Published: July 2006
There are music festivals and music festivals … and then there is Risor.

Lasting just a week (this year, 2006, from 27 June-2 July) – but what an intensive week – Risor Kammermusikkfest manages to encapsulate and mirror all that is best in Norwegian life, its civilised qualities and shared values, its rejection of the grosser aspects of consumerism, its embracing quality over quantity and above all the warmth of its people reflected in the audiences.

After the week is over, one is left in a state of sensory overload, not merely from the superb quality of the music-making, but also from the completeness of the experience. Now in its 16th year, the event is inseparable from the place, a small white-clapboard former port some 200 miles south of Oslo lying in an area of extraordinary beauty. Nearby is Lyngor, reachable only by boat and designated by World Heritage as the most beautiful village in Europe. Also nearby is the tiny hamlet of Sandviken where Wagner, fleeing his debtors in Riga, was forced ashore, providing the genesis of “The Flying Dutchman”. In Risor itself one is constantly surrounded by water – the skerries, the lighthouse and the open sea to the fore, the gently wooded fjord snaking round for miles to the rear.

The majority of the festival events take place in the tiny but magnificent wooden Baroque church which dates from 1646 – it was saved from the great fire of 1861 which destroyed much of the town by the efforts of women and children who organised a fire chain (the men were away at sea) – and even the painting behind its altar, attributed to a pupil of Rubens, was salvaged.

As befits a seafaring community where everyone must play their part if the ship is to function properly and make it back to port, the Festival is very much a collective endeavour. With Leif Ove Andsnes and Lars Anders Tomter as joint artistic directors, musical quality is assured. Amongst a host of other fine performers this year Risor attracted the Polish-Hungarian Piotr Anderszewski, the Danish-born Nikolaj Znaider, the Swiss cellist Christian Poltera, the Nazareth-born Barenboim protégé Saleem Abboud Ashkar, the Swedish trombonist Christian Lindberg and the charismatic British clarinettist Michael Collins – but in reality there are no stars here, only participants, to which the sound of seagulls is a constant counterpoint to the music-making.

At what other festival would one find the balcony at every concert crowded with the other performers as listeners actively encouraging their fellow performers? Inevitably this year the festival focused on Mozart but it was Mozart with a twist. With typical imagination, besides many of his significant concertos and chamber works, the 19 programmes also included concertos by Leopold Mozart, those for trumpet and trombone, "Wolfi" (a quite stunning re-imagining by Bjorn Kruse of Mozart's lost childhood criss-crossing Europe as a child prodigy, quite stunningly performed from memory by the Risor Children's Choir with bells and multi-directional sound-effects before dying away magically with a piano sonata as if heard from three rooms distant) and, last but not least, the superb Norwegian Soloists Choir in Robert Levin's version of the Requiem. And then there were the other featured composers including Dutilleux and Mark-Anthony Turnage (hot-foot from visiting Hans Werner Henze in Rome) who was present for most of the Festival.

One of Risor's great strengths is its sheer eclecticism. The opening concert included Mozart's String Quartet in F (K590) played by the Rosamunde Quartet (with poor intonation and etiolated tone, the Festival's one serious disappointment), Turnage's Eulogy for Viola and 8 Instruments (2003), a major work which speaks to an audience with remarkable directness and given a shattering performance by Tomter, one of the world's really great viola players, Stravinsky's Ragtime, an exuberant rendering under Christian Eggen, Kruse's "Wolfi" (as already mentioned), Dutilleux's Trois strophes sur le nom de Sacher, a homage to Paul Sacher for solo cello, elegantly played by Poltera, and, finally, Mozart's concert-aria written for Nancy Storace, "Ch'io mi scordi di te" (K505) – standing in for the indisposed Sophie Karthäuser, and together with Leif Ove Andsnes playing the piano obbligato, the relatively unknown Albanian-American Alexandra Coku (pronounced Choku) made the purest magic. (Why this singer, who made her Covent Garden debut as long ago as 1988, is not a household name is a mystery. Not only is she a superb Mozart soprano but she communicates the joy of making music with every fibre of her body.)

With so much variety to each programme, whatever the occasional disappointments one can be assured of gold round the next corner. Of the Mozart concertos there were three peaks – Andsnes in K453, Znaider in K219 and Collins in Mozart’s sole concerto for clarinet. In the G major concerto Andsnes had an unassailable stylistic rightness reminiscent of Solomon's playing and was greatly aided by the plangent oboe of Bernhard Heinrichs (first oboe of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, who also contrived to play and sing, more or less at the same time, in Bach's motet “Singet dem Herrn ein Neues Lied”.

Just as engaging was Znaider's superlative account of the A major Violin Concerto, the ‘Turkish’ music despatched with legerdemain speed and lightness, the slow movement a miracle of singing tone; especially noteworthy was Znaider's ability to conjure the most refined string playing from the small orchestra.

In the Clarinet Concerto – played on a basset – Michael Collins gave us a lilting and exuberant antidote to all those reverential renderings to which the work is sometimes subjected.

Of the other concertos, Abboud Ashkar's C major concerto (K467) showed great promise (and he also gave us some fine chamber playing with Tomter and Collins in the ‘Kegelstatt’ trio, K498, where Tomter and Collins’s playful dialogue in the trio was a particular delight). By contrast, however, superb as finished pianism Anderszewski's C minor concerto, K491 (and later his solo Mozart C minor Fantasy, K475, and C minor Sonata, K457) was marred by a degree of overkill and narcissistic mannerism which was hard to take.

Of the three Turnage works I caught – the viola Eulogy already mentioned, An Invention on Solitude (for clarinet and string quartet) and Release, for ‘big band’ dating from 1987 – what was particularly noticeable was how well all these three very different works ‘spoke’ to the audiences. The performance of An Invention on Solitude took place in Hodnebo, a furniture factory on the shore where a sizeable portion of the audience had probably never attended a formal concert yet responded enthusiastically, and Release brought the house down.

Having been less than enthusiastic over Anderszewski's Mozart, it is a pleasure to report that his Janáček Violin Sonata with Priya Mitchell was one of the Festival's highlights. By turns ecstatic and violent, this was truly penetrating playing, music difficult to bring off given with total commitment. Similarly penetrating was Andsnes and the impassive Ole Edvard Antonsen in Hindemith's Trumpet Sonata, unsettling music written under the shadow of World War II, with a particularly memorable closing fade out.

For choral singing we had the exceptional but aptly named Norwegian Soloists Choir under Grete Pedersen, aptly named because they can be as much soloists as choir. This is at once the choir’s strength and weakness. Xenakis’s “Nuits”, in memoriam of political prisoners everywhere, was a full-frontal assault of remarkable, abrasive singing (each member of the choir complete with tuning fork to help keep pitch), followed immediately by Messiaen's seraphic motet “O sacrum convivium” given a performance of total security. Elsewhere we had Schubert's extended part-song “Miriam's Siegesgesang” (D942) with Andsnes at the piano and, wonderfully, Coku as soloist, as well as a fine performance of Bach’s afore-mentioned motet, for double chorus, “Singet dem Herrn…” (BWV225). Only in Robert Levin's edition of Mozart’s Requiem (K626) did I find myself seriously at odds; performed at Midnight, this was treated with utmost forcefulness, seldom descending below ff. In a performance this violent and perfunctory it was difficult to be objective about Levin's "clarification" of the orchestration because it largely went for nothing. Even Christian Lindberg, luxury casting as the trombonist in the ‘Tuba Mirum’, muffed his lines!

For sheer entertainment though it would be difficult to beat Lindberg's other contributions to the Festival. His own work Arabenne for trombone and orchestra was a knockout, a ‘flight of the bumblebee’ for trombone. In this and Leopold Mozart's Concerto in G Lindberg manifested a remarkable if unconventional control of the orchestra around him, even managing to use the tip of his trombone to give the beat. More seriously, he also gave a virtuoso demonstration in Dutilleux's Choral, Cadence and Fugato (1950).

Throughout the Festival in its various permutations the exceptionally hardworking Risor orchestra is a constant presence, its excellent young players too numerous to list individually. This year it played its incredibly demanding role to the hilt. Its conductor-less performance of one of Shostakovich’s ‘chamber symphonies’ (as arranged from the composer’s string quartets by Rudolf Barshai) at approaching Midnight on the Festival's penultimate night was of quite extraordinary intensity.

Finally, two supreme examples of chamber music-making, appropriately in this 250th-year of Mozart’s birth and in his most celebratory key of E flat. Firstly, Znaider, Tomter, Poltera and Andsnes in the Piano Quartet (K493), profundity and poise held in miraculous equilibrium, and a performance by said string-players of the great Trio (K563), which can only be described as classic – at once supremely stylish and yet taking real risks with a slow tempo in the Andante variations, alive in every bar.

A special word of congratulation to the Festival's Administrators, Turid Birkeland and Harald Gundersen. The pre-planning and scheduling required to rehearse and mount 19 concerts in a week beggars belief, yet they find time to be constantly on-hand and available. The whole event is not so much simply a Festival as an annual celebration of friendship amongst a community of music-lovers, everyone present treated as a valued guest. For creating and building this unique cultural event Andsnes, Tomter and Birkeland deserve our undying thanks ... as does its founder, the late Bernt Lauritz Larsen. It is hard to imagine any man leaving a finer epitaph.

 

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