About this Recording
8.555761 - TVEITT: Piano Concerto No. 4 / Variations on a Folk Song
English  French 

Geirr Tveitt (1908-1981)

Piano Concerto No. 4 "Aurora Borealis"

Spain, 1951. Touring virtuoso Geirr Tveitt, the Norwegian composer-pianist, broadcasts live across Europe, playing, from memory, music by his most famous forebear, Edvard Grieg. The radio announcer introduces the next piece; suddenly Tveitt’s mind goes blank! His brain races… all he can remember is roughly how long it should last. He improvises a piece of "Grieg" on the spot. No-one seems to notice….

Grieg’s shadow looms large in Tveitt’s life. Inescapably so, for a Norwegian, and specifically west Norwegian, gifted as a pianist and as a composer, born in Grieg’s native city of Bergen, just a year after the great man’s death. Tveitt, however, came to terms with this éminence grise, earning his place, as one of today’s leading Norwegian musicians, the pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, suggests, "among the century’s greatest composer-pianists, alongside Bartók, Britten, Prokofiev and Rachmaninov".

As an adolescent Tveitt already had a mind of his own to animate his natural ear. Away from home at high school with no piano to practise on, he drew a keyboard on cardboard and used that. The local cinema needed a pianist to accompany silent films, but Tveitt’s compositional fantasy sometimes seduced him far from the screen action, and hammering away during the love scenes did not go down too well with the public. When the high school music teacher rubbished everything he wrote, Geirr copied out a Grieg piece and slipped it in with his: to his glee, the teacher could not tell the difference.

Like Grieg, Tveitt studied at the Leipzig Conservatory. Like Grieg, he found it stultifying, if technically impeccable. This did not stop him saying some rebelliously rude things about Grieg; not to mention composing freely, and having works snapped up for performance and publication, including his first three piano concertos. Spiritual freedom Tveitt found in France, where he took lessons with the likes of Honegger and Villa-Lobos. Paris became a favourite stop on tour, and it was here that he gave the first performance of his Fourth Piano Concerto in 1947. A few hours after Kirsten Flagstad had sung music by Grieg, Tveitt enthusiastically echoed Grieg’s feeling that "the French spirit was the salvation of Nordic music". By then Tveitt was married to his second wife Tullemor, grand-niece of Grieg’s best friend Frants Beyer. Twenty years later Tveitt, now clearly at ease with his Griegian inheritance, even set to music four of Grieg’s fascinating, highly personal, letters to Beyer.

Tveitt had surely realised the strength of what they had in common. Back in Norway in the 1930s he dug deep into the folk-music of his family’s native Hardanger. The Hardanger fiddle, the region’s decorative folk violin, with its extra resonating strings and multitude of different tunings, had already influenced his own, as well as it had Grieg’s, use of modal scales in composition. Now his inspiration was Hardanger’s hidden singing tradition, the first fruit of which, in 1939, was the Variations on a Folksong from Hardanger for two pianos and orchestra. Living on his ancestral farmstead above the Hardangerfjord near Norheimsund during the second World War, Tveitt collected over a thousand folk-tunes, many of them in fragments, later using them in his Fifty Folktunes from Hardanger for piano (Marco Polo 8.225055-56) and the orchestral Hundred Hardanger Tunes (Naxos 8.555078 and 8.555770). As relaxation he worked on an analysis of Grieg’s entire output, not least its relationship with folk-music, and orchestrated Grieg’s famous Ballade, another set of variations on a Norwegian folk-tune: after performing it a hundred times or more, Tveitt felt that, for Grieg, it "blew the piano apart".

Tveitt’s marathon post-war concert tours - championing Grieg alongside Liszt, Rachmaninov, French music and his own compositions (including more piano concertos) - were a constant struggle to make ends meet. Geirr and Tullemor contemplated emigrating to America, as they tried to support their young family by farming - no good for Tveitt’s piano-playing fingers. Neither was building his own house (with a little help from his friends!) at Bjødnabrakane, high on the hillside above the family farm. No electricity, no running water, no road: his piano, and huge glass windows to give the living-room a stunning fjord-mountain view, had to be hauled up the path by horse-sled. A decade later he commissioned a new home near the now-dilapidated, centuries-old farmhouse; more mod cons, still no proper road. Two houses; to be struck by two catastrophes. In the hard winter 1962-3 Bjødnabrakane was crushed by a colossal snowfall. In the hot summer 1970 the new house caught fire. A tragicomic cause: a thunderstorm, an electrical surge, an exploding fridge. A tragic consequence. No road: no fire engine. The house burnt to ashes. With it went Geirr’s Grieg analysis, folksong collection, four-fifths of his compositions.

In such terrible circumstances, Tveitt’s piano concertos could almost be called lucky. Two, Nos.2 and 6, are seemingly lost for ever, but four, with the Variations, are not (Naxos 8.555077 for Nos. 1 and 5). Happily, his pianism was their saviour: while No. 3 exists only in a single stunning recording with him as soloist, others were published, or, as here, survive in orchestral parts and piano scores as well as tapes from his performances.

Tveitt often called the Variations, written for himself and his first wife Ingebjørg Gresvik, a "double concerto". Its première in Oslo in 1939, the year in which they separated, was greeted with great enthusiasm, as the solo couple setting sparks flying. One critic alone was not impressed: Pauline Hall, who always had it in for Tveitt; witness her snide rejoinder when he called his Third Concerto "a young student’s modest tribute to Brahms" - "Yes, a very modest tribute indeed". The present recording, too, pairs male and female pianists. The folk-song, introduced immediately by the bass clarinet, ignites the full gamut of Tveitt’s musical expression. The intricately-plotted form feels free and rhapsodic: some variations are brief, others much longer; some appear once, others return and combine to create larger shapes. A dairymaid sang Tveitt the song by the great glacier Folgafodne in Hardanger:

Now there stood the girl drawing the drink.

She answered the boy who asked for the cup*:

"First you must sing me a ballad of the stars."

"If the stars could sparkle as your golden-yellow hair

then I would sing all day long."

So said he. On the meadow** dance they now together.

[ *kjengja: traditional wooden drinking-vessel with two carved handles, usually in the shape of animal heads, looking rather like a rounded Viking longship.

**leikarvodlen: open field for folk-dancing.]

Stars always inspired Tveitt. The Starry Saharan Sky, pitch-black and sparkling, ends a suite evoking places he toured to in Southern Europe and North Africa, with his piano in the latter carried between two camels. Bjødnabrakane’s living-room ceiling Tveitt painted deep blue, covered with golden-yellow constellations. His daughter Gyri recalls how she and her younger brother Haoko lay outside on mattresses under the stars as their father talked about them. In winter, wrapped in eiderdowns, they watched in wonder the amazing "ballet performances, ever-dancing spears" and bright sheets of light that inspired his night-sky masterpiece, the Fourth Piano Concerto.

The still-mysterious aurora borealis, the Northern Lights, bright white, with green, yellow and red, are sometimes static, sometimes dramatic, shooting and flashing, beautiful, moving, even terrifying. So too Tveitt’s glittering music, piercing pyrotechnics kindled by piano and orchestra in partnership, not ignited by battle between them. Indeed, the Fourth Concerto was first performed in a two-keyboard form, when Tveitt was joined by the French pianist Geneviève Joy, in a triumphant Paris concert of the composer playing his own works. Nadia Boulanger, no less, acclaimed his "originality rooted in tradition… a breath of fresh Norwegian air". The audience, Tullemor recalled, "raised the roof". Coincidentally, she was at the Variations’ première too, five years before she met Geirr, and also witnessed the arguments surrounding the Norwegian première of the Fourth Concerto in Bergen in 1949, when sparks of a different colour flew in rehearsal between Geirr and his fiery conductor-composer friend Olav Kielland. Fortunately, they agreed to differ for the performance: a recording and the orchestral parts of which, with the two-piano version, enabled the conductor-pianist Christian Eggen’s reconstruction after the loss of the score in the fire of 1970.

Tveitt chose his Grieg quotation perfectly: the French spirit, impressionistic, even Messiaenic, irradiates the Fourth Concerto’s authentically northern light. Like Peer Gynt, far though Geirr Tveitt travels, he remains true to himself and his home.

David Gallagher

with thanks to the Tveitt family and Bjarte Engeset

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