Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
String Quartet in G minor, Op. 27 (1877-8; arr. Alf ┼rdal) [35:03]
String Quartet in F major (1891; arr. Alf ┼rdal) [19:29] Arne NORDHEIM (1931-2010) Rendezvous (1956, arr. string orchestra 1986) [21:55]
Oslo Camerata/Stephan Barratt-Due
rec. Lommedalen Church, Oslo, August 2009 NAXOS 8.572441 [76:45]
I hadn't expected to like the twentieth-century piece on this program best, but Arne Nordheim's Rendezvous is a real find. Keith Anderson's liner-note cites Sibelius, Mahler and Bartˇk as the composer's principal influences, but I don't hear it that way. Sibelius, perhaps, in the resolutely stoic demeanour and reliance on clean, open textures of the questing first movement, Praeambulum, which, despite some angular contours, is clear and accessible. It's Shostakovich, however, who's the clearest influence in the other two, shorter movements, a restless, propulsive Intermezzo and the brooding Nachruf. Stephan Barratt-Due lays out the music with purpose, and the Oslo Camerata plays with taut intensity and handsome tone.
If you accept the performance of chamber scores by a small orchestra - I do, though I realize not everyone does - the two Grieg quartets are rather interesting. The use of multiple players inevitably changes the musical aesthetic; the question is whether the music can reap benefits from the added tonal amplitude without losing the nuance available with a smaller group.
In this respect, the unfinished F major quartet, more harmonically adventurous and emotionally ambivalent than much of Grieg's output, fares better. After an incisive chordal "call to attention", the first movement's principal subject is rhapsodic; an uneasy, mercurial transition leads to a graceful, brilliant waltz foreshadowing Menotti, of all people (think Sebastian). The second movement, an unsettled Allegro scherzando, is set off nicely by its Trio, with its folk-like drone bass. The playing is attentive and well enough focused, though less concentrated than in the Nordheim.
The G minor quartet, on the other hand, both gains and loses in the transfer to larger forces. The first movement's opening gesture is unusually demonstrative and powerful, and the turbulence of the exposition proper is heightened. On the other hand, the lyrical, wistful second theme loses in intimacy; the fuller sectional sound similarly militates against the finale's anguished yearning. Alf ┼rdal's imaginative arrangement isn't afraid to bring in brief solo passages and textures, though not necessarily in the obvious places: highly decorated violin lines are invariably allotted to the full section. The Oslo players handle these with aplomb, and have a nice feel for the cross-relations in that Intermezzo; otherwise, their sonority is generically warm and comparatively diffuse. With more pointed attacks, and more uniform tuning within sections - and, perhaps, with a slightly less resonant ambience - the score would have made a stronger effect.
Recommended for the Nordheim, and for the F major quartet. The G minor isn't bad, either - I just wish it were better.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.