A friend who introduced me to Geirr Tveitt’s
orchestral works when Naxos began making them affordable lately
introduced me to a full-priced recording on the Bis label, the
Concertos for Hardanger Fiddle and the symphonic painting, Nykken.
This 2002 release is a disc I never would have dreamed of buying
otherwise. Yet it’s worth every penny.
The Stavanger Symphony Orchestra continues its
yeoman service for Norwegian music here under the baton of Ole
Kristian Ruud. Arve Moen Bergset is the soloist on the Hardanger
Especially noteworthy is Concerto No. 2 for Hardanger
Fiddle and Orchestra, subtitled “Three Fjords.” The
three movements are further subtitled Hardangerfjord, Sognefjord,
and Nordfjord, respectively.
This is landscape painting at its best. The composer
takes us on an aural tour of some of his favorite country in Norway,
and “Nordfjord” alone is worth the price of the fare.
Be warned: You will have this tune lilting in your ears long after
you play it. It captures as nothing else can the excitement of
Norway’s landscape, with its tension between sea and land
reduced to a fiddler’s air. As though the fishermen home
from the sea are celebrating an unusually rich haul.
Hardangerfjord, the first movement, pulses with
a gusty glitter of fiddle and drum that must surely be the play
of sun and wind on waves. The drum is particularly effective.
Fans of Arnold Bax’s Tintagel and Symphony No. 4 owe it
to themselves to visit this music to hear how a Norwegian composer
paints the sea.
So successful are these pieces that in the middle
movement, Sognefjord – perhaps the most successful of the
three -- the listener feels the menace of sea and sky and gray,
flinty cliffs. It conveys some of the same massive, immobility
that Walter Piston gets at in depicting mountains in the last
of his Three New England Sketches. As in the first movement, gradual
ascents in the orchestra’s playing (a long climb from about
1.20 to 1.45 into the movement, for example) make it easy to imagine
great peaks in the distance. It’s the same device Sibelius
uses at the start of the Symphony No. 7 in a passage that evokes
for me towering, brooding forests; and it’s one Douglas
Lilburn employed with great success in his Symphonies 1 and 2,
perhaps to show the rising peaks of New Zealand. (Those who love
Lilburn’s landscape-charged Symphonies 1 and 2 will be amply
rewarded by Tveitt’s hymn of adoration to his native land,
which resembles Lilburn something in spirit.)
One senses the weather must have been better
the day Tveitt sketched out “Nordfjord.” It’s
a glorious romp in northern sunlight.
The Concerto No. 1 is perhaps a less extroverted
work than the No. 2. There’s a certain stateliness about
the first two movements – appropriate enough for an ancient
folk instrument making one of its first visits to the concert
hall in this 1955 composition. The slow middle movement is a long
meditation with moments of real poignancy and tenderness for the
fiddle. In the final movement the fiddle’s earthier nature
prevails: it indulges in some of the same boisterous play that
characterizes the last movement of the No. 2.
The excellent notes to this disc by Reidar Storaas
provide a good explanation of how the Hardanger fiddle is different
from the violin (it has additional strings, for one thing, that
resonate although the bow doesn’t actually play them) and
describing its ancient lineage. It’s claimed that Norway’s
tradition of stringed instruments reaches back to the Middle Ages,
though the oldest Hardanger fiddle in existence dates from A.D.
1651 and is thought to be influenced by the Baroque viola d’amore.
At any rate, this instrument is thought to be in some way a descendant
of the fiddle that is mentioned in Old Norse sagas, and one of
its kin may have been the instrument at hand when the oral poems
of ancient Scandinavia were sung in hall. Many of those oral poems
from Scandinavia were finally written down in Iceland in a collection
the English-speaking world calls the Poetic Edda.
(Those who are curious to hear reconstructions
of what actual performances may have sounded like can seek out
a Deutsche Harmonia Mundi disc by the medieval music ensemble
Sequentia called “Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland”
(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 05472-77381-2). Sequentia used the Hardanger
fiddle tradition of Norway as one of its sources in trying to
recreate the medieval playing style that may have accompanied
actual performances of these ancient songs.)
In a larger geographic context, it’s interesting
that Volker, one of the heroes of the Middle High German epic,
the Nibelungenlied, written near A.D. 1200, is called “the
fiddler.” It would be interesting to know how those medieval
fiddles looked and sounded.
The final piece on this disc, Nykken, is an atmospheric
symphonic painting straight out of folklore. Rather Sibelian,
if not quite so grim and stern as, say, Tapiola, it depicts a
watersprite in the guise of a horse that tempts a youth to ride
its back, then plunges into a black pond in the forest.
BIS deserves great credit for seeking out for
its cover of this disc a picture by Theodor Kittelsen that illustrates
this theme from folktale: a white horse plunging with its rider
into a still pond that reflects the dark pine trees towering around
it. Storaas suggests in his notes that Tveitt’s use of the
term “symphonic painting” for this composition indicates
he may have had this picture in mind. At any rate, it’s
a fine choice to put on the cover of this disc, and someone at
Bis deserves credit. The temptation to slap a picture of a fjord
out front must have been well-nigh unbearable.