In the Light of the Midnight Sun – Bjarte Engeset talks to Jeremy Siepmann
October 1, 2011
‘A Jack of all trades but a master of none.’ Not generally a compliment. But for mastery of one trade, it’s not a bad training. A conductor without some first-hand experience of several instruments is significantly disadvantaged. Bjarte Engeset has no such problem.
‘I was educated as a flutist at the Grieg Academy in Bergen, Norway, and in the US. In my conservatory years I also studied several “second” instruments: piano, recorder, violin, viola and singing. I’m not really very good at any of these, actually, but studying them was invaluable in my later work as a conductor.’
Engeset’s musical tastes range wide, but his name has become indelibly associated with that of his greatest musical compatriot. It was there, then, naturally, that we began. Grieg, I remarked, is a very popular composer. But could it be that he is also, in some ways, misunderstood? ‘I think he is, actually—in some ways. Yes. And I try to make people open their ears and minds to new and unknown sides of his music—reaching beyond the nationalism and “postcard lyricism”.’ Has his ‘nationalism’, I wondered, been something of a two-edged sword? Might it even have detracted from his reputation? ‘I find this is a very difficult concept to discuss with a clear mind. And the devastating tragedy in Norway this summer, caused by a mass murderer expressing right wing nationalism (and sometimes using the pseudonym of Sigurd Jorsalfar, both the name of a Viking King and the title of a Grieg/Bjørnson work) has made it even more difficult. Nationalism in Grieg’s lifetime took many directions, but it’s important to remember the humanistic, democratic sides of Norwegian nationalism before 1905. These were built on French and American ideals of freedom, identity, and the right to one’s own language and culture, while at the same time acknowledging internationalism. Grieg often tried to ensure that his nationalism was not misunderstood. He was also an internationalist, and not at all on the right wing, politically. It’s true that he’s been identified historically with the idea of bringing national identity into music, but in many countries this actually added to his popularity. The same thing happened with Sibelius. For many people, Grieg symbolised the little nation fighting against oppression, and he demonstrated that such nations could create and advance their own culture with deep-rooted pride. I don’t, of course, deny for one moment his importance with regard to national identity, but I do think writers and researchers often put too much emphasis on it—especially, I have to say, researchers from outside Norway. If the value of Grieg’s music lay only in presenting a Norwegian national identity, then I frankly think we should forget him. My great hope is that performers, audiences and scientists alike can also focus on his important musical and human messages. If you Google “Edvard Grieg” you’ll find a lot of postcard photos of Norwegian nature in good weather. In the short descriptions of him on the net, you’ll find that he was “a lyrical nationalistic poet, writing miniatures”. But as I never tire of demonstrating, he was very, very much more than that.’
Grieg was a distinguished pianist, and he wrote a great deal of piano music. Is this detectable in his writing for orchestra? ‘His output of solo piano music, songs with piano, and chamber music with piano, is far more extensive than his orchestral music, a good deal of which is actually arranged from piano originals. There’s no doubt, I think, that the piano and the voice (personified by Nina Grieg, his wife) were the focal point of his composition. Still, when I tell fellow musicians that there will be as many as eight CDs in the Naxos series of his orchestral music, they’re always surprised. Grieg himself thought he wrote better for the orchestra when the music was not first conceived as piano music. When he did orchestrate his piano pieces, he didn’t add many new musical elements, like independent orchestral counter-melodies. Ultimately, his musical mind in general was very much focused on colour, and I think even today his sense of orchestral colouring is too little acknowledged.’
In terms of both technique and imagination, how would Engeset rank Grieg as an orchestrator? ‘I’m not much interested in ranking him, or anybody else. As an interpreter I look first of all for the specific quality and intention of whatever music I’m performing. Of course it can be argued that Grieg as an orchestrator doesn’t reach the levels of virtuosity achieved by a Berlioz or a Richard Strauss. Nor did he copy Wagner’s virtuoso string writing. Most of the effects and orchestral techniques he employed had already been used by others. In spite of this, though, I see strong individuality and recognisability in his instrumentation.
‘Most of his orchestrations he refined during his life, after extensive experience of conducting them. It was crucial for Grieg that technique be the servant of the “message”. He never pursued sensation and virtuosity for its own sake. Everything derived from his ideas. In this way his style becomes both personal and original, without creating a school. There are two common misconceptions about Grieg’s orchestration. One says “It’s weak, so we don’t need to talk about it.” In the literature of Grieg scholarship remarkably little is written on this subject. Well I think his orchestration is not weak, and that we should talk about it! The other suggests that his orchestration is very German in character, and thus unsuited to his personal musical style. The fact is, though, that after writing his early Symphony in C minor he abandoned the mixed classical sound of the Leipzig school. He was inspired by his friend Johan Svendsen’s more contrasting style, opposing the winds and strings more than mixing them. Yes, to some degree he did become influenced by Wagner’s orchestrations, but he rejected the dense polyphonic style of the modern Germans around him (Wagner, Strauss, Reger and so on), where every part is given a mixed sonority of instruments.’
Does he, I wondered, pose any challenges to the conductor that are typically, if not definitively, Griegian? ‘I’m especially concerned with the more general aesthetic challenges posed to anyone performing Grieg, since his aesthetic universe is highly complex, with many contrasting and opposing elements. He was a poet, interested in the paradisiacal harmony between man and nature, trying to lift the audience “upward, into better worlds”. While he searched for a special kind of clarity, he was also drawn towards more dangerous and barbaric sounds, marked by strong contrasts and sharp articulation. In his often-hymn-like climaxes there’s usually a notable element of activity—his bursting flames of tremolo for example. Also typical is the contrasting of his naiveté and objective simplicity with strong emotional outbursts and mysticism. I think he was both a populist and an aristocrat, drawn equally to folklore and nobility. I personally also feel the dualism of Christianity in his music, with an undercurrent of an older, “nature” religion, where darkness and light are united. There are important distinctions here between trolls and Belzebub! So the performer has to be a kind of spiritual/emotional chameleon, changing shape and character at different times: a child, an angel, a lover, a troll, a devil…sometimes we must be several at the same time!’
From the general we turned to the specific, and to the substance of Engeset’s latest Grieg CD. ‘Grieg’s special interest in sonorities, that we were talking about earlier, is shown in his substantial use of a string orchestra within the context of his symphonic works, and in his many pieces for string orchestra alone. Our latest Naxos release features the latter, especially in the Lyric Suite. Many people, like Jay Hilfiger in his article “Grieg and the Chamber Orchestra”, believe that these are specifically works for chamber orchestra. But they’re really not. Grieg expressed many, many times in letters and diaries that he wanted a large group of strings, preferably around sixty players. And this is the size we use in our recording. It’s also worth noting that Grieg himself often included some of these works in the symphonic concerts he conducted around Europe. The Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34, and The Holberg Suite, Op. 40, were often included in such programmes. Here Grieg explores the exciting spectrum of sounds that you get in the really large, “symphonic” string orchestra, with all its fullness, fusion, power and depth of sonority. These scores usually have nine or more staves, the strings divided in many different combinations—for instance, where he divides the violins into four sections, the large number of players gives every group a truly symphonic, tutti sound. It’s also very rewarding for the players (Grieg’s numerous notated effects and dynamic markings encourage performers to explore the finest of nuances). And behind many of these works, too, there’s also a song, with a text that can inspire the interpretation. Of course these pieces can be played by chamber orchestra, but I think a performance with sixty strings, focusing on dynamics and contrasts of colour, can really result in something very special.’
Grieg is among the most famous composers in the world. The same can hardly be said of Ludvig Irgens-Jensen. Yet Engeset is in no doubt of his stature. ‘He was a European, (born 1894; died 1969) who was influenced by both German and French culture and spent extended periods in Berlin and Paris. Unlike Grieg, he never aimed to create a specifically Norwegian musical identity. As well as being a sensitive lyric poet he was also a sceptic and a rationalist, and much of his music has a characteristically elegiac melancholy. When he was young, he was seen as one of the modernists; later on, some saw him as a conservative classicist. The two main works in our new CD are among the peaks of twentieth century Norwegian orchestral music, and for many years in the mid-twentieth-century they attracted a lot of attention, both nationally and internationally, and were quite frequently performed. The Passacaglia (original version 1928) was played with great success by many orchestras in the US and around Europe, and the Berlin Philharmonic played it twice between the two world wars. Unsurprisingly, it had a very high status in Norwegian music.
‘He was something of a humanistic philosopher, with an all-embracing vision of art. Throughout his life he grappled with the big questions about human existence. His only Symphony (which is also included in this new CD) was created before and during the Second World War years. But I feel very strongly that it’s not only “about the war”. The pessimism inherent in his original concept of the work also points towards the terrible knowledge and cataclysms that came after 1942, most recently, of course, the tragedy inflicted on our country this summer. The Symphony has mostly been played in a two-movement form. In this new release, however, all three movements of the symphony can be heard for the first time on CD.’
Engeset’s great experience embraces both the public concert and the ever-challenging world of recording. As a conductor, however, he sees relatively little of the studio. ‘When recording with orchestra we normally use concert halls—the only differences from concerts being that there’s no audience and we can play the music many times. The lack of audience, of course, is a liability since it can lead to a lack of inspiration, which does no-one any good. In almost any repertoire there must be a state of urgency in the music-making, so for a recording we must marshal all we can of our insights, emotions, talents, energy and intensity. But the fact that we can play the music many times, of course, can be a real virtue. Since we have more chances, we can be brave! The quest for “perfection” should never take away the element of bravery and risk. It’s much harder to reach a person through loudspeakers than to do it live. So whatever we play must have strong conviction. It must say something important.’
However challenging, whatever the risks, it’s in the realm of recording that Engeset has reaped many of his richest artistic rewards: ‘There are of course many concerts that I remember with the greatest joy, but I have to say that the Naxos project of recording everything by Grieg for orchestra, including the choral/orchestral works, has been especially rewarding. Among other things I used the opportunity to read a lot of the literature about Grieg, not least his own writings, in so many well written letters, diaries, articles etc. This project has made it possible for me to really delve deeply into Grieg’s aesthetic universe. I’ve conducted his music for years, basically from an intuitive basis. Because of this project I now maybe have some more knowledge about this music. For example I must say that performing and recording the complete theatre music for Peer Gynt was a very special period for me. Such a project of course also makes you feel humble, and you always know it can never be “The Ultimate Recording”. Happily for us all, such a thing does not exist!’
But since when was a true artist fazed by attempting the impossible? Schopenhauer once made a telling distinction between talent and genius. ‘Talent,’ he said, or words to this effect, ‘is like a marksman who hits a target others cannot hit. Genius hits a target that others cannot even see.’ Genius or otherwise, the artist at least tries to see. And in the trying sometimes succeeds.
Previous releases of Grieg’s Orchestral Music conducted by Bjarte Engeset:
Bjarte Engeset conducts more Norwegian orchestral music:
Bjarte Engeset Biography & Discography
Edvard Grieg Biography & Discography
Ludvig Irgens-Jensen Biography & Discography