PLAGGE Liber sequentiarum.1 Trumpet Sonata.2 Sólarljód3
Solveig Kringelborn (sop);1,3 Ole Edvard Antonsen (tpt);1,2
Wolfgang Plagge (pn)2,3
ź 2L ź 2L5 (48:56)

Concerto grosso II.
1 Music for 2 Pianos
Evgeni Koroliov (pn); Ljupka Hadzi-Georgieva (pn);
Rolf Lennart Stensř (timp);1 Arctic Brass1
ź 2L ź 2L6 (53:28)

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Norwegian composer Wolfgang Plagge (whose parents were Dutch) was born in Oslo in 1960, and began composing and playing piano by the age of four. He developed quickly as a pianist and made his recital debut in Oslo in 1972 in the presence of King Olav V. He won numerous prizes in national and international competitions, graduated from the Musikhochschule in Hamburg in 1986, and has had a fine solo career. As a composer, he published his first work at age twelve.

Lately Plagge’s interest has been in developing a compositional idiom reflecting the music of the so-called Ars Nova period; that is, about the 14th century in Europe (especially France), as the term is commonly applied. Hence, the titles of these two discs on the nascent Norwegian 2L label: Ars Nova (The Medieval Inspiration) and Ars Nova (The Legacy). Nevertheless, his interest isn’t limited to the Ars Nova but encompasses consideration of the influence of early church music from lower Europe on the medieval folk idioms of Norway. He has based some works on musical artifacts showing this influence. Some of this is touched on in booklet notes, but it probably goes far beyond what’s here. The application of the term “Ars Nova” is as much a reference to Plagge’s own “new art” as to the historical style, I gather.

I’ve heard little of Plagge’s music prior to this—only his substantial, characterful Horn Sonata, op. 88, as performed by Frřydis Ree Wekre. The degree to which his present music has anything to do with the Ars Nova might be more evident to an expert on that period, but there are readily audible surface details, like open fifths and thirds, cadence types, phrase lengths, rhythm. Not that Plagge seems to have any intention of replicating Ars Nova style, as if he could: Evidence of this is his employment of modern instruments, piano in particular. We don’t expect to hear piano in performances of Machaut (for example), or modern trumpet; or Solveig Kringelborn’s modern soprano.

Piano, trumpet, and soprano are the featured instruments on Ars Nova (The Medieval Inspiration). Sólarljód for soprano and piano, the most substantial of the disc’s works, is a four-section, 23-minute song with text based on the Norse “Song of the Sun,” which “probably originates from 14th-century Iceland.” Plagge calls these four pieces “epic arias,” but to me, with their motif-driven accompaniment and sophisticated, wide-ranging vocal lines, they sound like they have more in common with the late-Romantic Lieder tradition than with the folk/epic. Sibelius and Mussorgsky feel closer to the latter. Kringelborn, for whom this and Liber sequentiarum were written, has a lovely voice in a dramatic, operatic way.

The trumpet-and-soprano piece Liber Sequentiarum contains source material from some of the few extant pre-Reformation church music manuscripts found in Norway. These (we’re told) form the basis of the soprano part; the trumpet line, which “acts as an historical link,” is Plagge’s. The modal-diatonic soprano line is smooth and lithe; the trumpet accompaniment is a dramatic foil with more chromaticism and greater intervallic leeway.

The 15-minute Sonata for Trumpet and Piano is more in line with the horn sonata mentioned above, although again one can hear in the phrase structures the influence of medieval music. The style is again motive-driven, tonal-modal but modern in pitch language. The piece is a substantial single movement in three big sections.

On to the second disc, The Legacy. This contains my favorite of these works, the Concerto grosso II for brass quintet, two pianos, and timpani, a big five-movement work of nearly half-an-hour’s duration. The piece includes many quotes from chant and other medieval sources. The unusual ensemble, whose individual instruments are treated soloistically and as part of a larger group (for example, the quintet), makes for some interesting textures. The third movement is a solo for timpani; trombone is soloist for a jazzy recitative at the start of the fourth.

Music for Two Pianos is the earliest piece on either disc, dating from the 1980s, but it, too, contains references to and quotations from medieval music. Plagge’s career as a pianist, evident in all of the piano writing on these discs, is especially evident here. Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev come to mind at the beginning of the first movement, with its long modal-tinged melody in octaves. The second and third movements both remind me of Bartók. The third is a fugue with a chromatic, tricky subject.

I am not equally impressed with all of these pieces; the second disc works a little better for me than the first. For me, this referencing of the Ars Nova compels a comparison in which Plagge loses out, and this gets a bit in the way of enjoying the music. It’s pretty clear that Plagge has been influenced as much by Romantic and early 20th-century music as by the medieval period, even if he hasn’t explored those sources as systematically. I think his compositional voice is distinctive and refined, although the music remains very much on the “safe” side of the new art.

Robert Kirzinger

Nov/Dec 2002