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Musical Journey Through Norway

April in Oslo. Celebratory sunshine and blue skies, weather is if made for a train trip across the Hardangerviddato mountain plateau from Oslo to Bergen, Norway’s second largest town and home of Edvard Grieg. It's a trip alleged to be one of the world’s loveliest.

Summer or winter are said to be the times to take this trip. Spring, as it turns out, might not be ideal. Through the woody hills and into the tunnels, out of Oslo, to Drammen and on toward Hønefoss, along the Drammenselva river and the large, ice-covered Tyrifjorden lake, nature is still on the verge of turning from brown to green, with spotty patches of snow in the shadows and on the slopes… A sense of white-green-gray ambivalence pervades most of the trip.

The rivers are lined by dense conifer forests, sometimes dotted with white birches. Every once in a while the view is enriched by farms around which a timid green shows that spring will take court even up here. Eventually. Black glazed tiles on little red houses glisten in the sun and the hill sides get steeper; always along rivers that have already carved out a route that the train tracks (built about a hundred years ago) now only need to follow. Caravan-colonies (Germans, a safe guess) cling to little patches of land between the woods like birds to rocks off shore.

available at AmazonJ.Svendsen, Norwegian Rhapsodies et al.,
South Jutland SO / B.Engeset
With the convenience of free internet service (on and off in the people-free mountainside of central Norway) and the Naxos Music Library putting most of the music I could possibly want to access at my fingertips, the soundtrack is easily picked; I start with the gorgeous, lush romantic music of Johan Svendsen (1840-1911). Romeo og Julie op.18, The four Norwegian Rhapsodies (opp.17, 19, 21, 22), and Zorahayda op.11 (Naxos 8.570322) are like a blend of the most agreeable elements of Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner. This isn’t too surprising; like most Scandinavian composers of that time, Svendsen studied in Germany and played violin in the first ever assembled Bayreuth Festival Orchestra for the cornerstone-laying ceremony (1872). Svendsen, who was head of the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, is equally at home in the showy and grand, tender and sweet, and fleeting Ballet-influenced bits, all of which appear in the Rhapsodies.

The wood-paneled Norwegian State Railway’s train, with light beige leather seats in a reasonably comfortable arrangement, meanders along, crawling through the hillside toward Gol (“Crowing”), with its little wooden station building in the official Bergen Railway canary-yellow and onward to Ål. The train enters one tunnel, then another and another… and suddenly the ice on the lakes get thicker and whiter and the mountaintops, near and distant, gleam in snowy white. In the sun the dark blue Hallingdalselva river flows among the rocks, with thick packed snow-banks hanging off both sides.

available at AmazonWhite Night: Impressions of Norwegian Folk Music,
Det Norske Solistkor / Grete Pedersen
White Night – Impressions of Norwegian Folk Music” on BIS (SACD-1871) with arrangements for Hardanger fiddle (Gjermund Larsen), chorus (Norwegian Soloist’s Choir), and folk singer (Berit Opheim Versto) conducted by Grete Pedersen is the next logical, perfectly suited, though ever so slightly melancholic choice. Norwegian music without the strong German influence, it turns out, has at its heart a mildly despondent, drop-dead-gorgeous but glum element… and even a wedding march (“Brurmarsj fra Valsøfjord”, my favorite piece) seems to remind more of the hard time to come than the joy of the unifying moment. Occasionally, with a waltz or an explicit dance tune, the mood moves toward reluctant rejoicing… but the Hardingfele can fiddle away as vigorously as it might, it retains an air of ‘memories past’.

During “Jeg lagde mig sa sildig” (“I lay down so late”), my ears perk. Haven’t I heard this before? A little search on the Naxos Music Library reveals: Yes. Edvard Grieg has also set this folk tune for chorus, and the same forces have recorded it for BIS last year… so the next tracks on my playlist are set.

available at AmazonE.Grieg, Choral Music,
Det Norske Solistkor / Grete Pedersen
Choral Music by Grieg” (SACD-1661) is a particularly enchanting disc of pieces written for chorus by Grieg and arranged so by others. The popular “At Rondane”, op.33, No.2 (originally for voice and piano) is plain gorgeous in its moody way and resonant, in full-bodied choral guise. Grieg himself arranged two religious songs for mixed choir of which “Withered, Fallen – At the Bier of a Young Wife” sounds predictable but touching with its cathedral-like piety. The non-Norwegian ear will always pick up a certain preciousness: that silver-voiced, Christmas-choir touch with scents and touches of mulled wine, snow boots, and blond locks under a woolen hat. But this is perhaps particular to my Washington-conditioned ears which had hitherto always associated enthusiastic Norwegian choirs with Christmas. “Margaret’s Cradle Song” is a 90 second gem written in appreciation of the birth of his daughter Alexandra in 1868. It is set to the Ibsen poem of the same name and is hauntingly beautiful. Alexandra, however, never got to appreciate her song; she died shortly after it was written. Tragic yet, being set to something by Ibsen, also terribly appropriate.

Grete Pedersen’s setting of the first of the Lyric Pieces op.71 “Det var engang” for mixed choir might be the only miscalculation: nice and pleasant but new-agey dum-de-dum cheap. The somber end to Grieg’s musical output – the Four Psalms op.74 (1907) – are especially austere, yet very moving, settings of a Hans Adolf Brorson text. They are based on a collection of Norwegian “newer and older mountain tunes” that Grieg wanted to help preserve with his musical adaptation. That has been achieved (all over again) by having them included in this very fine reminder of a disc that Grieg is so much more than the Grieg of a certain mountain king’s hall, or lyric pieces, or a piano concerto. Both SACDs sound glorious.

The train meanders onward through the landscape, the hill sides get still steeper and eventually we pass fancy resorts—Geilo for example, with the "Dr. Holms Hotel" (Norwegian’s St.Moritz of sorts) in its midst. But without the snow it loses much of its glitz.

The surroundings, with their brownish-gray-white spring coat not at their most inviting during this time of the year, are slowly turning more sparse as we approach the tree line with the track reaching—more literally than metaphorically—the highpoint of the trip: Finse, which heavily markets its being the highest point of the Norwegian Railway System at 1222 meters. Just before Finse at Ustaoset (990m) it starts to look more like a flat white desert… forlorn and with rocks and muddy patches sticking out. Buildings covered in snow; a good six, seven feet high; a patch of sunlight illuminates the glacial ice. Up here and for the following three, four stations it is still a desert of white… a journey among flat mountaintops that defy the geographic expectations of most Europeans or North Americans that are used to mountains as craggy, pointy exclamation marks in the landscape, not massive shoulders that duck in smooth, even roundness under the weight of their age.

available at AmazonI.Dobrowen, Piano Concerto, Youth Sonata et al.,
J.Fossheim / St. Petersburg Academic PO / A.Dmitriev
Geirr Tveitt was born in Bergen, so he would be a good musical choice to continue the soundtrack—for example his magnificent Fourth Piano Concerto (review on ionarts here). But the internet service becomes so spotty that I give up on the Naxos Music Library and turn my attention and vigor to the carefully assembled matpakke that provides bodily nourishment. Then I remember that I've been loaded up with a stack of CDs at Oslo's Simax label before I left and I pull out a different unknown piano concerto, one in C-sharp minor by Issay Dobrowen. Mr. Dobrowen (born Itschok Zorachovich Barabeitchik in 1891) was Russian, true, and matured in Germany, but he became a Norwegian citizen and settled in lovely Oslo before fleeing the Germans to Sweden in 1940. He achieved fame as a conductor (lasting to this day on CD, thanks to his work with Walter Legge, resulting in recordings with Ginette Neveu, Solomon,Schnabel, and the famous EMI Boris Godunov with Boris Christoff)... but not as a composer. It’s a grand and sweeping romantic piano concerto that the composer performed himself variously as soloist or conductor, written over the years 1912 to 1926. Paderewski, Medtner, or Rachmaninoff are never far away, though Dobrowen isn’t as inclined for sweet turns and phrases and not as much for thunderous exaggeration, either. There are more wonderful romantic piano concertos than you can shake a stick at (as Hyperion’s so-named series, which hasn’t yet gotten around to Dobrowen, has shown us), and this is another excellent addition. The concerto remained Dobrowen’s only work including orchestra, but the three sonatas that Jørn Fossheim performs on the Simax disc show clearly that the concerto isn’t Dobrowen’s one-hit-composition-wonder. [Simax PSC 1246]

Bergen, Penguins, and Strings

With East-Country behind us, the view out of the train windows gets less and less enchanting as the weather turns gloomy. The fog and clouds get so thick that outside you can only distinguish between sky and snowy ground by the brim of dark shrubbery or rock against the horizon. The coast makes its looming arrival known by sending a few raindrops up the tracks to greet us. (It rains an average 235 out of 365 days in Bergen.) An hour later, the train arrives in gray, grisly, and wet-wet-wet little hillside-nestling Bergen from where – after a detour to the local aquarium (stuffed with Atlantic wolf-fish, assorted Penguins, and three very bored seals) – Grieghallen, the home of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, awaits with music by Kjetil Hvoslef, Mozart, and Shostakovich.

Conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen programmed “Ein Traumspiel” (based on August Strindberg’s “A Dream Play”) atop the bill, an enchanting 16 minute overture full of tonal dissonance by Kjetil Hvoslef, son of Harald Sæverud, as per Robert R. Reilly’s “Surprised by Beauty”, “one of Norway’s finest composers and perhaps her most original.” The Mozart Piano Concerto (No.23) with Hélène Grimaud was not very noteworthy, but Shostakovich’s lopsided Sixth Symphony had Wagnerian lyricism, teasing slowness, the occasional searing bite ( jocular with sharp knifes), and the explosive Presto was terrific. Still, the real revelation was the quality of the orchestra (especially the rightly famous string section) and the superb acoustic of the ungainly-looking Grieghallen alone made the trip worthwhile. (Detailed review on ionarts here.)

The trip back, with the soothing rutt-ta-ta-rutt-ta-ta hurrying through the night, a half bottle of Rioja illegally opened in the dining car, and homemade pasta salad with walnuts and asparagus—the garlic wafts of which make half the passengers look over in envy, the other half with olfactory reproval—seems a much faster affair, and before the last dream (of bored penguins throwing snowballs at an orchestra of mackerels) is brought to its proper conclusion, the train pulls in at Jernbanetorget—Oslo Central Station—as the sun goes up.

The State of Music in Oslo

Back in Oslo, over several months in 2011, I have been able to take in performances at the gorgeous new Oslo Opera and the not-so-gorgeous 1700-seat main hall of the Oslo Konserthus, the concert hall that is the home of the Oslo Philharmonic.

The opera building sits in the Oslo fjord, like a big folded “Z” of stone, or like a stranded iceberg. Just off the opera’s shore floats a sculpture titled “She Lies”; a work by Monica Bonvicini that is immediately recognizable as a reference to the piled-up ice sheets in Caspar David Friedrich’s “Das Eismeer”. To symbolize the accessibility of the opera house to the public (a considerable issue during the debates about whether quasi-socialist Norway should pile public resources into such an allegedly elitist venture as an opera house), one can walk all over the opera house, clad in white Carrara marble (and Norwegian granite), up the inclined sides of the house, then back all the way to the 15 meter high edge of the building’s vast glass façade, with Oslo and its fjord before one’s view. In the winter—this, unlike skateboarding,is not encouraged—one can ski down its gentle slopes.

Inside the brightly lit glass-aluminum-and-marble building sits the auditorium, almost as if separate from the outer shell. A light and organically patterned semi-circle—the “Wave Wall”— bulges out of as if tens of thousands irregularly placed oaken two-by-fours had been used for paneling the 22,000 square feet. As one moves into the galleries and eventually inside the auditorium, the oak gets ever smoother and darker. Inside, the house is dark and illuminated by a modern oval chandelier 23 feet wide, over eight tons heavy, and so white and bright—almost uncomfortably so—that it suggests sunlight flooding in through a duct.

With the building world class, the Norwegian Opera & Ballet, the company, now needs to live up to the exterior, which it cannot do with dusty, provincial stagings of evergreens where some local talent is thrown in with a bored diva or two, to provide the name recognition. A recent “Tosca”, superficially crowd pleasing but badly sung and executed, resembled about everything that was wrong with opera; an embrace of every hackneyed cliché of what opera once was (allegedly)… in short: taxidermy on stage. The same goes for the Ballet, where a recent disaster of a Romeo & Juliet ought not to have been passed off as a professional production. The annual Nutcracker hits all the right buttons with the annual tradition-clientele, but sadly the primitive acting offered no reasons whatsoever to go see ballets outside the Nutcracker-season.

But Stefan Herheim’s Lulu in the completion of Eberhard Kloke (first shown in Copenhagen and next to be seen in Dresden) resembled everything that was right with opera: Ambition, intelligence, excellence, and the ideal combination of local and international talents (Herheim, a trained cellist, hails from Oslo). But even a fascinating Lulu is difficult to sell, and that’s why it is great to see that a popular opera—one that might be thought of as selling ‘in any old production’—is getting the same thoughtful treatment: Gathering Norway’s finest, Herheim will produce La Bohème with Eivind Gullberg Jensen conducting and Marita Sølberg performing Mimi. (Review on ionarts here.)

The musical leadership of the Opera and Ballet is in the very capable hands of the un-glitzy, but musically sensitive and passionate American John Helmer Fiore. With so much in place, and only determined leadership and funds missing (edit: a new team has now arrived) , the future of the Oslo Opera, well steered, is very bright.

In the Konserthus the story is almost the reverse: The building itself is a victim of its vintage seventies architecture, not very pretty on the outside, ungainly on the inside, and with acoustics so bad, they more or less drove Mariss Jansons away from Oslo. (Ironically, he now deals with a similar problem in Munich.) But not just the concert hall could use some improvement. True, the Oslo Philharmonic has always been better than its home, but it has suffered in quality since the departure of Jansons. Four years of André Previn provided a famous name but no leadership [a fine Washington DC appearance notwithstanding]. Jukka-Pekka Saraste’s tenure has been solid and meant consolidation, but perhaps not quite provided the necessary spark to pick up where Mariss Jansons left off, after building the Philharmonic up from advanced provincial status to world class.

In a concert with Marc Albrecht that featured Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (“lacked nothing in precision [skill]—but missed tooth and ruthlessness…”), and a strangely, intriguingly cool Le Tombeau de Couperin, the highlight came in form of a cancellation. Stepping in for Lars Vogt in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.21, the 28 year old Stavanger native Christian Ihle Hadland stepped in with bubbly, never precious… confident, never flamboyant… playful, never distorted and exaggerated excellence and an obliging orchestra. (Review on ionarts here.)

A week later, Bertrand de Billy took the Filharmoni for a brusque, vigorous ride through Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, a chirpy, fruity, utterly conventional little flute concerto by François Devienne (his eighth), and finally Josef Suk’s Symphonic Fairy Tale Suite which provided lush and vigorous, sumptuous, atmospheric and chatty romanticism in the Philharmonic’s finest sound. (Review on ionarts here.)

Around Easter—which I mark with Parsifals and/or Matthew Passions rather than colored eggs—I got my fix of the latter in Oslo with Andrew Manze and the Philharmonic. Or “actually”, as Manze suggested, “… the Matthew Passion transcribed for Orchestra and Chorus.” Gently flexible and calm, toffee-esque but genial, with excellent contributions from Andrew Staple (Evangelist) and Johannes Weisser (Jesus), and a loving, caring, if not always flawless performance from the orchestra, it was just what (Easter-) tradition ordered. (Review on ionarts here.)

The general impression, good but not excellent, suggested a potential untapped… and the appointment of the next music director for Oslo suggests that officials feel the same way. Signing the 1976-born Vasily Petrenko (no relation to Kirill Petrenko, the next GMD at the Bavarian State Opera), who has shown ample talent and even more promise in Liverpool (and a ongoing Shostakovich cycle on Naxos and a new EMI contract to boot) is a clear sign that the Oslo Philharmonic hopes to introduce another Jansons-like era. Without expecting miracles or pitting Petrenko’s performance with a now-famous orchestra against what Jansons was able to do with an orchestra virtually unknown on the international circuit , the possibility of a long and exciting musical partnership seems plausible. (More details on the appointment here.)


“Chasing the Butterfly” is an odd name for a Simax CD that combines straight classical repertoire and serious musicological research, but it brings together a touch of Bergen and Oslo. Hiding behind the name is the Sigurd Slåttebrek's attempt to recreate Grieg’s piano music as Grieg himself would have expected to hear it. Studying the extant acoustic recordings of the composer of his own piano pieces and the piano concerto, going back to a time where the music was still modern and not already considered a staple of the late romantic repertoire, using Grieg’s own 1892 Steinway of course (from Grieg’s house in Bergen, “Troldhaugen”), and, for the concerto, the cadenza written in 1909 by Percy Grainger. The result is a two-CD album containing the Grieg Piano Concerto with Slåttebrek and the Oslo Philharmonic led by the conducting eminence griseMichail Jurowski… on the surface of it unsuited to a de-romanticizing project like this, but in practice gracious and well humored in his work with orchestra and soloist so that the outcome is, among the dozens of excellent extant Grieg Piano Concerto recordings, not just special and different, but also good enough to secure itself shelf space.

available at AmazonE.Grieg, “Chasing the Butterfly”,
S.Slåttebrek / Oslo Philharmonic / Michail Jurowski
The other disc is devoted to chasing that butterfly, which refers to the labor of understanding and eventually performing the thus nicknamed Lyric Piece op.54/1 in the way Grieg did. Instead of a broadly lyrical, gorgeously calm and summery work, Sommerfugl sounds flitting and nervous, unrhythmical even… which is to say: much like a butterfly’s way of expressing himself. Grieg was a second generation ‘Beethoven Pianist’ (Moscheles links them) and knew what he was doing, and the blistering speeds he chose were deliberate, as was his choice of rubato which isn’t at all what students are being taught at conservatories these days. Slåttebrek didn’t set out to slavishly copy Grieg, but he has approximated him so well that at the end of the disc, Grieg’s recording of the Wedding Day at Troldhaugen (Lyric Pieces op.65/5) is interpolated with Slåttebrek’s recording and, except for the vast difference in sound quality, scarcely a difference can be made out. The first part of the disc is taken by Slåttebrek playing exactly the selection that survives on Grieg’s own 1903 acoustic recordings, then Slåttebrek performing the whole Piano Sonata op.7 which Grieg was never able to put on disc due to the limitations of the 78rpm shellacs of the time. That might not be ideal for someone who is only interested in the music, but a treasure trove for musical time travelers and keen ears. [Simax PSC 1299]