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Briefly Noted: Kraggerud's 'Equinox'

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H. Kraggerud, Equinox, H. Kraggerud, Arctic Philharmonic

(released on September 11, 2015)
Simax Classics PSC1348 | 72'58"
Washingtonians may remember Henning Kraggerud the performer, last heard here as soloist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2007. The Norwegian violinist is less familiar in his other role, that of composer. In this new release on the Simax Classics label, he performs as soloist in his new composition, a set of four violin concertos called Equinox. Twenty-four short movements, divided into four six-movement concertos, are given titles of cities around the world, one in each time zone, starting in Greenwich, England (UTC), and proceeding east hour by hour (Prague, Alexandria, Baghdad, etc.) to reach Horn, Iceland, almost back to the same time zone (UTC -1).

Kraggerud's music is also organized according to the twenty-four chromatic key areas, following the cycle of fifths, beginning in C major, then moving down a fifth to F major, by way of F major's relative key, D minor, and so on. This order also puts each concerto's final movement into the parallel minor of its first movement's key, setting a darkening tone as the piece progresses. This progress from parallel minor (sixth movement) to relative major (first movement of the next concerto) brings the cycle to a somber end at A minor in Iceland, switching from key signatures with flats to those with sharps as the path crosses the International Date Line. In this way, the key centers of movements 1 to 12 are, respectively, a tritone away from those of movements 13 to 24, and Kraggerud relates the musical material from each piece in the first half to its "tritone variation," as he puts it. At the end of the voyage, Kraggerud closes with a piece in C major, ironically called Overture. Equinox also has a curious subtitle, "24 postludes in all keys," perhaps indicating that the work may be running in reverse.

The narrative program of Equinox is found in a mini-short story in the booklet, written by Jostein Gaarder and Kraggerud, that provides some, slightly mystifying explanation. "I am supposed to write about this spring equinox," the narrator states, relating "a small sample from each of the time zones" to the twenty-four musical keys. He has had a neurological exam and, waiting for news about whether he is in the early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, begins a voyage around the world on the same trajectory as the musical work, led by "a man of short stature dressed in black" and carrying a flashlight. The United States is featured in three movements: Santa Barbara (E major), New Orleans (A major), and New York (B minor).

It should be obvious by now that the style of the work is quite intentionally tonal, with some chromatic coloration in most of the movements but in general quite old-fashioned harmonically. That tendency is not necessarily a fault, depending on your musical inclinations: with each of the movements kept brief and concentrated, there is enough melodic and textural variation to keep the ear occupied. Rather than introduce obvious musical regionalisms, Kraggerud relies instead on the qualities often associated with key areas, drawing upon ideas and quotations from Rita Steblin’s book A History of Key Characteristics in the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. Kraggerud is polished and mercurial on the solo parts, and the chamber orchestra of the Arctic Philharmonic, an ensemble based in northern Norway, matches him step for step.

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