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Geirr TVEITT (1908-1981)
Piano Concerto No.5, Op.156 (1954)
Variations on a folk song from Hardanger, for two pianos and orchestra (1938)
Nils Mortensen, Sveinung Bjelland (pianos)
Stavanger Symphony Orchestra/Ole Kristian Ruud
Rec. Stavanger Concert Hall, Norway, August/September 2000 (Concerto)
January/February 2001 (Variations)
BIS CD 1252 [65’34]


I openly confess to becoming something of a Tveitt junkie. I love his wildly untamed, eclectic mix of styles, where a list of composers as long as your arm seem to be present, while the whole thing still comes across as uniquely energetic and invigorating. Nadia Boulanger got it just about spot-on when she declared Tveitt’s music as ‘originality rooted in tradition ... a breath of fresh Norwegian air’. I suspect many newer converts (like me) will be familiarising themselves with his music through the excellent Naxos series, which has garnered many rave reviews – and rightly so. This BIS project is going head-to-head with the Naxos, recording all the same works in different couplings. The problem for BIS is that the Naxos discs only cost around a third as much, so the collector will have to be convinced of something very special to make them pay the extra. On the evidence of the present release, it will be hard to do that.

It’s not that there is a problem with the playing or recording quality from BIS, it’s just that there’s no way it’s two-thirds better than the Naxos. For a start, there is a tendency in the BIS version of the Fifth Piano Concerto to relax slightly too much in the lyrical sections. Try the Tippett-like episode at 5’57 (track 1) where the degree of extra urgency in the Naxos performance is welcome. The very opening’s now infamous four-note statement, with its more-than-a-hint of Holst’s Uranus, also comes more alive in the Naxos version, the extra rasp from the brass giving the music a suitably cutting edge. Sometimes Ole Kristian Ruud’s phrasing and tempo do make more sense, as at 8’05 into the finale (track 3), but generally the slightly brighter, more forwardly-balanced recording from Naxos, together with razor-sharp pianism from the superb Harvard Gimse, do tend to give his version the edge.

The Hardanger Variations, effectively a double piano concerto, is more evenly balanced. The variations are structured in typically original fashion, some very short, some very long, some reappearing later etc. It makes the whole piece feel rhapsodic, almost improvisatory, and here the piano teams on both recordings are on good form. Orchestral details abound, but it is worth mentioning the wonderfully evocative lone clarinet episode (around 5’21), with its Mahlerian intensity evoking the very night sky that so influenced Tveitt. The BIS performance really is very good indeed, but turning to the Naxos revealed just as satisfying a rendition. It really is close in terms of artistic quality, though again I marginally prefer the sharper-focused recorded sound from Naxos.

So, if it’s cost that will sway you, there is obviously no contest. Another deciding factor may be the excellent Naxos booklet essays from David Gallagher. These are a model of intelligence and lucidity, full of the sort of detail and insight that might be expected when one of his acknowledged sources is the Tveitt family archive.

Tony Haywood



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