Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Taivaanvalot

Juha Kangas

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Pehr Henrik Nordgren: Taivaanvalot Review

by Stephen Eddins

Finnish composer Pehr Henrik Nordgren (1944-2008) is not as well-known as his contemporaries and those in the generation just following him, like Einojuhani Rautavaara, Aulis Sallinen, Kalevi Aho, Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, but he was enormously prolific and had a distinctive voice and a maverick sensibility that make his work especially intriguing. Taivaanvalot (The Lights of Heaven) is a large-scale oratorio based on ancient Finnish creation myths. Because the material deals with such primal topics, Nordgren set out to compose a piece that ignored the sensibilities of contemporary rationality and logic, and he succeeded in creating a work with immense visceral power. Using a standard orchestra augmented with a wide array of traditional instruments like goats' horns, herdsman's flute, and bowed harp with their own unique tuning systems, he creates a unique, archaic instrumental sound that effectively communicates the imagery of the ancient texts. His use of a chorus, children's chorus, and soloists is persuasively elemental. The music is essentially modal, but Nordgren also uses a full range of modern compositional techniques, like Stravinsky in The Rite of Spring, to evoke a primitive culture. It is certainly a strange work, but it is strangely beautiful and makes a compelling emotional impact. It receives a committed and vigorous performance from Juha Kangas leading the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, the Central Ostrobothnian Chamber Choir, the Kaustinen Children's Choir, and an assortment of vocal soloists and folk musicians. The sound of the 1999 live recording is adequate -- clean and clear -- but without the spaciousness or sense of presence that would be ideal for a work of this scope. Taivaanvalot is a fascinating and immediately appealing piece that should be of interest to fans of new music, especially works characterized by colorful primitivism.

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