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(Nils) Geirr TVEITT (1908-1981)
Concerto No. 1 for Hardanger Fiddle and Orchestra, Op. 163 (1955) (Allegretto, 10.15 +Andante, 9.45 +Allegro moderato, 9.11) [29.19] Concerto No. 2 for Hardanger Fiddle and Orchestra, Op. 252, “Three Fjords” (1965) (Hardangerfjord: Tempo tranquillo e deciso, 4.31 + Sognefjord: Mesto maestoso – Danza determinata e lenta – Tempo I, 4.42 + Nordfjord: Giocoso, 9.21.] [18.42]
Nykken, symphonic painting for orchestra, Op. 187 (1956) [15.57] Arve Moen Bergset, Hardanger fiddle Stavanger Symphony Orchestra/Ole Kristian Ruud
Rec. Sept 1999 (concertos), June 2000 (Nykken), Stavanger Concert Hall, Norway BIS CD 1207 [65.18]

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 fiddle concertos.

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.

Lance Nixon

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