Monday, July 12, 2010

Towards equilibrium


Sibelius' house at Järvenpää is a dark and forbidding place on a gloomy December morning. Ten years ago I was in Helsinki on business with a morning to spare and had decided on the spur of the moment to travel out of the city to visit the legendary Villa Ainola, where the photo of Sibelius above was taken in 1944. What I saw on the journey out of the city set the mood. Southern Finland does not have any of the snow-capped peaks mirrored in lakes that grace the covers of Sibelius CDs. It is low-lying glacial country, and December is not always freezing. While I was there in 2000 the few hours of daylight were mild, grey and damp.

After a 45 minute drive through the ribbon developments on the outskirts of Helsinki the coach dropped me on the main road beyond Järvenpää, and I was left standing outside the locked gates of Ainola. I knew that the house would not be open as it was closed to the public during the long Finnish winter. But I had never visited Järvenpää and simply could not miss the chance to stand where those sixteen swans had inspired the finale of the Fifth Symphony.


Villa Ainola is seen from the road in the photo above. For several minutes I peered through the fence at the house where Sibelius had lived from 1904 until his death in 1957, and where he had composed his last five symphonies. Then I turned and walked back through the drizzle into the town Järvenpää as heavy lorries thundered past in the gloom. Järvenpää has little to recommend it; I need say no more than that it reminded me of Waterloo, Wisconsin where I spent some time years ago. As I waited for my return coach I drank synthetic coffee dispensed by a vending machine in a strip mall.

My visit to Ainola made a deep and lasting impression. But it was not what I had expected. Yes, I saw Lake Tuusula. But my overriding impressions were of melancholy and claustrophobia. Depression lurked in the gloom, and equilibrium seemed to be slipping away. I had looked into the black abyss evoked by that most enigmatic of twentieth-century symphonies, Sibelius' Fourth. For many years the composer struggled with depression and found escape in drink. As early as 1896 he lamented:
O ye Godfathers! It is strange how empty life often seems. This is because I am not clear inside my own mind: I hardly know what I really want. And yet it could and indeed ought to be totally different ... My energies are sapped - my mental vitality. By the evenings I am often tired. It seems as if all I want to do is to sleep away my life - and it was not like that in my childhood.
Those words from Sibelius' sketchbook are a good description of the Buddhist concept of sukha. This is commonly given the unatisfactory translation of 'dissatisfaction'. But it actually comes from a Sanskrit word that refers to a wheel out of balance, which is precisely what Sibelius is describing. Which may not be a total coincidence as in 1892 the composer and his wife Aino had stayed with the dramatist Minna Canth who was deeply interested in both Buddhism and Theosophy. But Sibelius himself never followed Scriabin and others in their fashionable enthusiasm for Theosophy, although his wife, seen below in the dining-room at Ainola, may have retained an interest in Buddhism.


Sukha runs deep in the Finnish psyche. A country that produces some of the greatest musicians of our time and leads the world in technology has also been the scene in recent years of two terrible student shootings. In the physical and mental twilight zone equilibrium can be lost. And it was in that twilight zone where much of the music of Sibelius' countryman Pehr Henrik Nordgren was forged.

Born in 1944 on the Åland islands in the Baltic Sea Pehr Henrik Nordgren's musical influences ranged from Shostakovich to Ligeti. He also assimilated traditional Japanese music during a three year study period in Japan. Nordgren's music starts from twelve-tone rows and progresses through Ligeti-style clusters into a sound-world that is as unique as Sibelius', yet, sonically, is a million miles away. This is uncompromisingly modern music, but one that never severs its links with the culture and psyche of the composer's native Finland. Nordgren, who is seen in the photos below, struggled with depression for long periods of his life, and there is often a darkness in his music that echoes Sibelius' brooding Fourth Symphony and Tapiola.


The special sound-world of Pehr Henrik Nordgren can be sampled in the full-price BIS CD seen in my footer image. It is performed by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra under their conductor Juha Kangas, whose premiere recording of music by Sibelius featured here recently. The title of the Nordgren CD comes from his 12 minute Equilibrium for 19 Strings. This 1995 work, like Strauss' Metamorphosen and Bartók's Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, shows that masterpieces can be created using small forces. The other works are the short Koko maailma valittanee (The Whole World Will Lament) which is a free adaption of a traditional folk-chorale from southern Ostrobothnia, the Violin Concerto No. 3 from 1981, and the 1991 four movement Cronacha per archi.

Three of the four works were written for the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra and Juha Kangas who are passionate advocates of Nordgren's music. The sound by tonmeister Jens Brauns captured in the Snellman Hall in Kokkola in 1996 is excellent. A small technical aside; the recording equipment is listed as Neumann microphones, Studer 961 mixer, Fostex PD-2 DAT recorder and Stax headphones. So no speakers were used in monitoring process, despite which the sound stage is solid and realistic. This interview with BIS' founder Robert von Bahr gives a useful insight into his company's approach to recording.


Pehr Henrik Nordgren lived in Kaustinen, Ostrobothnia with his Japanese wife, and died virtually unnoticed in August 2008, aged 64. His output includes eight symphonies and an Agnus Dei from 1971 sometimes known as the 'Pollution Passion' because of the environmental message of its text. The reputation of Pehr Henrik Nordgren has yet to emerge from the darkness of his native Finland onto the brightly lit stage of international contemporary music. Why is something of a mystery. But if this elliptical post, which started in Järvenpää and ended in Ostrobothnia, brings Nordgren's music to some new listeners my words will not have been wasted.


More Scandinavian discoveries in here

Sibelius - a personal portrait by the composer's secretary Santeri Levas is recommended for its descriptions of life at Villa Ainola. The BIS CD of Nordgren's music was bought at retail. With thanks to the friend who wrote to me last year about a commercial recording of Sibelius' piano music made in Villa Ainola. This article is an expanded version of the email I sent her describing my visit to Järvenpää. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

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