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Einar Røttingen Plays Tveitt

Einar RøttingenEinar Røttingen's Embassy Series piano recital at the Embassy of Norway was fairly short (I’ve been to many that were too long – scarcely one that was too short, so no complaints, here), but the speeches before and after the recital were long enough to make up for it. That’s generally an unpleasant necessity to endure (and one of the most frequently complained about elements of WPAS and Embassy Series concerts), but in the case of pianist/professor Røttingen’s introduction to the two programmed works, Grieg’s Ballade op.24 and Geir Tveitt’s Sonata No.29, op.129 it offered welcome insights into these two rarely performed piano pieces. But not only his insightful and studied comments were a treat, his playing was equally so.

He played on the very appropriately sized Steinway of the Residence, intimate but easily able to realistically convey the most powerful passages that are nestled into the calm while-blue clarity of the Ballade’s 14 variations on the opening few notes of a Norwegian folk tune. Simplicity – not for the pianist, for sure, but as far as the detailed, often delicate sounds that come from this work are concerned – is one of the key signatures of this music that Grieg wrote, in part, as self-therapy in one of his darkest times: A lonely winter in 1875/76 in which both his parents died (his child had already passed away a few years earlier, his musical child, the opera Olav Trygvason lay freshly abandoned). The closing variation of this, Grieg’s most substantial work for piano, which he himself only played once, and never in public, put all that clarity, subtly, and simplicity aside for thunderous outbursts and clamor before gently reminding of its origins with a delicate postlude.

To hear a Tveitt work was more exciting, still. Robert R. Reilly dedicated a chapter to Tveitt in Surprised by Beauty, so I knew of the tragedy that this composer stands for: in 1970 his wooden home went down (or up, I suppose) in a blazing fire, taking with it thousands of works of this extraordinary composer. Few of which had been copied out or otherwise distributed. Given the quality of the few pieces that we do know, the loss is incomprehensibly large; perhaps the greatest in music history. Enjoying what still exists is consoling, however. And Sonata no.29 did not disappoint. Not only its number hints at a more famous piano sonata no.29 – its size, too, is of Hammerklavier-proportions. Its echo effects of the second movement are eerily evocative of the empty mountainside on a crisp, clear day. Above an ever-repeated Grieg-motif occurs a sonata movement with a motoric drive, frantically bubbling at times, ceaselessly active, in any case. Much of it sounds like Debussy or digestible Messiaen… but more immediate and more immediately enjoyable. With its unresolved ending of a rousing and (ever so slightly self-consciously) powerful finale, there are pretensions of Beethovenian grandeur, indeed.

If the performance of either works was not literally brilliant or flawless, the passion and engaged playing more than made up for an occasional muddled detail or a dropped note. Alas, no reason to play Beckmesser at such a richly rewarding recital with such rarely played great music to treat the ears.

The Norwegian Embassy, meanwhile, was the usual superb host – unparalleled in the style and quality of their reception and a model to all but a few other embassies that think they smartly save a few bucks by cutting the wrong corners.

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