Frozen Moments: The elusive music of Mette Nielsen

A phenomenal disc , then: one of the finest of young quartets presenting the fascinating music of a major compositional talent

Frozen Moments: The elusive music of Mette Nielsen

Here is a review that follows on from the String Quartet Competition in Geneva last year (possibly triggered by the Handel Singing Competition in London tonight!): the young NOVO Quartet won in Geneva with a stunning performance of Mendelssohn.

A student of Bent Sørensen (whose St Matthew Passion on BIS we covered here), Mette Nielsen was born in 1985. Her first major orchestral work, Bevægelser, was only premiered last year (in the Carl Nielsen Hall in Odense, by the symphony orchestra there under Pierre Bleuse on April 20,. 2023).

The String Quartet in One Movement of 2012 exemplifies Nielsen's assertion that “a unison is never just a unison”. A single repeated note hectors away (on an open-string). It represented a compositional start after an attempt at a tabula rasa - Nielsen had taken a year out of her studies to reset. The note goes through a variety of rhythmic and timbral changes over the five-minute duration of the work. It takes real concentration from the performers - and understanding of process - to enable the piece to succeed, and succeed it does. The recording, too, is perfectly judged:

NOVO Quartet, photo © Rita Kuhlmann

The next piece, Alone, is part of a trilogy of “companion pieces” (Nielsen's words) that also includes Apart and Together . Written for solo basset clarinet in A, Alone (2021) is expertly performed by Jonas Frølund. The piece demands much, including quiet multiphonics (chords with harmonics activated by singing whilst also playing); Frølund not only excels but he understands the narration of the piece, and so is spellbinding throughout. His tone is lovely, rich lower down, haunting higher up and Nielsen's piece is one of the finest solo clarinet pieces I have heard. Nielsen organises the music via what she calls a “tone spiral”.Frølund's disc Solo Alone and More on the Dacapo label also includes Alone (alongside music by Carl Nielsen, Stravinsky, Sørensen, Messiaen, Gunnar Berg, Ruders, Wagner, and Steen-Andersen).

Next comes Apart, for string quartet, also 2021, the next part of the sequence of related works. It begins with a startling chord followed by an icy riposte. chords build on open fifths act as markers, a moment of sternness in the fragmentary second movement wherein a sudden near-tonal blossoming comes s s something of a shock!:

The opening of the long third movement seems to reference folk music before contemporary grindings attempt to re-orient the listener into Nielsen’s Modernist aesthetic; the fourth is more about the music's evaporation, superbly controlled here by the NOVA Quartet:

One piece separates Alone and Apart from Together: the 2018 Quartet in Memory of a Song (Kvartet til mind om en sang), its basis a song Mette Nielsen herself wrote in her childhood. The piece seems to be about the dissolution of the melody, as if childhood itself ceases to exist. A sometimes slip-slidey aspect to the music gives the impression, as Andrew Mellor says in his excellent notes, "individual instruments go their own way with the tune but often can't help but slide off it". At one point the music appears distorted, scratchy; yet still the melody persists, now nightmarish:

... back to the three “co-dependent” works then, with together (2021, for basset clarinet, violin - here Kaya Kato Møller - viola and cello), Nielsen in essence combines the first two pieces, enabling her “tone spiral” to achieve a deeper realisation. Muliphonics (basset clarinet) and harmonics (strings) create a unique sound. It is impossibly to imagine a finer performance: lower string legato lines suddenly take on huge emotive import, albeit in mere snippets (cellist Signe Ebstrup Bitsch); silences are hyper-charged:

NOVO Quartet, photo © Maya Matsuura

Finally, the quarter-hour Notion of a Frozen Moment (Foretsilling om et fastfrosset ejebilk, 2020). As the composer asks:

What would it be like if you could pause in the middle of a piece - if you could stop time, walk around all the elements and observe them?

The answer is this piece. Listen to the melodic material that appears around 0”59 on solo viola (here Daniel Śledziński) and notice how the composer then examines it from a number of perspectives. As the theme continues to unfold, tough, that process in itself offer more scope for examination. This sort of compositional deconstruction in real time is fascinating; it is audible (at least the earlier layers of complexity; and surely more become available on multiple listenings). This presentation then examination is a recurring process here. Again, the performance is beyond criticism. One really can hear when contemporary music is performed with an exactitude of pitch and rhythms, and NOVO Quartet's way with both is impeccable:

A phenomenal disc , then: one of the finest of young quartets presenting the fascinating music of a major compositional talent.

One tiny quibble: darkish red on a dark-red background makes the back cover, for me at least, almost impossible to read.

The disc is available via Amazon here; Jonas Frølund's Solo Alone and More is here.