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Erling Blöndal Bengtsson is a Danish cellist who died in June 2013. He was born in Copenhagen in 1932 and enjoyed a highly successful career. He gave his first recital when four years old! At sixteen he began study at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where he studied cello with Gregor Piatigorsky. His academic career included an appointment at the Royal Danish Academy and a professorship at the Hochschule für Musik Köln. In 1990 he taught at the University of Michigan School of Music. He retired from the academic world during 2006.
There is a splendid webpage dedicated to Bengtsson’s life and achievement. It features details of his concert performances, recording sessions and gives a complete discography. A brief study of these listings reveals a performer who played a wide stylistic range of music ranging from Haydn to Henze and Weber to Walton. Many of his recordings have been released by Danacord, with more than 20 CDs devoted to his playing.
I have always loved the Brahms Trio in A minor, op 114. Listeners will recall that it was originally for clarinet, cello and piano: the present version is the composer-approved version for viola, cello and piano. There is an intimacy about this music which balances romance, reflection and the prevailing serious mood. It is beautifully played here by Lars Anders Tomter, (viola), Erling Blöndal Bengtsson and Håkon Austbø (piano) in this 1990 recording.
Hopefully, readers will excuse me if I own up to not being an enthusiast of Shostakovich: one cannot appreciate and enjoy every composer. I acknowledge that the present Trio is well-played in this 50-year-old recording. The music is certainly shot through with sadness and tragedy that reflects the political and war-time situation in Russia and Europe. The final movement contains reference to a Jewish dance tune. This is usually taken as representing the composer’s reaction to the Holocaust. It may be a dance tune, but it is certainly a tragic one.
Up to press, Klaus Egge (1906-79) was simply a name at the back of my mind. Looking at the reference works discussing Egge reveals a wide-range of music, including five symphonies, several concertos and a deal of chamber works. At present, there are only a handful of CDs featuring his music: there are also a few YouTube postings. This superb four-movement Cello Concerto, op.29 (1966) has revealed a composer that I can do business with. His musical style changed over the years, with this work deriving from his ‘third period’. This is lyrical, 12-tone music that is always as enjoyable as it is challenging. Earlier musical references had included Norwegian folk-music which is totally absent from this work.
The concerto was commissioned by Norwegian Radio to mark the composer’s 60th birthday. Although Bengtsson gave the premiere, this present recording was made the following year in 1967, and represents the composer’s original thoughts, rather than his slightly later revision.
People of my generation (late-fifties/early sixties) probably first listened to Elgar’s heart-breaking Cello Concerto in the now ubiquitous Jaqueline Du Pré version, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. The ‘flip side’ has a wonderful recording of Janet Baker singing Sea Pictures. Although I did later own a copy of this LP, I first heard it played by Anthony Pini (London Philharmonic/Van Beinum) on the old Decca Eclipse album, ECS 564. This recording had originally been released in 1950. At present there are 80-plus CDs of this masterpiece in the Arkiv Catalogue.
Bengtsson’s recording was made in 2000, with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra directed by Alexander Lazarev. I enjoyed his reading of Elgar’s Concerto. It is less-dramatic and more ‘classical’ in its mood. The liner notes are correct when they describe this performance as being intense, stoical [and] noble, without indulgence or affectation.’ Equally true to say that it both moving in its expression and attentively played. The orchestra provides a perfect accompaniment throughout. This is a live concert which, alas, features a ‘fidgety’ audience.
Grieg wrote a wider range of music than is often recalled. There are songs, a largely forgotten symphony, a surprising selection of chamber pieces and several choral pieces. His major achievement is the piano music, although, except for the Wedding Day at Troldhaugen it is Peer Gynt, the Holberg Suite and the Piano Concerto in A minor that is most often heard in the concert hall and on the radio.
It has been well-said that the opening movement of Grieg’s Cello Sonata in A minor, op.36 reflects the sound world of the piano concerto. Other self-references may include the Sigurd Jorsalfar march in the middle movement. However, the finale is rather special, with the bravura side of Bengtsson’s playing being fully revealed in this lively, agile dance. The work has been criticised for this apparent self-quotation and for its less than rigorous approach to formal construction. Grieg himself did not feel that his musical endeavours were furthered by this Sonata. All that said, Bengtsson is an ideal advocate of this charming work, which is full of passion and poetry. I love it.
The final piece on this two-CD set is the Cello Concerto No.1 by Ketil Hvoslev. This was composed in 1976 and is certainly the most ‘advanced’ and ‘challenging’ work in this collection.
Hvoslev was born in Bergen, Norway in 1939 and has subsequently written a vast number of works in virtually every genre. He is a composer that I have not consciously heard before.
Based on the present piece, his music is not difficult to approach, despite being in a relatively ‘modern’ idiom. There are plenty of lyrical, sometimes almost romantic, moments in this concerto. There are outbursts of intense passion as well as some deeply introverted moments. It closes with a riveting few pages of highly dissonant, but totally exciting music. This Concerto demands to be better known and I look forward to listening to it again.
The liner notes remind the listener that Ketil Hvoslev is the son of the ‘distinguished composer’ Harald Sæverud. He changed his name to avoid comparison with his father!
Contents Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Trio in A minor, Op. 114 (1891) [23:53]
Lars Anders Tomter (viola), Håkon Austbø (piano)
Live Concert, 11 September 1990, Oslo Chamber Music Festival Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Piano Trio No. 2 in E minor, Op. 67 (1944) [25:28]
Arve Tellefsen (violin), Kjell Bækkelund (piano)
Recorded for television, 7 March 1968 Klaus EGGE (1906-1979)
Cello Concerto, Op. 29 (1966) [28:36]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Øivin Fjeldstad
First performance. Live Concert, 27 October,1967 Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85 (1919) [27:28]
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra/Alexander Lazarev
Live Concert, 30 November 2000 Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Sonata for cello and piano in A minor, Op. 36 (1882-3) [29:10]
Kjell Bækkelund (piano)
Live Concert, 30 November 1985, Aula of Oslo University Ketil HVOSLEV (b. 1939)
Cello Concerto No. 1 (1976) [22:39]
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Vladimir Fedoseyev
rec. live, 12 June 1981