Postcard from Risor

Written by: Douglas Cooksey

Risor Chamber Music Festival

22-27 June 2004

If there were Olympic medals for Music Festivals, the Risor Kammermusikkfest would win Gold and would surely win it by an old Norwegian Miil (approximately 10 kilometres). In a world where we are constantly surrounded by the spurious, Risor – now in its 13th year – is the ‘real thing’, a festival deserving of the name and a cause for celebration.

Lasting just six days, Risor has been created by musicians for musicians and music-lovers – pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and the violist Lars Anders Tomter are its Artistic Directors – and exists at the farthest remove from marketing hype. At Risor – based around a nucleus of Norwegian musicians – a small group of the world’s finest players meet to make music in a spirit of collegiality, not an A & R man or a record company in sight. This is music-making for its own joy. Programmes are adventurous, mixing the old and the new within a single recital – Schumann and Schnittke on one programme, Clara Schumann, George Benjamin, Robert Schumann and Frank Zappa on another.

The place itself has a quite special atmosphere. Formerly a small but significant port, Risor lies some 250 kilometres south of Oslo in the gentle, inlet-strewn landscape of Norway’s Sorlandet (Southland). This is a magical world where the normal distinctions between land and water are frequently blurred, the sea running many miles inland along gently wooded lochs. As we canoed in the fjord outside our guesthouse, a large otter surfaced beside us some five miles from the open sea and took a long, curious look.

Also contributing to the feeling of a world apart is that special luminous Northern light which never completely fades – where else can one look out of one’s window at two in the morning to see a swan gliding across the black-still surface of the water in the half-light?

The place’s musical associations – The Swan of Tuonela aside – are strong too. While fleeing from Riga to London to avoid his creditors, Wagner was forced ashore – shipwrecked is too strong a word – and spent some time at Sandviken, the next hamlet some five miles south, an experience which gave birth to The Flying Dutchman.

The Risor Chamber Music Festival is at once the most democratic and paradoxically the most exclusive of festivals. Despite a stellar line-up of artists prices are deliberately kept to the absolute minimum (around £15 a seat) and no seats are pre-allocated in the beautiful but tiny wooden Baroque church where nearly all the concerts take place. A consequence is that the festival is open to all true music-lovers, the only exclusivity being dictated by the number of seats in the church – some 400 – not by ability to pay. Eager for the best seats, queues of ticket-holders regularly form around an hour before each concert and far from being a chore, these become an extension of the concert itself, abuzz with the conviviality of friends newly made.

Accessibility and informality are the keynotes of the festival. Here one’s neighbours lean over and introduce themselves by their first names and after a few moments chatting mention “We’re Leif’s (Ove Andsnes) mother and father,” and can one meet most of the artists or (living) composers over an impromptu cup of coffee in Krag’s coffee house.

During our brief stay, I was able to meet both resident composers, Haflidi Hallgrimsson, an Icelander and one-time cellist with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, now domiciled in Edinburgh’s Morningside (whose viola and cello concertos were amongst the works featured) and Lasse Thoresen, a Norwegian whose Baha’I faith underpins and colours much of his music.

Despite the pervading air of informality the Festival is exceptionally well-organised by its Director, the irrepressible Turid Birkeland, one time Norwegian Minister of Culture, and by Harald Gundersen, its Administrator. Both were much in evidence throughout; no small feat given the intensity of a daily schedule of rehearsals, talks and concerts running from 8.30 a.m. until 2.30 the following morning, often with four concerts a day.

The performers themselves may be largely home-grown, but what a crop – Leif Ove Andsnes, Lars Anders Tomter, Henning Kraggerud, the Grieg Trio, the Oslo String Quartet, and the Risor Festival Strings. International guest-artists this year included Gidon Kremer, Wolfgang Holzmair, Monica Groop, Sabine Meyer, Lars Vogt and Bernhardt Heinrichs, the latter a remarkable oboist based in Switzerland and Burma! An exhibition of Heinrichs’s Barnet Newman-esque paintings was also on display.

With seventeen concerts and numerous free talks packed into the six days, it is almost invidious to pick out individual performances.

However, of the five concerts we were able to attend I suspect that I will particularly remember Andsnes and Heinrichs playing the three Romances of Schumann; remarkable, intuitive Schumann-playing followed immediately by Andsnes and colleagues performing Frank Zappa’s The Black Page. Risor is like that – full of contrast.

Later the same day more great Schumann from Andsnes; he played with a Lipatti-like simplicity the Arabesque and the fifth Novelette from Op.21. Following that was the liquid clarinet of Sabine Meyer in Copland’s Concerto.

The next day’s early-evening concert found two intensely memorable but highly contrasting performances, Henrik Kraggerud and Lars Vogt, an instinctive Brahmsian, in that composer’s G major Sonata Op.78: relaxed, intimate, full of the freshness of first-love, with the addition of cries from seagulls outside circling the church. Then Schnittke’s String Trio (1985) given a performance of supreme quality by Gidon Kremer, Ula Uljiona (a really fine Lithuanian violist) and Marta Sudraba, a Latvian cellist. This was playing to die for: if ever a performance could be said to be better than the music being played, this was it. Schnittke’s lamentations may last only half-an-hour but in these hands they packed a mighty emotional punch.

Later the same day came a concert of works featuring all three featured composers, starting with Schumann’s late Märchenerzählungen (Op.132) with Meyer, Tomter and Vogt; luxury casting indeed. Then Thoresen’s fine string piece Transition (In Memoriam Finn Mortensen), memorable music and a little reminiscent of Charles Ives’s Central Park in the Dark. Hallgrimsson’s Ombra, effectively a viola concerto, was given a magisterial performance by Tomter and the Festival Strings. Finally came Lasse Thoresen’s Hagen, an extended meditation on a Baha’I text for the unusual combination of soprano, violin, cello, piano and two percussion players (vibraphone and marimba with an important gong part). If three late-20th-century works on one programme sounds forbidding, the reality was completely otherwise. This was a deeply satisfying and courageous programme, Hagen in particular being intensely dramatic, strange and compelling music showing a variety of influences, its melismatic middle-eastern vocal line (excellently sung by Siri Torjeson) offset by Norwegian folk influences. NRK, Norway’s State Broadcaster, records all Risor concerts; maybe BBC Radio 3 can broadcast this concert to a wider audience.

Finally, before bidding farewell to Risor, there was a youthfully exuberant, grand and deeply-felt performance of Brahms’s String Sextet, Op.18 from Norway (Kraggerud, Tomter and Ellen Flesjo, cellist of the Grieg Trio), Lithuania (violinist Dzeraldas Bidva and violist Uljiona) and Latvia, cellist Sudraba.

In this age of instant access to everything, the actual act of listening to music has frequently become de-personalised. Yet the act of making and receiving music is fundamentally a group activity and an affirmation of a common humanity in which we all share. Supposedly so-thought primitive societies such as the Balinese know this instinctively. In this sense the very intimacy of Risor, where music comes first and is shared equally by all, is a life-enhancing experience.

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