CD review: Olav Anton Thommessen’s The Hermaphrodite

First published in the Guardian on 3 February, 2017

Thommessen: The Hermaphrodite
Oslo Sinfonietta/Eggen (Aurora)

Olav Anton Thommessen (b. 1946) is something of an elder statesman of Norwegian contemporary music, with a prolific back catalogue and august institutional connections. He also has a pedigree in early experimentalism — fellow composer Nigel Osborne remembers how “Olav played the cello and something that looked like a meat cleaver, which he would beat the floor with like an angry troll.” Thommessen’s ballet-opera The Hermaphrodite dates from the 1970s and uses texts by DH Lawrence, Isidore Ducasse and early Christian gnostic gospels. It deals in matters of love, lust and sexuality and all feels wonderfully of its time — intense swooping vocals, strung-out instrumentals, ritualistic percussion, a mash-up of baroque opera, expressionist melodrama and heavily stylised Japanese Noh theatre. As a period piece it’s great fun, and this performance from the Oslo Sinfonietta under Christian Eggen is impressive — committed and energetic, with ultra-focused playing, vivid drama in the pacing and spacing (the recording sounds in 3D), elastic singing and some virtuosic heavy breathing from soprano Eir Inderhaug and the rest of the cast.