Jens F. Laurson
, July 2011
“July 12th, 1970, is a day of infamy in the history of classical music.”
If you have never heard of that day, or don’t associate anything in particular with it: neither did I. Incidentally, the tragedy of that date is closely connected with never hearing anything of it, because it was the day Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt’s house burnt down and with it his (largely unpublished) body of music; wiping out some nine tenths of his output.
The introductory line is plagiarized from Robert R. Reilly’s chapter on the composer, and about Geirr Tveitt (born Nils Tveit) I learned through his book, “Surprised by Beauty”. Of the many composers covered in “Surprised” that I didn’t know then, Geirr Tveitt somehow, inexplicably, remained ‘undiscovered’ for me—until now*, almost eight years later. He was the prepenultimate unknown quantity that Reilly covers in “Surprised”, now only Stephen Gerber and Alexander Tcherepnin still await my own discovery. (Though I’ll also need to get more closely acquainted with Harald Sæverud and László Lajtha.)
What a blot of ignorance that has been at last been lifted from my classical music conscience. What magnificence there can be in Tveitt! I cherish the puppy-like naïveté of this discovery so greatly in part because there are so few left for me. There once was a time when I came across such unadulterated beauty and sophistication from a ‘new’ composer or ‘new’ work. But those were times that still held undiscovered Bach works in store for me, or later composers like Zelenka or Janáček or Poulenc or Duparc. For now I prefer not to wait to get as much Tveitt under my belt as I can; to not make myself a make-pretend Geirr Tveitt demi-expert over the course of a week of CD purchasing, Grove-reading, and intrepid googling. (I’ll save that for a some time next year.) I’ll write about the epiphany, instead.
One of the dearest coincidences finally put a copy of his Fourth Piano Concerto “Aurora Borealis” (1947) and the de-facto Two-Piano Concerto “Variations on a Folksong from Hardanger” (1939) in my hands. It starts with the latter—and when I think back to the repertoire played at the Piano Duo part of the ARD Competition, I can’t help to cringe about all that Mendelssohn and Mozart in the finale…when Poulenc and this Tveitt concerto would have been available. The “Variations” double concert is part of the large body of work that Tveitt devoted to folksongs from Hardanger, of which he collected about a thousand only to use them, variously worked over, in his compositions. They speak to the listener as Tveitt wraps their charming simplicity and liveliness into virtuosic orchestration with French impressionistic touches that could well call ‘home’ a place somewhere between Ravel and Sibelius.
I know I compare almost every somewhat tuneful 20th century piano concerto to Ravel’s—but it’s just such a good reference point with all three movements showing something that none of the concertos of Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Reger, Busoni et al. contain. And the links are not surprising in this case: Tveitt’s Second Piano Concerto (lost) was dedicated to the composer and Paris had been his most important station abroad as a student and composer-performer. The outbreak of song and tranquility in the middle of the Variations is something for the soul to soar on; like the most serene moment in Messiaen, but simpler. The Fourth Piano Concerto is just a little more austere, busier, and louder in a few places between its long sometimes chirpy whispers that describe the appearance, height, and diminishing of the northern lights. The piano part is embedded in the whole, rather than leading with dazzling soloist caprices. Both concertos are about half an hour long, which I would normally consider about the perfect length for a concerto…just under these circumstances, it seems like not long enough by a nine tenths of a measure.
* Two tiny Tveitt exposures and mentions from 2005 and 2007 (“Much of it sounds like Debussy or digestible Messiaen…but more immediate and more immediately enjoyable.”) apart, that is