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Thomas TELLEFSEN (1823-1874)
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 1 in G minor, op.8 [29:08]
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra no. 2 in F minor, op.15 [24:42]
Einar Steen-Nøkleberg (piano)
Trondheim Symphony Orchestra/Terje Mikkelsen
rec. 2003, Olavshallen, Trondheim, Norway
SIMAX PSC1232 [53:50]

Oddly enough, while the sleeve-notes are comprehensive, especially where these two concertos are concerned, there isn’t actually too much background on the composer himself. All this is despite this being a Norwegian label.

Pianist and composer Thomas Dyke Acland Tellefsen was born in 1823, and died in 1874, contributing some forty-four opus numbers, including solo piano works, chamber music, and these two piano concertos. He dedicated many of his compositions to the Polish, Russian and French aristocracy.

The youngest of six siblings, Tellefsen was born in Trondheim, where originally he studied with his father. Shortly after his first public concert in 1842, Tellefsen went to Paris, where he later attended some of Friedrich Kalkbrenner’s classes. During the years 1844 to 1847, he was taught periodically by Chopin (1810-1849), who also became his personal friend, and had considerable influence of Tellefsen’s musical taste, playing style, and, more importantly, his compositions. When Chopin died Tellefsen took over some of his pupils, and toured England and Sweden on several occasions, as a very successful pianist.

Tellefsen’s two piano concertos were written in the years before and after 1850, respectively, at a time when Schumann’s A minor Concerto had just appeared (1845), as had Liszt’s Piano Concerto No 1 (1849). Tellefsen’s oeuvre makes no attempt to follow in Liszt’s footsteps, in terms of thematic transformation, or, indeed, in Schumann’s use of an opening gambit for the piano alone. This is something which Tellefsen’s compatriot, Grieg, would later feature so dramatically in his own piano concerto of 1868. Tellefsen’s contribution belongs more firmly rooted in the virtuoso tradition, in which the works of Field and Chopin were among the most influential.

Both of Tellefsen’s concertos are in three movements, and are built on conventional formal principles. He employs a classical orchestra, which he uses with considerable skill. The piano and orchestra are more equal protagonists than in Chopin’s two concertos which could always be played as piano solos. Tellefsen uses a double exposition, but where the piano still plays an important part. In Mozart concertos the piano usually remains quiet until the orchestra has given out both themes, in a more skeletal form, before the soloist then becomes involved in a second exposition, which is far more elaborate and extended. As for the slow movements, both Tellefsen examples have a clearly defined A-B-A ternary design, cast rather as piano nocturnes with orchestral accompaniment. In terms of the finales, in the first concerto he uses a Norwegian bridal march as the main subject (cf Grieg), while in the second he uses a charming ‘Mouvement de Tarantella’, which does bring to mind similarly-named works by Chopin and Liszt. Strangely the otherwise excellent sleeve-notes refer to this as ‘a dance of Spanish origins’, whereas it actually hails from Italy, and is also quite popular in Argentina. Chopin, on the other hand, uses material based on Polish folk music – a krakowiak in the E minor Concerto (1830), and a mazurka in the F minor (1830). In Tellefsen’s second Concerto, a short and gentle bridge-passage leads from the end of the slow movement direct into the finale.

Tellefsen himself appears to have preferred the Concerto No. 2, and it has since enjoyed greater popularity both during his lifetime and after his death. Indeed there are certainly far more Chopin fingerprints in the second work, both harmonically, as well as melodically, although the filigree type of melodic decoration, or fioriture, so characteristic of the Pole’s writing, doesn’t really feature in the Norwegian’s palette. There are some attractive moments in the Concerto No. 1, too, and especially in the slow movement, but Tellefsen seems to have forged a more individual musical style by the time of the second concerto.

The recording is first rate, and the orchestral playing equally good, especially some of the short solo passages in the second concerto. Einar Steen-Nøkleberg is an outstanding player — who has also recorded Tellefsen's solo piano music for Simax — and tackles the piano’s bristling technical difficulties with great panache, while bringing a sincerity of approach in the quieter and more introspective moments.

We can never have too many Romantic Piano Concertos to enjoy and, even if the second one by Tellefsen doesn’t quite hit the spot, when compared to Chopin or Grieg, it definitely deserves a place on that list.

If you’re still undecided, then here are two critics’ reports from a 1972 performance of the G minor Concerto given in Trondheim by Steen-Nøkleberg:

‘There are Chopinesque features in all three movements of Tellefsen’s piano concerto; in some cases these features dominate. Of interest is the personal character of the work as a whole. Tellefsen was by no means a lesser composer than his teacher. Tellefsen’s thematic material is equally as strong as that in Chopin’s two piano concertos. Spontaneous passages are sometimes juxtaposed in glaring contrast, such as in the last movement where a lyrical, Chopinesque passage swirches [sic] (switches) suddenly over to a Norwegian folk dance.’ (Alf Jørgen Hurum, Aftenposten, 2 November 1972).

The Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen’s music critic wrote about the use of folk music material in the third movement and considered these elements to be a highly positive feature of the work. At the same time he found Tellefsen’s treatment of the traditional material quite different from Grieg’s later that century:

‘It was the last movement, however, which came as a surprise, and I could see many in the audience moving to the music when Tellefsen introduced a lively Halling (a Norwegian folk dance) to his Parisian interior. Both Grieg and Svendsen later used this tune, […] but Tellefsen did it while both of those masters of our golden age were still at school. It may be that Grieg and Svendsen had more of a feeling for the folk tune’s true character; Tellefsen, however, is just as Norwegian in his finale as Chopin is Polish in his, which include a mazurka and a krakowiak. The halling may have come over as a little forced in its Parisian surroundings, but it was entertaining.’ (J.H. Henriksen, Adresseavisen. 2 November 1972).

If they wrote this purely about the first concerto, then without a doubt they would have been in ‘superlatives overdrive’ when similarly enthusing over the second.

Philip R Buttall


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