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Norway at Its Finest

The Norwegian cultural events in and around Washington, celebrating 100 years of independence, had another gem to offer this Saturday when the young Coucheron siblings (despite their un-Scandinavian name David and Julie are bona-fide Norwegians) were presented by The Embassy Series. Generally “Speech!” applies – but when Jerome Barry took on the candy-unwrapping crowd, he had my full empathy. (How some audience members still try to ‘silently’ unwrap cellophane-packaged candy over the course of five agonizing minutes is beyond me.)

Appropriately enough, the program at the beautiful Norwegian ambassador’s residence was all Norwegian – offering the three Grieg sonatas. To hear them in one sitting and chronological order is more of a delight than the same program of some other composers I can think of would be, because Grieg’s opp. 8, 13, and 45 represent three distinct phases in Grieg’s composing. Sonata no. 1 from 1865 is early Grieg. A life-affirming, youthful, and romantic work strapped unto the classical sonata form, it bubbles along and dispels all Ibsen-colored (or rather: grayed) ideas of Norwegian gloom. The second sonata, composed only two years later, already marks a new stage with Grieg. It is less free-wheeling and more economical in expression. Its fiery last movement is the ideal antidote against long, cold winter evenings for the listeners but especially the performers. The third, finally, hails from 1887 and is composed by the then 44 years old and mature Grieg. It is more ambitious yet and beautiful and grand in equal measure.

It is hard to complain about such a program – indeed pointless when presented with the passion and consummate skill the Coucheron’s brought to it – but it would have been nice, also, to get a reminder that Grieg is hardly the only Norwegian composer that knew how to write great music. Among many that deserve wider recognition and more exposure, Christian Sinding is only one. His two violin sonatas must be heard, and perhaps the Coucheron’s will turn to them in a future Embassy Series program.

Both performers, David on the violin and Julie on piano, have been showered with awards and competition placements for their solo, as well as their team work. While David had a two-year head start and perhaps a more impressive bio printed in the program, I found his younger sister to be even more impressive. The confident and warm touches that she applied to the Residence’s Baby Grand presented the instrument and Grieg in the best possible light – a warm, glowing light that never failed to embed David’s playing in the most congenial manner. The latter’s technical skills are unquestionably impressive, and accuracy was rarely less than pristine. Only his tone failed to impress on the highest level. Size might be there (it is difficult to tell in an such an intimate setting – nor is it desirable to blast away on such an occasion), but more of a burnished quality, more nuance, variation on one hand and more evenness between the beginning and end of a given note on the other would have given his interpretation the last bit of quality that makes the difference between “very good” or “impressive” and “stunning” or “utterly convincing” – to use these stock phrases from the critic's review-writing kit. Generally better in the animated passages, his performance of the Allegro animato of the second sonata, meanwhile, was little short of inspired.

A sonata performance is more than the sum of its parts (or less, on more unfortunate occasions), and energy and passion coupled with high-quality performance clearly elevated all three sonatas above single quibbles that could be had. The Coucheron’s did everyone – from the composer to Norway’s reputation to the Embassy Series, their audience and not the least themselves - a great favor. Then, however, came a miscalculation. Franz Waxman’s “Carmen Fantasy” as an encore was a choice that may have highlighted David Coucheron’s virtuosic playing (although in fact it only exposed several weaknesses), but it was more certainly a wasted opportunity when a Sinding, Bull, Svendsen, or Halvorsen encore would have been more fitting, equally virtuosic, and more interesting. Still, it had that predictable effect on enough audience members that makes these kind of works tempting encores.

We’ve been effusive about the Embassy Series’ offers this year already (some might even say uncritical). And while the musical contributions can be uneven, the mission and purpose of these gatherings go well beyond just the musical content. This particular event, however, must be noted as another success on both counts. The Coucheron’s gave it a head start; the Norwegian Embassy’s absolutely impeccable reception afterwards sealed the deal. It may even have done so, had it been preceded by an organ-grinder recital. Other embassies should take note on how self-representation and cultural diplomacy are done best.

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