Fredag 26. april lanserte LAWO Classic denne CDen på alle digitale plattformer.

Lytt eller last ned her: https://orcd.co/knut_vaage_relieff_refleks_rite

Her får de den innsiktsfulle omslagstektsen til Ricardo Odriozola. Den finst berre på engelsk.


The three orchestral works on this album share the same initial letter in their respective titles.

‘R’ is a robust and resilient letter, as indeed are the three compositions by Knut Vaage featured here.

All three pieces are very much of their time: a time of distress, disillusionment and despair. The music acts, thus, partly as a mirror of the period that gave it birth. These works will give future listeners a sense of our present reality. The listeners will, however, also gain access to a yearning for hope and beauty that lies near the surface in much of the music. A yearning that we can all recognize in our quieter moments.

Although commissioned jointly by Amalie Stalheim and the Norwegian Radio Orchestra (KORK), Covid-19 intervened and the initial performance of Relieff took place, later than planned, in 2021 as a streaming concert in Bergen, for a very small invited audience, with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Eivind Gullberg Jensen. The following year the work was finally premiered publicly in Oslo by the orchestra that commissioned it, conducted by Eivind Aadland. 

Relieff (minus the last ‘f ’ in the English title) is a one-movement concerto, written for Amalie Stalheim. In it Vaage opts for logical development and, assuming the attention of the listener, a degree of predictability. The work is cast in an easily comprehensible form consisting of nine so-called “reliefs” separated by eight interludes. Said reliefs represent activity and invention while the interludes are, for the most part, moments of respite that stimulate contemplation. Vaage states that the concepts of background and foreground are intrinsic to the work, as are light and shade. These potentially conflicting opposites suggest, for the composer, the need and possibility for dialogue. As Vaage expressed in an interview with The Violin Channel 

…the soloist is the driving force that guides the music together with the orchestra in a poetic and melancholic manner, but also in contrasting virtuosic solo passages that create an undulating dynamic form. The right conditions are thereby in place to ensure a fruitful dialogue between composer and performer, between the soloist and the orchestra. In addition, dialogue functions as a framework for the musical form and texture. To me, dialogue is the most important point of departure towards a better world.

The juxtaposition of reliefs and interludes can give the impression of a large living and breathing entity in musical form.

As Vaage’s publisher Lisbet Frøystadvåg from Norsk Musikkforlag points out, a good relief is characterized by the clear and precise representation of the motif at hand. According to Frøystadvåg the main motif here is the soloist, Amalie Stalheim, who commissioned the work. Having known Stalheim – the daughter of one of Vaage’s old friend and colleague, the composer Jostein Stalheim – since her birth, it proved particularly meaningful to engage in close dialogue with her. This resulted in a composition that satisfied both the composer and the soloist. 

The lowest note in the cello is the starting point for the work’s nine reliefs. This is obvious from the very beginning (Relief 1) in which the cello, amidst its surging and plunging motives, seems to attempt to start a dance. The haunting sounds of the bass flute respond to the soloist, as does the bassoon shortly after. At the peak of an orchestral build-up, the first Interlude appears as if from nowhere (03:35). Short comments from the flute and piccolo complement a cleansing harmony of stacked fifths. This renewing quality will be a defining and welcome element of most of the interludes. This is, to an extent, also true of the second Relief (04:19) where rippling arpeggios in search of a tonal centre are the main feature. The soloist makes an attempt at chiselling out a melancholic melody. In contrast to the previous relief, this one stays within a comfortable dynamic range, gently leading into the brief second Interlude (07:06). 

Relief 3 (07:36) partly rebuilds the tension that suddenly broke off at the end of Relief 1. The cello’s melodic flare devolves into the earlier arpeggio figures while the orchestra responds to both aspects of the solo part. The flute and oboe pay attention to the soloist while the rest of the ensemble builds up sonic muscle. The subdued string tremolos provide a placid background. 

A gentle cor anglais solo dominates Interlude 3 (08:43), backed by wispy string tremolos. It is easy here to make an association to French Impressionism. The cello takes over from the last cor anglais note, making the link to the meditative Relief 4 (09:05). The soloist takes centre stage as a pulse insinuates itself in the pizzicatos of the basses. As other lines emerge on top of recurring muted brass swells, the soloist, for the first time, takes on the role of an active listener. Interlude 4 (10:42) builds the existing texture to near incandescence allowing itself brief prominence in the development of the work. Relief 5 (11:04) is relatively short, making room for some nervous figurations in the solo part, which the orchestra takes up more than willingly. These figures may, fleetingly, bring late Lutosławski to mind, but they also have precedence in Vaage’s ouput, notably in the work “In Between” for violin and piano from 2001. 

Interlude 5 (11:58) does, for once, not bring any respite. Instead, in its swift passage through the sonic space, it creates an almost frightening atmosphere before moving seamlessly into Relief 6. Here we hear individual wind instruments “ghosting” the soloist, in a manner reminiscent of ‘Rite’, the last work on this album, finished seven odd years before Relieff. After further developing earlier melodic material, the soloist gracefully retires, allowing the violins and violas to continue the development, with a passionate melody played in double octaves. This passage briefly brings tradition into focus, with its nearly Romantic expansiveness. Interlude 6 (14:40) has the flavour of unfinished business, as it picks up the thread from the previous one before plunging headlong into the highly energetic Relief 7 (15:09). An insisting semiquaver pattern on the hi-hat – perhaps betraying Vaage’s background as a jazz musician – provides the pulse for a lively exchange of jagged figures between the soloist and the orchestra. The soothing descending fifths heard in the early interludes are now inverted into tense, almost cinematic stacks of ascending fourths in the brass. The music reaches a barely controlled frenzy before it all stops abruptly – at the spot corresponding to the Golden Section of the work – leaving the cello to expound on earlier ideas and motifs in a very extended cadenza. It takes the place of what would have been the seventh interlude. For well over four and a half minutes the soloist seems to be trying to make sense of all that has happened musically up to that point. Hitherto unused sounds, such as hitting the damped strings with the bow stick or playing behind the bridge of the instrument, lend the music a new perspective. It is as if the soloist had kept these new tricks up her sleeve all along, saving them for her soliloquy. 

The deepest C again becomes the basis of the new Relief (no. 8, 21:36). The orchestra re-enters as a large creature slowly waking up from a heavy slumber. The cello, having had its say, now simply prompts the orchestra to rise, by way of imitation. Ultimately, the ensemble reaches top volume and energy. Having had its position usurped by the cello cadenza, the proper Interlude 7 – the last and longest of the lot – emerges out of the din as a breath of fresh air. The harp brings back the reassuring open fifths and the cello happily joins in. The soloist has nothing new to add to the discourse. Instead she contentedly explores the natural harmonics of the cello’s top string. This effect, reminiscent of the Norwegian willow flute (seljefløyte) has its origins in Vaage’s distant past as an apprentice carpenter. As a young man he once stood in his workshop and was captivated by the natural overtones produced by the wind passing through a metal tube. It is conceivable that every appearance of this effect in Vaage’s music can be traced back to that early experience. 

The concluding Relief 9 (24:31) introduces a self-quotation from a song based on the poetry of the composer’s grandfather Ragnvald Vaage. It plays as metallophones gently chime in the background. The final, ever rising melody and the open harmony may well bring to mind the end of Alban Berg’s violin concerto. Both works conclude in an atmosphere of acceptance and deep spiritual calm. 

Refleks (“Reflex” in English) is an entirely different proposition than ‘Relieff’. 

Vaage completed this shorter and purely orchestral work in 2007. It was a commission from Orkester Norden, who played it on its tour of Norway and Sweden of the same year under the direction of Petri Sakari.

According to the composer, Refleks does not espouse traditionally evolving form. Instead, its structure is built on fragments that, rather than developing, reappear periodically, increasingly strengthening the musical fabric. 

The title suggests a double meaning: mirroring and deliberation. One of Vaage’s aims with this work was to explore the tension between tradition and novelty. Tradition is easy to detect in the more or less veiled references to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony and Dvorak’s Ninth, conveniently subtitled – where Refleks is concerned – ‘From the New World’. Vaage draws on the old in order to suggest a potential newness; perhaps a possible future that does not, at present, seem to be within reach. He points out, however, that the main focus is on his own, tonally free and continuously disintegrating material. In certain sections the composer gives some players the freedom to improvise within a given framework. This invites to consideration on the balance between hindsight and innovation.

The work opens with a quagmire of indistinct, deep sounds that soon transforms into an incongruous series of mad micro-fanfares. This is a feature that will recur, seemingly conspiring to demolish whatever has been built up to that moment. Near the beginning, a poignant progression of ascending chords in the strings opens the door to a magic landscape. Except for their occasional sinister background glissandos, the strings have a humanizing, even encouraging role throughout the piece. In one of the work’s more extended sections, the strings provide a safe, if mysterious backdrop for a conversation among the woodwinds, who exchange short ascending figures. 

There seems to be no discernible logic in the way the music unfolds. It is, as life, full of unexpected twists and turns. We are, therefore, reassured by the periodical reappearance of certain motifs and ideas. One of them is a quick, descending sequence of octaves. Another is the aforementioned ascending figures; these appear in more controlled environments – as seen above – but also in nearly unhinged situations where the entire orchestra seems in peril of self-annihilation. A lonely flute, offering its views in the low register, emerges out of one such section. This is soon followed by a funeral march fragment that references the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Later, a piccolo flute will take on the earlier role of its larger relative for a short, touching solo also in its deepest register. Elsewhere, we are exposed to moaning brass glissandos, anguished animal sounds, and Morse Code-like figures that try, almost in vain, to cut through the pointillist commotion. Tonality – in its retrospective role – tries to engage with ambiguous harmony and pitchless sounds. Like the small wind motifs that rise from a misty background, these recognizable harmonies seem to surface like flowers in a barren ground. The short quotation of the famous cor anglais solo from Dvorak’s Ninth Symphony, is one such blossom. We are gently taken aback when the melody – with its original harmony – emerges from the indistinct texture. It is hard not to reflect on what we have lost, which is perhaps also what we are unwittingly searching for. The daydream is soon over: a cacophonous glissando brings back the mad fanfares of the beginning. A short, demented violin solo mirrors an earlier one from the clarinet. The work ends with a brass chorale relieved by the strings. These support the final melodic fragments from the winds, leading to a rather unassuming conclusion.

Refleks is a deeply moving work that incites us to look at our world and our role within it. Like all great art, it carries a degree of ambiguity with it. We are not to know whether the work intends to hold a mirror to a crumbling world or whether it is a dirge for a world already beyond repair. Hope, however, seems to lurk defiantly in the background. It is never allowed to flourish fully. Instead it suggests itself just strongly enough for those who are able to sense it and be inspired by it. 

Rite, completed in December 2013 and further revised in 2018, was another KORK commission. The premiere took place in Oslo, May 2015 conducted by Stefan Blunier with Harald Aadland – the work’s dedicatee and co-commissioner – as the soloist. Vaage writes the following about the piece

The title “Rite” refers to different kinds of ceremonies. Concert performances often acquire the air of a ritual. The work, however, also alludes – more or less abstractly – to different manners of ritual in which we participate through life. In Rite the ceremonial is often suggested by short snags, such as the use of distinctive percussion instruments or unorthodox – at times theatrical – use of strings. Most importantly for the structure, the violin soloist is like a master of ceremonies for the orchestra. All impulses are consistently initiated by the soloist before the material is picked up by others. In this context, the orchestra is treated as an arena where the rituals take place, an organism that takes over at certain points where the soloist has no choice but to be quiet. 

These comments are an excellent entry point to a proper understanding and enjoyment of this atypical violin concerto. 

Having, as listeners, assimilated the seemingly ineluctable logic and, at least, partial optimism of ‘Relieff’ and the hopefulness that lies beneath the gloomy and outwardly chaotic surface of ‘Refleks”, we are, in Rite, presented with something of a hybrid. One particular success of this work lies in the way the music thwarts the expectations it creates at the beginning. Though the intent of the composer is to represent a kind of ritual led by a master of ceremonies, the bleakness of the opening sequence may well bring to mind a picture of authoritarian rigidity. The soloist seems all too confident in his power to make the rest of the orchestra repeat even the most bizarre actions. These include tapping the instrument with his knuckles, blowing through the f holes or playing scratchy rhythms. An uneasy sense of foreboding seems to permeate this beginning. Thankfully, we soon realize that the soloist has a heart, as he begins to spin gentle, graceful melodies. Diverse instruments in the orchestra continue to copy him, but they seem to do so willingly rather than out of fear. At times, the imitation comes considerably later than the original, giving the impression that a piece of wise advice is being mulled over. As the piece progresses there is a sense of playfulness in the way the soloist becomes more and more fanciful and inventive. As Vaage points out, the orchestra does indeed take over every now and then, making the soloist hold his peace. The orchestra, as the larger body, develops a will of its own, at times becoming nearly overbearing. It achieves this by sheer volume and by frequent repeated rhythms. They may have originated from the soloist but they acquire a frightening quality when let loose in the large ensemble. Rhythmical clarity is here, as in much of Vaage’s music, a defining element. He counterbalances the intricacy of his language with a nearly classical rhythmic design. However raucous the orchestra becomes, the soloist is always welcomed back into his leading role. There is an underlying respect at work. Different groups in the orchestra contribute with attractive melodies and haunting harmonies of their own. The downward glissandos in the winds (13:54) have a particularly evocative beauty. 

The unexpected emergence of multiphonic sounds in the woodwinds has an alchemical effect on the composition. These otherworldly sounds herald a powerful transformation about to be taking place, although not immediately. Tolling bells make themselves heard a few minutes later. They, however, do not portend doom, but quite the opposite. A small miracle occurs: the soloist, as a changed entity, abandons his role as a leader and begins to listen and to copy the lines his orchestra colleagues give him. The leader has become the follower. It is a truly moving moment: Music has rendered the unlikely possible. It presents us with a vision of a, sadly, utopian society where dialogue, achieved by conscious transformation, is the guiding principle. No wonder, then, that the soloist ends his discourse – and the piece – on top of a blissful whole-tone harmony, by climbing up those natural harmonics that so captivated the very young Knut Vaage in his carpentry workshop.

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