Nordic Adventures: Norway

Norwegian Artists’ Carnival, Op.14
Devil’s Dance, Op.21/No.14
Northern Lights [BBC Radio 3 commission: world premiere]
Welcome With Honour, Op.151/No.1
Hardanger Concerto No.2, Op.252 (Three Fjords)
The Last Spring, Op.34/No.2
Norwegian Dances, Op.35

Nils Økland (Hardanger fiddle)

BBC Concert Orchestra
Arvid Engegård

0 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 16 February, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Following its Finnish sortie earlier this season, the BBC Concert Orchestra continued its Nordic Adventures with a programme devoted to the music of Norway. An enjoyable miscellany brought a UK debut for conductor/violinist Arvid Engegård: his lively and demonstrative approach was well suited to Johan Svendsen’s Norwegian Artists’ Carnival, which got proceedings off to a suitably rumbustious start. A composer who turned exclusively to conducting, Svendsen’s two symphonies are Norway’s main contribution to the medium during the Romantic era, and deserve more frequent revival abroad.

Central to the country’s cultural heritage is its Hardanger fiddle music, nurtured and expanded by present-day players – of whom Nils Økland was on hand for a selection of traditional dances and ballads, while a self-composed brace from his new “Bris” album evinced a thoughtful combining of the instrument’s inimitable modal harmonies with more recent technical possibilities. Engegård joined him in two items, then directed a frenetic account of Johan Halvorsen’s Devil’s Dance – which was the first work to combine Hardanger fiddle with ‘classical’ strings.

The concert also marked the last appearance of Anne Dudley as the BBCCO’s Composer in Association (Jonny Greenwood will be the orchestra’s Composer in Residence from next month), and her final commission was heard at this concert. Inspired by a sighting of the Aurora Borealis from a frozen lake in the far north of Norway, Northern Lights is a varied and evocative rhapsody with appreciably Nordic tone-colouring and a straightforward progression towards livelier, dance-like music, then a transformed reprise of its initial mood. Orchestra and conductor ensured that it was given a successful launch.

The major event in Norwegian classical music over the last two decades has been the discovery of Geirr Tveitt (1908-81) as a significant mid-twentieth-century composer. The fact that the greater part of his output was destroyed in a fire at his home in 1970 has brought into existence a veritable industry in which broadcasts, microfilms and photocopies have been painstakingly transcribed in a bid to recreate what was lost. Neither of the pieces included here required such restoration, and they gave a good idea of the relative strengths and limitations of Tveitt’s work as a whole.

The tone poem Welcome With Honour, evoking the farming communities of the Hardanger plateau, combines regional folk melodies with an impressionistic soundworld and, in the central section, cadential phrases which – to these ears at least – are pure Malcolm Arnold. A curious but compelling assembly such as the Second Hardanger Fiddle Concerto pursued rather different ends. Here, the ‘three fjords’ of the subtitle are evoked in movements corresponding to the Classical fast-slow-fast format: respectively, a march-like opening inspired by Hardangerfjord; a ruminative central depiction of Sognefjord; and a lively, if over-extended finale in which the evocation of Nordfjord brings the most overtly folk-inspired music of the whole piece. Økland met its demands, not least the closing cadenza, with aplomb – and if one was left unconvinced that Tveitt is a figure of international standing, his robust and engaging personality is deserving of more regular exposure outside of his home country.

No concert focussing on the music of Norway would be complete without Grieg being represented. Avoiding the obvious Peer Gynt option, Engegård obliged with a caressing account of that emotive evergreen The Last Spring – lovingly played by the BBCCO strings – and all four of the Norwegian Dances in the idiomatic orchestration by Robert Henriques. Less often heard than they were when the second was a regular ‘Beecham lollipop’, and when Sunday matinee concerts were miscellanies of lighter music rather than merely tailor-made assortments of excerpts, the Dances remain among this underestimated composer’s most enduring creations. Engegård’s attention to detail and the orchestra’s general liveliness of response ensured that the evening concluded in engaging fashion.

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