Wednesday 8 March 2023

Once you hear it, I guarantee you'll be seduced: Arne Nordheim's The Tempest, Suite from the Ballet in a new recording from Bergen

Arne Nordheim; The Tempest, Suite from the Ballet; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner, Beate Mordal, Jeremy Carpenter; LAWO Classics
Arne Nordheim; The Tempest, Suite from the Ballet; Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner, Beate Mordal, Jeremy Carpenter; LAWO Classics
Reviewed 7 March 2023

Nordheim's 1979 Shakespeare-based ballet in a single-disc distillation is full of magical timbres and a mysterious, seductive sound world

Whilst  Shakespeare's The Tempest has constantly fascinated composers, few if any have managed to turn it into a coherent dramatic musical work. The drama itself is simply too elusive and changeable. I saw the Ballet Rambert's production of Glen Tetley's ballet, The Tempest in Edinburgh in 1979 or 1980. A full evening, two-act ballet that had no corps de ballet and was based on a distinctly modernist score, it was totally fascinating. 

Tetley was commissioned for a new ballet by the Schwetzinger Festival and the resulting work was premiered at the Rokoko Theater, Schweztingen by Ballet Rambert in 1979. The score was commissioned from Norwegian composer, Arne Nordheim. In 2021, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra presented music from Nordheim's The Tempest in concert at the Bergen International Festival combining the music with, not dance, but with a visual retelling of the story.

On this new disc from Norwegian label, Lawo Classics, Edward Gardner and the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra present Nordheim's The Tempest: Suite from the Ballet with soprano Beate Mordal and baritone Jeremy Carpenter.

There are eight movements to the suite, 'Calm Sea', 'Storm with Lightning and Thunder', 'Awakening', 'Magic Circle', 'Lacrymae', 'A Mazed Trod', 'Four Legs and Two Voices' and 'Caliban's Warning', some 50 minutes from a two-hour score. Nordheim writes for orchestra with double woodwind (including piccolo, cor anglais, bass clarinet and contrabassoon), horn, timpani, strings, percussion (three players), harp and celesta, plus of course the two wordless soloists and the electronics.

Glen Tetley's production of Arne Nordheim's 'The Tempest' © Erik Berg
Glen Tetley's production of Arne Nordheim's The Tempest
© Erik Berg
Nordheim studied with Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) at the Norwegian Academy of Music. His acquaintance with electronic music came via Paris and Warsaw, at the Studio Eksperymentalne of Polish Radio where many of his early electronic works were, and with Ligeti in Stockholm, but he became known for his integration of electronics with orchestra. What one notices from this dazzling score is the way electronics and instruments combine into a single expressive whole.

As I remember, Tetley's scenario for the ballet brings out elements that are implicit in Shakespeare, so there was a large role for Sycorax, Caliban's mother.  The booklet gives us no synopsis and the description of the score is purely a musical one, we are left to imagine a scenario based on Nordheim's thrilling music. For 1979, this music is perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic in its combination of the traditional and the advanced, there are tonal elements to the music, and expressive melodies, alongside musique concrète. All used to dazzling and sometimes seductive effect.

What you take away, at first, is the remarkable range of timbre and colour that Nordheim brings out in this music. Little of the writing is conventionally massive, in the late-19th-century orchestral tradition, instead, there are different lines, different colours and timbres. Percussion features a lot, and in 'A Mazed Trod' we have a tour de force of tuned and untuned percussion.

Tetley's treatment of Shakespeare's drama had an element of the abstract to it, something that is strongly conveyed in Nordheim's full score. And what we have here, in Edward Gardner's words, is a series of 'postcards of moods', each one different and each one amazingly demanding. The sound worlds conjured are perfect for The Tempest, and we seem to be in that world from the very opening seascape rather through to richly complex drama of the final movement.

The music receives a terrific performance from Gardner and the orchestra, he manages to bring a glorious clarity and transparency to Nordheim's writing so that much of the music seems to shimmer and even the most complex and hard-edged moments are clear. Because this music is rooted in a rather free interpretation of a familiar drama, there is an approachable element to the piece that perhaps makes it an ideal introduction to Nordheim's sound world. And once you hear it, I guarantee you'll be seduced.

Arne Nordheim; The Tempest, Suite from the Ballet
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra
Edward Gardner (conductor)
Beate Mordal (soprano)
Jeremy Carpenter (baritone)
Recorded Grieghallen Concert Hall, Bergen, 16-18 August 2023
LAWO Classics LAWO1250 1CD [49:39]

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