Anders Nordentoft’s stirring cello concerto Light Imprisoned (1996/98) and the solo piece Cathedral (1986) are deeply personal works dedicated to the cellist Henrik Brendstrup. This world premiere recording presents the two important works in the company of selected Nordentoft chamber music: beautiful and harmonious, yet at the same time typified by great contrasts, suppressed pain and restless energy.
by Klaus Møller-Jørgensen
Anders Nordentoft (b. 1957) has composed since his early teenage years. His father was an organist and at an early stage inspired his son to learn music and write his own music down. Anders Nordentoft plays guitar, violin and piano but today does not regard himself as a performing musician. At the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen he first studied violin before taking his diploma in composition with Ib Nørholm and Hans Abrahamsen in 1987. He also completed the soloist course in composition with Per Nørgård at the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus.
Since his academy years Nordentoft has primarily worked as a freelance composer. For a few years he himself taught composition and instrumentation at the Academy in Copenhagen. Nordentoft received the Carl Nielsen Prize in 1997 and the Edition Wilhelm Hansen Composer’s Prize in 2002.
His work list comprises just over 50 titles, five of them orchestral works and seven works for large ensemble/sinfonietta. Nordentoft’s absolutely longest work, and his foremost work on the whole, is the music drama On This Planet (2002), which plays for a good hour and was written for chamber orchestra and baritone. He has also written for choir and for soloists in a variety of contexts. In other words Nordentoft has written music in well nigh all genres.
His breakthrough work Entgegen from 1985 is typified by a forward-driving insistence that generally characterizes the early works from the 1980s. On the present CD one can sense the tendency in Cathedral (1986) and in the first of the two movements of Moment (1989). The second movement, on the other hand, points forward to the 90s, when Nordentoft moved in a more dreamlike musical universe, as can be heard for example in Light Imprisoned (1996/98) and partly in Atrani (1991). In the major work On This Planet (2002) it is as if Nordentoft gathers up the strands: the work is first and last characterized by an incredible diversity of styles and resources that goes far beyond the norm, even in contemporary music drama. In the 00s Nordentoft otherwise still concentrated primarily on writing inward-looking music, for example HillShapes–Windstillness (2000). But there are exceptions, like the highly insistent Pointed Out (2006), just as Dance of Separation (1998) stands out from the main tendency of the 90s. The last ten years or so have been dominated by works for solo instruments or smaller ensembles, and some of Nordentoft’s latest music has not yet been performed.
Nordentoft is not a profusely productive composer. He says that he typically improvises the music forth at the piano, or in his head, plays with the material and tries to capture it on the music paper. The working process is highly intuitive and often takes a long time. However, after the tour de force of On This Planet he is no longer that painstakingly slow, he thinks.
Fellow composer and writer Karl Aage Rasmussen has pointed to the ambivalent and the partly hidden as some of the most characteristic features of Nordentoft – something the latter can recognize. It is already there in the work titles, which always mean a lot to him, although they should not be understood as decided programmes. Rather as hints. For example, in Pointed Out, where the material is chopped up into parts or points that are gathered at the end, and where the individual parts are at the same time emphasized separately in relation to the rest. This can also be sensed in a work like Dance of Separation, where something static desperately tries to force its way through in the face of something dominantly aggressive.
Light Imprisoned (1996/98)
The work can justifiably be called a cello concerto. The ensemble is a sinfonietta – that is, in principle a full symphony orchestra, but with only one instrument for each part (plus piano). The work was written for Henrik Brendstrup and Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen.
The cello concerto begins and ends with a kind of cadenza for the solo cello alone. The work is structured as a large arch; the cadenzas at the beginning and end are closely related and resemble each other to some extent. Between the two cadenzas a heartfelt elegy for cello and ensemble is played out.
A central element is the cello’s use of the extremely bright harmonics, especially in the outer movements. It is as if the cello is constantly trying to come up and out – but never quite succeeds. The light is imprisoned in matter, in the instrument. By contrast, it beams out in the elegiac middle movement.
The first movement begins with the cello scanning a tonal space around the note G flat, to which it returns six times in succession. With broken chords and ever higher leaps it moves further and further out in its search, until it falls calm and dwells on some quiet harmonics, only to end up on the low G.
With the second movement the ensemble enters suddenly and violently with a full-sounding chord that starts off the cello in a long, spun-out elegiac melody; a Lied ohne Worte of great intensity, beautiful sonority and long holding notes. The ensemble colours the space around the melody with echo effects and a wealth of sonority, including glockenspiel and vibraphone. Some way into the movement there is a little regular alternation between the soloist and a few other instruments, but the basic mood of a beautiful cello elegy wreathed by colourful chords is maintained throughout the movement.
The third movement begins with a succession of static minor-sounding chords in the orchestra, which seesaw back and forth until the cello enters again, takes hold of the tonal material and spreads it out in broken chords that recall the first movement. The ensemble disappears just as quietly, and the cello is back in the first movement, leaping around and then falling calm in a quiet mood with harmonics, in the end fading quietly out in a single note – the same low G as in the first movement.
Dance of Separation (1998)
The work is for string sextet (2 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos) and uses material from the orchestral work Blindness Dance, also from 1998. Anders Nordentoft came upon the wording of the title in a text by Elias Canetti, and as in many other cases he was fascinated by the words themselves. The work is about the rupture inherent in the opposition between the word dance, as an expression of togetherness, and separation.
The dance aspect is very directly expressed, inasmuch is the work is rhythmically incisive. For long stretches there is a consistent fast pulse, over which the melodic figures are to a certain extent displaced, but without interfering with the fixed pulse. At first one could get the idea that we are to hear a Bach-style fugue; all six strings play the rhythmically incisive theme in complete unison – but no contra-part ever comes. After the first fifteen bars, when the parts eventually separate, it is only to become dense chords that constantly keep company rhythmically while the intensity builds up. There is something macabre about it all.
But there is also an underlying opposition that tries to break through. The low strings try to stand out with holding notes or chords. They do not succeed at first. But after a particularly intense point that Nordentoft himself describes as brutal and grotesque (and which rather recalls the famous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho), a sudden shift occurs in the music.
Now comes a longer period where something more static stands against the rhythmically incisive element. Notes and chords are set in motion and spread like ripples on the water among some of the instruments, while others still hold on to the rhythmically succinct figures. Slowly the pulse is started up again, first by a cello struck on the strings, partly with the wood of the bow, and in the end all are back in the macabre pulse of the dance again. All at once the whole menagerie stops, and the two cellos are allowed to improvise freely, but only by playing sul ponticello – that is, close to the bridge, which among other things produces a machine-like, distorted sound. The rhythmically terse danse macabre is over, all that remains is a distortion of its opposite.
While Anders Nordentoft was still studying composition at the Academy in Copenhagen, he wrote this piece for solo cello at he request of his fellow student Henrik Brendstrup, who premiered the work in his debut concert at the Academy the same year.
Nordentoft sees the cello as a cathedral. Unlike the violin and the viola, the cello has a big, spacious sonority. It contains intense opposites and can play both loudly and very softly, both very aggressively and physically, and very delicately and ethereally. With Cathedral it is as if we are standing inside the large instrument and gaining insight into its enormous possibilities, from small prattling ornaments through long lines that meet like columns and cross one another, to great domes of sound and space.
The piece takes the form of one long motion which both begins and ends very quietly, but which now and then reaches violent extremes. It begins with the cello quietly occupying an ever-growing (tonal) space. Gradually the space is greatly extended and the extremes succeed one another in some dramatic shifts. Right from the start the soloist uses lots of glissando, and gradually more and more different playing techniques come into use, for example tremolo and harmonics. In short the work is a tour de force in the wide-ranging possibilities of the cello, bound together by an overall drama that ranges wide in our imagination.
Pointed Out (2006)
Pointed Out was written for four very different instruments (clarinet, violin, cello, piano), which meet and cross paths. Each instrument passes the baton on to the next from movement to movement until they all come together in the last movement. There are a total of six movements, very short, which piece by piece uncover or gather fragments for what we are to experience at the end. Each of the first five movements points to or emphasizes a sub-element in the last movement.
I: Cello and clarinet present the rhythmically striking motif in which all the instruments are gathered in the last movement. The two share the motif between them and alternately play a small fragment each. This creates an impression of abruptness. Violin and piano come in, just as hints, at the end, up to the point where they themselves take over the scene in II.
II: The tempo is reduced dramatically; on the other hand the chords of the piano and the melody of the violin are both extreme and highly expressive. The clarinet briefly takes over the violin part, while the piano rounds off the movement with arpeggios and continues into III.
III: A very short piece for solo piano, with note-festoons and ornamentation in one long descending motion. Hints of a pizzicato cello prepare the way for IV.
IV: For solo cello, at a slow tempo, at first pizzicato, then with the bow. A rising level of activity is followed by an ascent from the depths to the heights.
V: The clarinet (an octave below) takes over the final note of the cello and marks a very brief transition to VI.
VI: The great symbiosis, where all the sub-elements are gathered together, first with a playing-through in unison of the motif from I. Piano and clarinet separate out and resume the alternation from I, and then several elements from the earlier movements follow in turn, elaborated and put together in new ways, until it all falls calm and is rounded off with a brief reference to the initial motif in the piano.
Anders Nordentoft is himself a violinist and wrote this work for solo violin for the International Carl Nielsen Violin Competition in 1991 in Odense. The title refers to an Italian town on the Amalfi coast south of Naples, beautifully situated against a cliff. The water with its shimmering light, the exotic scents and the steep cliffs can all be sensed somewhere behind the music; but it is primarily an étude, a ‘practice piece’ at a high level, in which the soloist must shine, rather as in Bach’s partitas. Nordentoft experiments here (and in other works, for other strings) with the new playing techniques of our time and aspires to a new kind of polyphony with several simultaneous contrasting parts on the one melody instrument.
Long drawn-out vibrato notes unfold among quick broken chords and carry the listener through various tonalities, at the same time featuring a number of different techniques and effects such as glissandi and harmonics. After this extended tour de force, in the end a clearer melody breaks through and out of this inferno of technical subtleties.
The work is close to a solo piece for viola, with the piano as a very quiet, filigree-like accompanist. The viola is at the undisputed centre and draws the contours of the work. The piano is an almost irrational, semi-random sounding element that seems to flutter quietly in the wind. Besides playing faintly the piano also plays at a very high pitch, two octaves above the notation. When one finally notices it, it recalls delicate Asian bells or perhaps raindrops.
In the viola we basically hear one long line all the way through, with a wealth of breaks and bumps and shifts along the way. One could perhaps imagine a hill crest in the distance with shimmering contours.
At first the viola part centres on a few selected notes, each typically allowed to sound for a brief space. With turning notes, quick runs, trills etc. the viola revolves around these few core notes. In the first couple of phrases the note A flat is at the centre, with the sense of a descending contra-part. Later other notes come into focus.
Gradually the viola grows more aggressive. Intensely expressive passages are heard, the soloist plays glissandi and tears at the strings. Greater fluctuations in the melodic line appear as well as frequent, fast alternation between very faint and very loud. The music breathes; from the violent eruptions it plunges down into the silence, until it rushes up again in the next eruption.
In the end it is as if the viola runs out of breath and slowly exhales to leave the scene to the filigree-like piano, which quietly flaps n the wind, finally vanishing out into thin air in the very highest register.
Like Pointed Out, Moment was written for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. The work falls into two essentially different sections which according to temperament can be described with various metaphorical qualities such as masculine/feminine, hectic/meditative, the momentary/eternity etc.
The first section is highly staccato music, fluttering, swarming, tingling. The clarinet constantly homes in on a particular note – a particular point – which is marked by a short but very powerful attack. The piano follows after as a kind of echo, also very staccato in its attack. The two strings play a rather unobtrusive role, primarily as a colouring of the clarinet or as an underscoring of the momentary with pizzicato and emphatic strokes. It all culminates in a violent cacophony.
One long clarinet note marks the transition to the quite different second section. The tempo drops radically and the piano takes over the leading role. At first it is quite alone, with extended chords consisting of very few notes. It is difficult to grasp a proper melody or direction in the music – it is more like a state. The clarinet – and to a lesser extent the strings – enter again towards the end, without any change of character. They maintain the same mood, mainly in long holding notes. Finally the clarinet and strings swell briefly and the piece fades out with a very open sound at a very high, bright pitch.
Klaus Møller-Jørgensen is a music journalist and freelance programme producer for DR.
He also works as an information officer for the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus.