Written by: Douglas Cooksey
“Revolution” was the unifying theme of this year’s Risør Festival, the nineteenth. By one of those extraordinary quirks of history, in 1795 whilst Beethoven was busy initiating a musical revolution in Vienna, a sailing ship put-in to the small Norwegian port of Risør bearing the Women’s Rights Activist Mary Wollstonecraft. Mother of Mary Shelley (the creator of Frankenstein), Wollstonecraft was also the author of The Vindication of the Rights of Women, a tract advocating equality of the sexes and equal opportunities in education, which were then extreme radical ideas which ultimately paved the way for the global Women’s Movement. Both Wollstonecraft and Beethoven were profoundly imbued with the spirit of the French Revolution and in their own time both gave birth to revolutions whose effects are still with us today.
The relationship between historical Revolutions and the Arts is frequently impossible to disentangle. By its very nature great art pushes the boundaries of convention whilst revolutions generally provide an opportunity for radical experimentation and renewal. However revolutions come in many shapes and sizes, often ending in disillusion and repression – witness Beethoven’s famous crossing through of the Napoleon dedication of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony or the Stalinist Purges which followed the remarkable outburst of artistic creativity unleashed by the Russian Revolution of 1917 – but it is also an incontrovertible fact that the brief moment between liberation and repression has seldom failed to ignite poets, artists and musicians. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive … and to be young was very heaven”, wrote Wordsworth of the French Revolution.
Shostakovich, another focus of this year’s Risør Festival, enjoyed a far more equivocal relationship with ‘his’ revolution, that of 1917. After those initial years of relative artistic freedom and experimentation, culminating in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, he was faced with a lifetime of repression during which he was obliged to exist almost as two distinct personalities, confiding his innermost thoughts to chamber music and song-cycles whilst reserving his more public utterances for larger scale works. One senses that these unresolved inner tensions quite possibly contributed to the profound depression reflected in the works of his final years.
By contrast Schoenberg, Risør’s other main focus, was a reluctant revolutionary, which is doubly ironic since it could be argued that he was ultimately the most radical innovator of all (unless it was Webern), yet he undoubtedly saw himself as part of a chain of continuous musical development rather than a revolutionary storming the barricades.
Besides the Festival’s underlying revolutionary theme, this year’s Risør pushed against the normal musical boundaries in other ways. Several of the key offerings were distinctly unconventional in their use of audio-visual techniques, most notably Leif Ove Andsnes and performance-artist Robin Rhode’s re-imagined version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition using stop-frame animation and film to enhance the musical experience which was unveiled here before touring; at least as unconventional was Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai, in essence a conflation and wholesale re-composition of Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Schubert’s Winterreise (plus assorted favourite Schubert songs) in Cabaret form with the film actress Barbara Sukowa, star of several of Fassbinder’s films, as the youthful protagonist overflowing with the ecstasies and agonies of first love. Both of these and the contemporary Norwegian composer Ralf Wallin’s Under City Skin for viola, string orchestra and surround sound, here receiving its world premiere, provided strong evidence of Risør’s ongoing artistic vitality.
As well as all the concerts being broadcast by NRK, the Norwegian state broadcaster, for the first time they were being filmed and are available on-line; since the beautiful wooden Baroque church where the majority of the events take place only seats about 400 this is potentially a very significant development, throwing Risør open to the wider world and it has also come at a good time strategically since Risør now faces increased competition from a range of music festivals within Norway itself – in Bergen, Stavanger and Lofoten – let alone their proliferation world-wide. If the on-line experiment is a success, it would also be worth exploring the possibility of making available some of the recordings in the NRK archive as on-line audio to coincide with next year’s landmark twentieth Festival.
By their nature Revolutions are unpredictable affairs, subject to many unexpected twists and turns, and this year’s Risør inadvertently mirrored some of that unpredictability. The last-minute cancellations for health reasons of two significant artists, the violinist Lisa Batiashvili and the cellist Truls Mørk, necessitated some adjustments which might have floored a less resilient group, but it only served to underscore the depth of talent on offer. How many small Festivals could attract such a range of musicians Severin von Eckardstein, Eldar Nebolsin and Leif Ove Andsnes, Ilya Gringolts, Lars Anders Tomter, Heinrich Schiff, François Leleux, Tine Thing Helseth and Christianne Stotijn … to say nothing of two very creditable string quartets, the Oslo and the Vertavo?
Appropriately, given Beethoven’s unquestionable status as the musical revolutionary par excellence, it was the performance of the ‘Eroica’ Symphony coupled with Beethoven’s contemporary Anton Eberl’s Symphony (also in E flat) from Schiff and the augmented Festival Strings which commanded pride of place and demands special mention; this was a resounding success and quite possibly this chamber music Festival’s first ever wholly orchestral event. Performances of the Eroica are two-a-penny and many are more elegantly achieved but, especially heard in the confines of the small church with its dry acoustic, this one – complete with the exposition repeat in the first movement – had revolutionary fervour, astounding energy and retained the power to shock. Seldom have those scrunching discords at the first movement climax rung out as defiantly or marked so clearly the death-knell of the old order.
Like Pablo Casals, Schiff may lack the tools of the ‘complete’ conductor but he is undoubtedly a great musician with the power to energise other musicians whilst remaining firmly within the bounds of the Classical tradition. This was strongly apparent in the performances he gave of two Beethoven cello sonatas – Opus 102/Number 1 with Leif Andsnes and Opus 5/Number 1 with Eckardstein – both of which had an unobtrusive rightness of utterance from first note to last. Style is difficult to quantify, but from Opus 102’s first arching cello solo to the propulsive and exuberant finale of Opus 5, it was there in spades, that indefinable sense of every nook and cranny of the music being fully explored yet remaining firmly within stylistic bounds. The choice of pianist-partners was also significant, Andsnes for the probing later Sonata and the youthful Eckardstein, like a tangy crisp dry white wine, for the early piece.
Still with Beethoven, we were offered strongly contrasting accounts of two of the late string quartets, Opus 135 in the opening concert from the (female) Vertavo Quartet and Opus 127 from the Oslo. The jury may be out on the Vertavo’s account of Opus 135 – the players’ intonation was frankly all over the place and may not have been helped by having to wait 20 minutes to perform after the opening speech by a former revolutionary, now a pillar of the Norwegian establishment – but this very gentle take on Beethoven’s last string quartet, almost sentimentalising the music in the outer movements, still had something to offer, making the most of the music’s abrupt silences and of the second movement’s galumphing trio. More mainstream by far was the Oslo’s excellent account of Opus 127 which had a lived-in feel and was notable for its characterisation of those unpredictable swerves of imagination such as the finale’s otherworldly coda.
This Beethoven focus also included the ‘Eroica’ Variations and the ‘Diabelli’ Variations (the latter preceded by Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra, Opus 16, in a version for smaller orchestra). ‘Eroica’ Variations was played by Nebolsin and the Diabelli by Eckardstein, the Opus 30/Number 2 Violin Sonata by Ilya Gringolts and Nebolsin, the Piano Trio Opus 1/Number 3 with Andsnes and two members of the Vertavo Quartet, and the incidental music for Egmont was given complete, the melodramas spoken by a popular Norwegian actor.
The two sets of Variations for piano – Eroica and Diabelli – were particularly memorable in their very different ways. Nebolsin’s account of the former was delivered with an imperious power which announced a major talent, very much the angry beetle-browed young Beethoven rather as Gilels might have played him; by contrast Eckardstein’s reading of the ‘Diabelli’ was if anything even more remarkable in its assurance and maturity. It is possible to imagine more ‘complete’ accounts – some of that quirky humour which Brendel invariably found in this music, for example in the Don Giovanni parody, was undoubtedly missing – but despite occasional over-forcefulness, the execution and the certainty with which each successive Variation was despatched were truly breathtaking. Eckardstein is clearly a natural in the classical repertoire, a pianist and a musician.
The Egmont music was a little rough and ready but it’s a rarity and soprano Birgitte Christensen (who had earlier contributed impressively to the Vertavo’s account of Schoenberg’s Second Quartet) gave a particularly fine account of the vocal numbers. This was part of a concert with a military theme, its second half opening with the Norwegian Army Reveille played by the young and glamorous trumpeter Tine Thing Helseth who is already a household name in Norway (earlier she had played to an enthralled audience in the old industry hall at Holmen and for free at the harbour pier). The concert continued with Schubert’s D major March Militaire played with sly relish by Andsnes and Nebolsin, the Suite from Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale with Gringolts and Eckardstein – a rare disappointment this – and songs from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn from Christianne Stotijn and the Festival Strings, culminating in ‘Urlicht’.
Risør is like this, nothing if not eclectic. Stotijn and Andsnes brought us Shostakovich at his bleakest and most spare in the Opus 143 settings of texts by Marina Tsvetajeva composed shortly before his death, a programme also notable for a fine performance of the Second Piano Trio from Gringolts (substituting for Batiashvili), Nebolsin and the Vertavo’s cellist, Bjorg Vaernes Lewis. Stalin’s Purges were once described as “Into the Whirlwind”; the scherzo’s trio is surely the musical equivalent – acid, bitter music written at the height of the last war.
The cancellation by Batiashvili who was to have played Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe (BWV1060) with her husband François Leleux at the opening concert gave him the chance to shine in Bach’s Concerto in E minor, not that Leleux – an outsize personality in his own right – could ever hide his light under the proverbial bushel. This was transcendental oboe-playing, Leleux swooping on phrases, toying with them apparently untroubled by the need to draw breath. Later he repeated the feat with Antoni Pasculli’s Variations on Donizetti’s La Favorita and later still, in more reflective mode, with Andsnes, he opened one of the final concerts with Schumann’s Romances Opus 94.
Contemporary music has long formed an important part of Risør’s diet, generally embedded within programmes containing less-demanding fare and with the composer ‘in residence’. This year’s composer was the Norwegian Rolf Wallin (pronounced ‘Valleen’) who “with a background in experimental jazz and in-depth composition studies, he has managed to find his own path through a fruitful dialectic between mathematical chaos theory (fractals for those in the know) and grass stained knees.”
Of the three Wallin works we heard – Twine (a duet for xylophone and marimba), Boyl (an extended piece for orchestra) and the afore-mentioned Under City Skin, the latter, with violist Lars Anders Tomter as soloist, was the most impressive. Conjuring up the frenetic sounds of a day in the life of a city from the sinister and dangerous sounds of running high heels in the early morning to the stress of the rush-hour, there was an impressive energy culminating in a downward ride in a skyscraper lift, almost a ride to the abyss; unfortunately, Wallin seemed reluctant to quit whilst he was ahead, rounding off the piece with a tediously soporific slow section which dissipated all the tensions previously generated. Like Satie’s mischievous comment about Debussy’s La mer when he commented that he liked the bit at quarter-to-eleven in the opening movement (‘Dawn to Midday on the Sea’), Wallin should have stopped when we got off the lift!
Returning now to Pictures Reframed and Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai, one thing is in no doubt. Leif Ove Andsnes plays Pictures at an Exhibition with a combination of dedication, virtuosity and understanding which few if any other living pianists bring to it (I recall a wonderful live performance by the late Rudolf Firkušný), so – loving the piece as he obviously does – it was entirely understandable that he should wish to draw in a new audience with the complement of images. The initial airing of the work took place in Holmen, the huge former fish-processing plant, in front of a packed audience with projections on a giant screen above the pianist’s head.
Rather than focussing on Victor Hartmann’s original paintings, some of which no longer exist, Andsnes and Robin Rhode have created a completely fresh adaptation using animation and film, and much thought has clearly gone into the choice of images. This works well in the linking ‘Promenades’ with images of Rhode moving as it were from one picture to another; it also works well at climactic moments such as ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’, a grand piano is engulfed in torrents of water unleashed from a gigantic lock gate and in ‘Bydlo’ where the images are menacing black-and-white film of the old railway station in Johannesburg with its echoes of Auschwitz. Elsewhere, such as in ‘Marketplace at Limoges’ the deconstruction and re-assembly of piano keys seems to add little.
Although Andsnes has been at pains to insist on there being only one screen in use so as not to detract from the music and also to avoid too precise a synchronisation between image and music, one could not avoid feeling a tension between listening to a great pianist at the height of his powers and trying not to get side-tracked by the visual images. It was (perhaps unfairly) said of the former US President Gerald Ford that he could not chew gum and walk straight at the same time. I felt the same way about this. The event tours this Autumn with performances in London, Berlin, New York, Washington and Houston. It will be controversial!
Similarly controversial although oddly memorable was Reinbert de Leeuw’s extraordinary re-imagining of Schubert and Schumann’s most famous song-cycles with orchestral accompaniment. Schubert and Schumann it certainly was not, and Barbara Sukowa has no voice to speak of, frequently resorting to parlando … but it was mesmerising theatre nonetheless and somehow completely true to the extreme spirit of the Romantic Era, capturing its joys and pains.
With Sukowa visually acting out every song as she wandered through the audience, it was all gloriously over the top and at certain moments – ‘Meerestille’ lingers in the mind like one of those magical Dutch marine paintings by de Cuyp where the sailing ships hang motionless on a glassy sea – it was also deeply affecting. ‘Heidenroslein’ too, ending in a shriek, retold the true story of the original song – it is about a rape – far more effectively than those coy renderings to which it is often treated by famous singers.
Next year will be Risør’s twentieth. It is hugely to the credit of Andsnes, Tomter and Turid Birkeland (as well as all their helpers) that far from atrophying, the Risør Festival continues to feature fresh talent and to create vibrant stimulating programmes: George Antheil, Beethoven and Wallin rubbing shoulders on one programme before a full house, or experience Reicha’s remarkable fugue in 5/4 performed with missionary zeal by Andsnes. It is also a testament the pervading spirit of the place, “one for all and all for one”, that far from competing, the other performers – frequently standing in the organ loft throughout – are the most vociferous in their appreciation of whoever happens to be performing.