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All Hail the Accordion

There is that slight pause followed by a snicker when you tell a friend that you are going to an accordion recital on a Sunday evening. And should you think that justifying that peculiar choice of entertainment by claiming a special relationship to this instrument – the first I ever played – elicits approval: think again. But there I was at the National Gallery of Art anyway, ready to be exposed to the artistry of “internationally recognized” accordionist (to the extend that accordionists are much recognized – I, for one, suspect that their privacy is fairly safe in most major airports) Geir Draugsvoll.

Lest you think that the classical accordionist’s performance life is all transcriptions or folk tunes note that there are original compositions for accordion from such luminary 20th-century and contemporary composers as Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, Vagn Holmboe, Astor Piazzolla (naturally), Geir Tveitt, Per Nørgård, and Sofia Gubaidulina – with samplings of the last three on this list on offer that December 4th in the West Garden Court.

Being a member of one of the oldest instrument families, the accordion (the origins of which go back over 5,000 years) exists in many different forms and under various names. In Germany and Russia, an “Accordion” is a chromatic Piano-Accordion (the one with the keyboard on the right side) while the version with buttons is called Handharmonika or Bayan, respectively. A “Concertina” is (more or less) chromatic, too, octagonal, hexagonal, or rectangular with usually four rows of buttons and is the forefather to the Bandaneon that Argentina-bound émigré Heinrich Band developed. Diatonic accordions are usually used in folk music and produce a different pitch depending on whether the instruments’ bellows are pushed or pulled. Geir Draugsvoll’s instrument – to get back to the concert after this little excursion – was a chromatic accordion with six rows of buttons.

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S.Gubaidulina, De Profundis, Silenzio, Et Exspecto, In Erwartung,

Sofia Gubaidulina’s De Profundis (1978) shudders itself slowly into gear on narrow and low tone-clusters that try to rise and rise – only to die down again. For a while it most resembled a car that won’t start on a cold winter morning in Bergen or Gubaidulina’s native Russia – until softly, slowly beautiful melodies are chiseled out of more transparent chords. Little shivers and whimpers made much of the accordionist’s ability to pull and draw his fingers smoothly in all directions on the keys. Complete cacophony is juxtaposed in this work with Bach-ian elements before the accordion takes a deep breath only to imitate a Cessna cruising nearby. But wherever the music came to a point of being just plain weird, it pulled another enchanting trick out of its deep musical bag. Sadly, not even the loudest and most violent passages could either drown out or wake the gentleman nearby who happily and audibly snored through it all.

Compared to Gubaidulina’s experimental work of impetuous youth, Geir Tveitt’s (1908-1981) Two Inventions for Accordion is a perfectly sane and straightforward work that has the particular element of delight to it that can be heard in so much of this fascinating composer’s output. Although the short work was interesting enough, it is the tragedy-haunted composer who merits your particular attention – for example by reading up on him in a book titled Surprised by Beauty.

Geir Draugsvoll’s own transcription of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (BWV 565) was (although not without occasional slips) simply breathtaking. Words would do the spectacle injustice – it alone would have been worth going to the NGA for. Norwegian folk dances arranged for accordion by Tor Christian Faugstad were a delight even for the non-Norwegian ears and had not only much musical value but were surprisingly somber. (Then again, perhaps not that surprisingly.)

Grieg’s Holberg Suite in Mr. Draugsvoll’s own transcription should have been more of a stretch than the fairly straight organ-to-accordion transcription with the earlier Bach. Instead it sounded almost more faithful to the original than the blazing Toccata. (And we’ve heard our fair share of the Holberg Suite in the original over the course of the last year: here, here, and here.)*

In…………… (good) and out. In…………… and out.” Lazily it lifts one eye lid, snarls a bit and breathes a bit more… until, as though stung, it suddenly jumps up. Thus begins the day of the animal that Per Nørgård (*1932) imagines the accordion to be in his 1967 work Anatomic Safari, which calls for sounds I never knew an accordion could make. From the sounds of it, the accordion is at least a distant relative of the rhinoceros, and the work is a fun-filled, fur-trimmed silly thing. Quoting excerpts from Draugsvoll’s program notes on it might be better yet to describe it:

Like most safaris, Per Nørgård’s Anatomic Safari is better understood and appreciated with a guide. […] Through nine small movements, the accordion is presented in the manner of a beast encountered on a safari. (Edvard Grieg once stated that the accordion sounds like “a pig with a sour throat.”) […]
Again, the [preceding] physical and rhythmic activity becomes too much for the poor instrument, and it descends into
7) Vertigo – Vertigo Double. One can almost imagine that the accordion has contracted malaria [during] the safari! As it recovers, the accordion is very eager to get back to more familiar paths, and this can easily be heard in
8) Toccata – Impatience, which rapidly takes the piece into the last movement:
9) Fantasy – Pietro’s Return, which is perhaps very close to where the accordion really belongs. And where is that? In twelve minutes, the composer provides the answer to that question.
It’s the ideal showpiece with which to end such a recital; a recital that all those who raised their eyebrows and mouth-sides should kick themselves for having missed. Hurled Bravos, and prolonged applause caused a happily received encore; and with that beautiful little waltz by Astor Piazzolla we were sent home in desirous delight.

* In fact, the work sounded so good that I am tempted to start a drive on Ionarts to commission a Bruckner symphony transcription and performance from Geir Draugsvoll. Either the 6th or the 7th – whichever the majority of contributors or the artist would prefer. Don’t think I am being cute. If I get enough of a response from our Ionarts readers, I’ll ask him if he’d do it (actually, I did and he’d consider it for either one but preferably two accordions!), how much we’d have to raise (so far he only stipulated a score of a transcription for one or two pianos – though I suspect it will take a little more than that), what sponsors could be willing to help out, and which record company might like to record it. (MDG, Winter & Winter). Looking forward to hearing from you!


Garth Trinkl said...

Excellent review. Thanks, Jens.(check...OK.) Now, if they had announced that Sofia Gubaidulina’s De Profundis (1978) was going to be on the program I would certainly have been there.

jfl said...
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