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Norwegian Piano Music
Egge • Grieg • Hurum • Bergh • Tveitt


Vi' du me lye, eg kvea kan
um einkvan nytan drengjen,
alt um 'n Olav Åsteson,
som heve sovi so lengji.

Listen to me, I'll sing to you
Of a man both young and strong,
I'll sing of Olav Åsteson,
Who slept a sleep so long.

For much of the twentieth century every Norwegian child got to know Draumkvædet (The Dream Ballad). Its 52 verses tell of Olav's prodigious thirteen-night sleep from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, and his dream-journey to the Kingdom of the Dead, through Hell and Heaven to Armageddon and Judgement Day. Sung to its four or five traditional tunes, it has an ancient Norse ring, as if from the eleventh and twelfth centuries when Christianity was new to Norway. This is not entirely surprising, since the man who wrote Draumkvædet in the 1890s, Moltke Moe (1859–1913), Norway 's first Professor of Folklore at Oslo University, reckoned he was reconstructing exactly such a medieval ballad, a Norwegian rival to Dante's visionary poetry. Various fragments of folksongs called something like Draumkvædet had been collected in the Telemark region of south-central Norway, and Moe welded their texts into a loose narrative. But the oldest dated only from the 1840s, and Moe left barely a line unaltered, even making up bits himself to cover the joins in the jigsaw.

Did Draumkvædet 's ancient ancestor ever exist? If so, since when? And was it anything like Moe's version? The man who made the first, belated scholarly study of the folk sources in the 1970s, Michael Barnes, concluded that the answers were: probably; since at least the sixteenth century (wilder estimates have ranged from 400 to 1700 AD); and… not very.

We should not judge Moe too harshly. Norwegian folk song enthusiasts had been making similarly speculative (re-)creations ever since Draumkvædet sources were first written down, just as Elias Lönnrot did with the Finnish Kalevala around the same time. Nineteenth-century Norway was still dominated by Sweden, and the establishment of a Norwegian people's artistic heritage was central to the campaign that culminated in independence in 1905. No wonder Moe's contribution to the cause was hailed as both popular classic and literary treasure, and as a national inspiration to Norwegian painters, writers and composers.

The extreme nationalist David Monrad Johansen (1888–1974) was the first of many leading composers to set Moe's text, in 1921, and many used the Dream Ballad folk tunes, among them Klaus Egge, himself a Telemark man, born some fifty kilometres northeast of the centre of the ballad's folk tradition around Eidsborg, Kviteseid and Mo. Egge's breakthrough work, his Op. 4 (1933), was his First Piano Sonata, called Draumkvædet, its slow introduction presenting the three best-known melodies, its four movements a kind of free fantasy on them, inspired by Olav's dream-vision – not least in the Hellish Scherzo infernale. Egge's family knew many famous folk-fiddlers, and the finale also uses fiddle-tune motifs, from a halling (a fast two-beat dance) called Fille-vern (The Ragged Ram). Its final phrase returns to Draumkvædet 's refrain-melody: 'For it was Olav Åsteson who slept a sleep so long.'

Egge's sonata is at the heart of Håvard Gimse's piano-journey exploring the richness and variety of Norwegian composers' responses to the powerful folk-music stimulus. Like the 'folk text' Draumkvædet, 'folk music' begets controversy over its creation, transmission and evolution, especially once it enters the feedback-loop of notation. But from Grieg to the end of the second world war, almost every composer in Norway felt its influence.

Mo in Telemark was also the source for the melody that launches this disc: Solfager og Ormekongen (Sun-Fair and the Snake-King), with its haunting, distinctive cadence. The collector Ludvig Mathias Lindeman published it with piano accompaniment in 1858 in his huge, ongoing anthology Norwegian Mountain Melodies Old and New ; Edvard Grieg 's arrangement is the twelfth of his 25 Norwegian Folksongs and Folkdances Op. 17 (1869). Grieg barely altered the tune he found in Lindeman, preserving both its asymmetrical shape, the first half of the tune shorter than the second, and its key, G minor with varying modal inflections; his beautiful harmonization is an early high-point in what he later called his mission 'to give expression to the hidden harmonies in our folk music'.

Klaus Egge 's Second Piano Concerto, composed over half a century later (1944), uses a regularised form of the Solfager melody, in a less ambiguous modal G minor and with a brief extra answering phrase added in the middle. The symmetrical result, with two halves of equal lengths, perhaps gave Egge a stronger structural foundation for his ' Symphonic Variations and Fugue on a Norwegian Folktune ' – itself an idea reminiscent of Grieg's G minor Ballade ( Naxos 8.550883; orchestration by Geirr Tveitt: Naxos 8.557854) and Tveitt's own Variations on a Folksong from Hardanger (Naxos 8.555761). Egge introduces the Solfager tune in the cellos – appropriately, the Trondheim Soloists are directed by their principal cellist, Håvard Gimse's younger brother Øyvind – and it sparks a single span echoing traditional four-movement form: the first four variations as 'first movement', the next two as 'slow movement', the seventh variation as 'scherzo', then a piano cadenza launching a neo-Baroque fugal finale.

In the Halling Fantasy (1939), folk-fiddle inspiration is deeply assimilated into a pure two-part invention (one part for each hand) on rhythms, modes and melodic shapes associated with the halling dance-form. Egge's Op. 12, also including fantasies on the duple-time gangar and triple-time springar dances, is the bridge between his Draumkvædet Sonata and Second Piano Concerto, developing the Sonata's prominent harmonic and melodic fourths and fifths into a gritty musical language akin to Hindemith and Bartók (himself profoundly inspired by Magyar folk music). Egge's idiom later became yet more dissonant, because intrinsically contrapuntal: 'my harmony is just a direct result of the interaction of the melodic lines,' he said – 'my starting-point is the lines, not the harmony.'

Following Egge's Draumkvædet Sonata are three short pieces, each with its own folk-music angle. The Norwegian Dance No. 2 (1944 – the same year as Egge's Concerto) by Sverre Bergh is based on a springar made famous by the famously long-lived folk-fiddler 'Gamel- Holin', 'Old Holin' – Aslag Holen (1749–1838) from Gudbrandsdal, the central Norwegian valley north of Oslo. Folk-fiddling echoes too in the Miniature by Alf Hurum, especially its springar -like central section. Miniature is the second of Hurum's three Aquarelles (1912), whose title perhaps hints at his other artistic talent: painting, for which he eventually abandoned music altogether, after marrying a woman from Honolulu and moving to Hawaii, where he founded the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra.

Håvard Gimse ends with a unique première recording of a newly-discovered piece by Geirr Tveitt. Gimse's previous Tveitt recordings (Marco Polo 8.225055, 8.225056, Naxos 8.555077 and 8.555761) prompted a letter from Ragnhild Nordsjø, daughter of the fine Norwegian baritone Egil Nordsjø who worked often with Tveitt. She enclosed a music manuscript, composed by Tveitt in half an hour or so around 4pm on 24 September 1963, sitting in the car outside the church where Ragnhild was about to be married. Only a short time to write – Tveitt says in his dedication – and life is short, so these Wedding-Bells wish you joy! As in his Hardanger Tunes ( Naxos 8.555078 and 8.555770), Tveitt composes melodies so saturated with folksong-spirit that they could be traditional. But they are his own. Moltke Moe would have been proud of him…

Gamle mennar å unge
dei gjev'e etti gaum'e;
de va han Olav Åsteson,
no hev 'en tålt sine draume.

Whether you be old or young
Take heed of every word;
For Olav Åsteson slept long,
And what he dreamed, you've heard.

David Gallagher


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