century influences; it isn't; Nørgård's is a distinctive, personal voice.
Pianist Erik Kaltoft's playing is clean and accurate, but sometimes comes across as needlessly objective. Animals in Concert suffers from a literal approach that sometimes diminishes the music's rhythmic vitality. A greater sense of lift in the tango performances would help bring the music to life. I wish that Kaltoft had used more pedal and lightened up the left hand accompaniments in "Light of a Night," and in general I could imagine a more personal sense of timing, a savoring of special moments such as cadences-must they always be so matter-of-fact? The recording is clear and live. Occasionally, the sound of the damper pedal is noisily present.