Pehr Henrik Nordgren: String Quartet no. 10

performed by the Tempera Quartet

(cover image by Kristopher Kinsinger)

I feel that quartets are in a way the genre in which I am most at home. I use the instruments rather mildly, without any great technical finesse.

Nordgren, from MusicWeb

Pehr Henrik Nordgren was born on January 19, 1944 in Saltvik, Åland Islands. He began studying composition in 1958 in Helsinki, musicology from 1962, and studied privately from 1965-1969. He moved to Tokyo and studied at the Tokyo University of the Arts, where he studied with Yoshio Hasegawa from 1970 to 1973.

He married Shinobu Suzuki in 1973 and they moved back to Finland shortly thereafter, to Kaustinen, “the center of folk music in Finland.” Wikipedia says that Nordgren’s music makes use of the twelve-tone technique, Ligeti’s tone clusters, “elements of traditional Japanese music,” and Finnish folk music.

He wrote two operas, eight symphonies (as well as other chamber symphonies and a symphony for strings), five cello concertos, three piano concertos, four violin concertos, three viola concertos, as well as concertos for organ, oboe, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, accordion, kantele, clarinet, japanese traditional instruments, and more. He has a large body of chamber work, including 11 string quartets. He died in August of 2008.

The work has a duration of around 27 minutes and is in four movements, as follows:

  1. Nocturne – Adagio sostenuto
  2. Scherzo – Allegro
  3. Passacaglia – Andante
  4. Finale – Mattinata

The word ‘Mattinata’ in the title of the fourth movement, which we shall discuss shortly, is the Italian for “Morning,” using a diminutive, I think.

The first movement calls for scordatura tuning of at least one of the instruments (a tuning different from the standard tuning of the four strings). Hubert Culot tells us quite a bit about this work in his review of this album on MusicWeb International. He says:

One of Nordgren’s musical models was Shostakovich; in its own way, the Tenth String Quartet pays tribute to the Russian composer. The first three movements mirror those of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. The first movement is a calm, almost otherworldly nocturne quoting an early work, Wood Anemones for Mother, composed in 1958.

I don’t really agree with the Shostakovich homage bit, at least to the degree he’s claiming, because it would take more for me to believe that Nordgren is actively trying to elicit a connection to the really fantastic, really dark concerto the reviewer mentions. Nonetheless, the first movement is indeed “almost otherworldly” but serene rather than haunting. At least in this movement, I feel Nordgren’s vocabulary more akin to Sibelius than Shostakovich, but there is a more direct connection to the latter in a later movement.

The second movement is a “boisterous scherzo,” very short. The harmonies here are by no means atonal or anything of the sort, but richly, distinctly 20th century, with a fragrant bitterness like that from a good beer. It’s a playful movement but also pungent. Even the trio is pretty lively, and this compact movement is one of the most notable of the entire work.

The third movement is a passacaglia, and what really truly suggests a connection to Shostakovich is Nordgren’s use, says Culot, of an E-H-H-E motif, in much the way Shostakovich’s DSCH theme represents the composer in his works. We could talk about the use of this motif, what a passacaglia is, all of those things, but this movement is truly remarkable in its simplicity, clarity and sincerity. It is heartfelt and exquisitely written, a very beautiful section as moving as the previous movement was lively, maybe more.

The final movement is a ‘Morning Song’ that “strives toward harmonic equilibrium,” hence the Mattinata’ title. It has bells, which a Western ear, especially at this time of year, might associate with certain wintry festivities, but is likely more related to Shinto temples, seeing the sunrise from Mt. Fuji, all from the composer’s time in Japan, a very unique set of influences from this composer who didn’t subscribe to any specific school.

Much of this quartet is quite pensive, very tender, mostly peaceful and meditative, but the finale gives us bursts of contrast, no violence but agitation. It’s the biggest, liveliest movement, but the more passionate episodes are contrasted strongly with the serene passages with bells.

These influences seem to make for an interesting voice or style, one I assume extends beyond this single work. From the first time I listened to it months ago, I knew it was worth including in this series. It has a unique magic to it, and seems to inhabit an otherwise unoccupied space in the musical world, with sounds and influences from various sources handled by Nordgren’s great talent for string writing. With his prolific output, there’s certainly plenty more to enjoy from him in the future.

But we won’t be doing that now, or anytime soon. This is the final piece of our Finnish series and of the year. I’ve got a review article that will be coming up today, and a week of exciting stuff to look forward to as an interesting beginning to 2018, so do stay tuned for all that and thank you so much for reading.


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