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Ionarts-at-Large: Bergen's String Magnificence

Hvoslev, Mozart, Shostakovich: Hélène Grimaud (piano) Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, Eivind Gullberg Jensen (conductor) Grieg Hall, Oslo, 14.04.2010

Kjetil Hvoslev: Ein Traumspiel
W.A. Mozart: Piano Concerto Nos. 23
D. Shostakovich: Symphony No.6

A nightmare of cost overruns, stalled construction (a decade from the foundation until the opening in 1978, and 80 years of variously serious planning that preceded it), depressing architecture, and shoddy workmanship: You might think that Bergen’s Grieg Hall is a culture-architecture debacle in every way.

(Neat photo of Grieghallen lifted from Alberto Abouganem Stephens' very impressive Flickr stream.)

But even if raindrops pitter-patter into your white wine during intermission (with an average of 235 [!] days of rain in Bergen, that’s likely enough): once you make your way back along the raw concrete pillars to the amphitheater-style auditorium at the bottom of which, circus-arena style, sits the Bergen Philharmonic on a rough wooden floor, all is forgotten. Even close up front to the far left, in seats that would be modest if not outright horrible in many other halls, the amount of detail from all sections, but at the same time the level of homogeneity in the sound, was astonishing. And, more importantly, the sound of the Bergen Philharmonic adds significantly to this experience.

available at Amazon
W.A.Mozart, Piano Concerto 23...
R.Goode / Orpheus
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D.Shostakovich, Sys.1 & 6,
K.Sanderling / Berlin SO
Berlin Classics

Conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen programmed “Ein Traumspiel” (based on August Strindberg’s “A Dream Play”) atop the bill, a 16 minute overture by Kjetil Hvoslef. Gullberg Jensen commissioned it as a Norwegian calling card for his first performance with the North German Radio Philharmonic Hannover in 2009. In a way Gullberg Jensen now brought the work back home because Kjetil Hvoslef is from Bergen, where he was born to Harald Sæverud, as per Robert R. Reilly’s Surprised by Beauty, “one of Norway’s finest composers and perhaps its most original”. The Traumspiel, played in the presence of the composer, was an enchanting warm-up, full of tonal dissonance, fleeting references to other works (well enough hidden to escape immediate detection), full of flittering, nervous energy with gawks and cackles from various wind leading into a faux-romantic waltz. Shrill thrills interrupt an ensuing harmony that marches, seemingly unfazed, all the way to its end.

The Mozart that followed with Hélène Grimaud was broad, without a particularly audible affinity for Mozart, but with leaden feet or wooden touch – but instead a deft way around the notes that let the appealing concert’s nature through without adding to it. Grimaud, neither as dashing as she was in Ravel in London (February) or as woefully out of touch as in her Beethoven in Munich (March), sounding slight muffled, fit right with the above. The standing ovations struck me in response to her reputation more than her delivery.

No matter, the best was yet to come: I’ve always found Shostakovich’s lopsided Sixth Symphony one of his harder nuts to crack, along with the 8th and 14th, for example. But in concert, under Gullberg Jensen’s hands and performed with real force and fervor, and in terrific sound from all sections (only the brass had a few experimental moments), this suddenly made sense: The Wagnerian lyricism of the long opening theme, the slowness, the many lacunae… the occasional searing bite… and all with the tremendous – indeed superlatively sonorous – string sound of the Bergen Philharmonic. Shostakovich does not bestow his usual drive (slow, but always ratcheting things up, unnoticeably) upon this movement, the ears are pulled along a much thinner, more tenuous string. Eventually the trills come out, like factory whistles calling to work… but the general temperament is still a lurch. The cor anglais, meanwhile, wails like in the finale of Tristan and Isolde. The Allegro is jocular but with sharp knifes and the concluding Presto explosive, loud, which got the woodwinds excited and brought the quality of the strings out again – by some measure the best I’ve heard in Norway, so far.