Per Nørgård: Sceneries for percussion and ensemble
23 August 2012
Grego Applegate Edwards
I haven't gotten to the point in my listening where somebody can play me an unidentified disk and I can snap my fingers and say, "that's Per Norgard!" The later modernist doesn't sound like anybody else, yet there is much to his style, a highly developed sense of melodic abstraction juxtaposed with his own rather unique vernacular and sense of the subtly offbeat that takes time to appreciate fully. I am still in the process of getting there myself.
His new disk Sceneries for Percussion and Ensemble (DaCapo 8.226092) gives the listener four substantial works in the chamber mode. The first two, "Prelude to Breaking" for eight instruments (1986) and "Four Meditations" for seven instruments (2010) get a full and detailed sound in a mini-chamber orchestra zone. These are very charactered works, tonal and extra-tonal, narrative in flow and yet filled with abstractions at times, different enough that after five listens I find an appreciation growing in me and the need to hear them more.
"Arabesques" for solo percussion (2011) is in part based on a motif from the concluding work. It was written for percussion virtuoso Christian Martinez, who tackles a large array of pitched and unpitched instruments in an impressive manner. It has texture and ornament, moments of great rhythmic drama, and also more quiescent interludes. The composer states in the liners that one should try not to hear the music in terms of pulsation. "The rhythms are scewed" with fast and slow versions of the central motif sometimes played simultaneously, and with "small meander like windings and melodic fluctuations." So be it. A part for musical saw emerges. It works around some melodic material and adds a texture-color. The saw part did not entirely stimulate me but it most certainly has an otherworldly quality.
Christian, his saw, and his arsenal reappear in the related final piece "Three Scenes" (2009). The mini chamber orchestra sonance has a kind of dialog with the solo percussion. A saw part is there again (briefly) for us. I much liked the composer's handling of the other instruments, and found the entire matrix of varied, ornate, sometimes powerful percussion versus contrapuntally charged chamber instruments quite original and earworthy.
And that is my general reaction to the disk. Martinez and the Esbjerg Ensemble under Petter Sundkvist does justice to the sophisticated, unusual music. Norgard puts a conceptual twist, it seems, in all he does, so that several listens do not begin to give you a firm image of the composition at hand. What that means is that his originality takes time to get with. This compilation is a fine place to start.