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Artistic Homage to Thor’s Day

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/02/2010 -  
Claude Debussy: Sonata for Cello and Piano in D Minor
Rolf Wallin: Under City Skin(US Premiere)
Bent Sørensen: Schattenlinie (US Premiere)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Quintet for Clarinet and Strings in A Major, K. 581

Risor Chamber Music Festival in New York: Leif Ove Andsnes (Piano), Martin Fröst (Clarinet), Henning Kraggerud, Maria Angelika Carlson (Violins), Lars Anders Tomter (Viola), Torleif Thedéen (Cello)
Risor Festival Strings, Per Kristian Skalstad (Conductor)

M. Fröst (© Harrison Parrott Ltd.)

A succession of artists with a stable ensemble is a concert season. A community of artists, taking different parts, working at various positions, is a music festival. Leif Ove Andsnes’ “Risør Chamber Music Festival”, in a little Norwegian harbor town, transplanted for four days to Carnegie Hall, has that kind of community spirit.

The programs are different, so I chose to honor the Norwegian pianist by choosing Thor’s-Day. That international luminary, Mr. Andsnes, was an accompanist in one work, part of a trio in another. Cellist Torleif Thedéen was a soloist, then part of a quartet. Violist Lars Anders Tomter played a whole concerto with an orchestra, then sat down with the quartet for some ensemble playing.

In other words, it was a community. It was mainly a Scandinavian community of artists, but the music was French, Danish, Norwegian and Austrian, divided between modern and mainstream. And it was always within the context of chamber playing at its very highest.

The two American premieres had totally different effects. I fell in love with Bent Sørensen’s: Schattenlinie (“Shadow Lines”, with no relation to Josef Conrad’s early novel), though its five sections could have come from Edward MacDowell. “Moonlit Night”? “Waterfalls”?? “Cherry-Tree Garden”??? Yikes, thought I. That sounds icky-dreary.

Quite the opposite. Mr. Sørensen’s way with color–piano, clarinet and viola–is tantalizing. For “In Foam”, he played with notes in a frothy way where they intercept each other like colliding bubbles. “Waterfalls” has changes of meter which keep one on edge. “Cherry-Tree Garden” is no vernal fairlyland. It is equipped with knocking, hammering, harmonics on both viola and clarinet with dancing piano tunes.

I was most intrigued with “Lullaby”. Supposedly with a short homage to Brahms’ lullaby, the piece had a soft rocking meter, but was happily dissonant. I imagine any good child psychologist could test an infant for reactions. Is consonance an innate trait? Or can babies learn to live with soft noise?

But the greatest pleasure was unconscious. For each piece was a bagatelle. We became involved, questioning, intrigued… and then the movement stopped. Our ears and minds were whirling without knowing it until the space between each section. As with the best composers, Mr. Sørensen keeps you wanting more.

That could not be said for Rolf Wallin's Under City Skin, 30 minutes for viola, orchestra and surround-sound tapes of urban noises. The urban sounds ranged from high heels tapping, and Mercedes ignitions to bells, sparrows and waterfalls. To these sounds the viola and string orchestra played either variations or microtonal imitations. At times the viola stood out, at times it blended with orchestra, and at times the three played together.

Program notes compared the music to Ives or Berlioz’ Harold In Italy, but that music is always inventive and curious. Mr. Wallin, a famed composer abroad, here had a brilliant idea, but the execution was repetitious, clever but hardly inventive. And much too long for its content.

Two soloists stood out. Torleif Thedéen, with Mr. Andsnes gave a masterful performance of Debussy’s Cello Sonata. It is no easy task to begin with a noble prayer, and then go into an almost bitter second movement with a whole variety of effects. Mr. Thedéen gave us a mandolin, a flute, even some kind of castanets with his instruments. All of it in the tempo which Debussy had written before for “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”. IN the end, that nobility had turned into pathos, yet still with a happy rhythm. The cello is not the “correct” instrument for such irony and hijinks–all of which makes this work so remarkable, and this performance triumphant.

Martin Fröst is famed throughout Europe for his most sensitive clarinet playing. It was shown first here in the Wallin Shadow Lines. With the string quartet, he performed the Mozart Quintet with splendid tones and the most easy-going relaxing way in even the most difficult Mozart clarinet runs.

Like the Risør Festival itself, the Mozart Quintet showed everybody to advantage, and the eloquent duet between violinist Henning Kraggerud and the clarinet in the finale was the kind of music-making which elevates both audience and artists.

Harry Rolnick



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