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ClassicsOnline Home » TVEITT: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5
By Guy Rickards
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
By Philip Anson
La Scena Musicale
Geirr Tveitt (1908 - 1981)
Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 5
There are a lot of trees in Norway. A banal fact, but one that can have devastating consequences. Even today, a lot of Norwegian building work uses wood; a lot of Norwegian towns have burnt down not once but several times. When the composer Geirr Tveitt's house on his ancestral hillside farmstead, above Norheimsund by the Hardangerfjord in western Norway, burnt to the ground on 12th July 1970, with it went a lifetime of musical creation. Over 300 works, neatly filed away in eight huge (wooden) cupboards, were destroyed: four-fifths of Tveitt's output. Music had always poured from him like, people said an "unstoppable waterfall"; now it slowed to a trickle.
Waterfalls; hills; forests; fjords: ideally Norwegian metaphors for Tveitt's life and work. Consciously or subconsciously, a need to be "Norwegian" was one of his deepest driving forces; specifically, west Norwegian. His family name comes from the Old Norse word for a cultivated forest clearing or hillside plateau (a "thwaite", in some dialects of English) - that very Hardanger farmstead where his family had lived for eight centuries or more. Christened Nils, the young composer obviously did not feel Norwegian enough - his two siblings had both been given ancient Norwegian names, and he chose to be called Geirr, from an old word for "spear". Enthralled as a teenager by local songs and especially the Hardanger fiddle, the decorated folk violin of western Norway, with sympathetic strings below the fingerboard, like a viola d'amore, Tveitt took as his compositional foundation the modal scales of Norwegian folk-tunes. His first published pieces were a set of Twelve Two-Part inventions in the Lydian, Phrygian and Dorian modes, and by the age of thirty he had produced an extraordinary , if far-fetched, treatise which postulated a uniquely Nordic theory of music, based on the idea that the modes are in reality old Scandinavian scales; Tveitt even gave them names in Old Norse: rir, sum, fum, tyr... The intervening years had seen his high-spirited symphonic poem Prillar and a gigantic ballet on Norse legends, Baldur's Dreams, for an equally gigantic orchestra including nine gigantic specially-designed drums, tuned pentatonically. This early fascination with national music drew Tveitt for a time, like many colleagues who had come of age in the 1920s, towards the composer David Monrad Johansen, already acclaimed as Norway's great white hope and soon to be celebrated as Grieg's biographer (string quartets by Grieg and Johansen are available on Naxos 8.550879). Hoping, in vain, that Johansen would help him have Prillar performed, eloquent young Geirr wooed him with honeyed words, calling his choral works "the dawn of Norwegian music" and approving his thesis that Grieg's German training had stunted his growth as a "national" composer. Later in life, Tveitt was up with the earlier Norwegian sunrise, illuminating, in analyses, orchestrations and performance, Grieg's own remarkably radical modal language, above all in his treatment of Hardanger fiddle music. Back home in Hardanger during World War Two, Tveitt collected over a thousand folk-tunes, later using them in his hundred Hardanger Tunes for orchestra, and hundreds more for piano (of which fifty have survived, recorded on Marco Polo 8.225055 and 8.225056). These, his most famous works, include Do you hear the song in the waterfall's roar?, which Reidar Storaas used as a motto for his recent biography of Tveitt: "The song in the waterfall's roar". Amid the genuine folk melodies hide many original Tveitt-tunes, but who knows which? As Tveitt said of his musical roots in the Hardanger region, "If a leaf grows on a birch tree, it necessarily becomes a birch leaf'. And in the 1950s and 1960s he wrote two concertos for Hardanger fiddle; the second, "Three Fjords", opening with a loving evocation of the Hardangerfjord.
This "Norse" Tveitt is rather less than half of the story - a story with many piquant ironies. Like Grieg, both Tveitt and Johansen spent many years studying in
Tveitt's music, like the man, is indeed both intensely vernacular and utterly cosmopolitan. Strong "Norwegian" rhythms and ostinato patterns complement a French flavour in the superb orchestration and piano figuration, the impressionistic harmonies and textures. The Lydian mode of much Norwegian folk-music - with its sharpened fourth note, mingles happily, sometimes simultaneously, with a plethora of other modes and scales: in defiance of his own treatise, Tveitt's modality is much less uncompromising than Bartók's or Vaughan Williams'. His theories may posit a "primitive" sound-world, reinventing music almost from first principles like his Icelandic contemporary Jón Leifs, inspired by the barbaric grandeur of Nordic Nature. But far from the waterfall's roar, Tveitt's surviving piano concertos, four out of six, more often suggest two fellow composer-pianists from Russia, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev.
The Piano Concerto no. 1, written in Leipzig soon after the Two-Part Inventions, gave Tveitt his first public hearing three years later, on 5th June 1931: the solo part was played by Tveitt's fellow-student, the American Jewish composer Herman Berlinski, with their conducting teacher Alfred Szendrei directing the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra, some of whose members were soon to be arrested by the SS in mid-rehearsal. The First Concerto is a strikingly mature work for a student barely out of his teens: three compact movements bound together by the rising interval of a fifth that launches them all. The haunting opening melody generates everything in the rhapsodic first movement, while the central "scherzo", built even more strictly around a single theme, has the character of a Halling or Gangar, a Norwegian folk-dance in fast duple time, hurtling to an abrupt, almost Bartókian close. The finale, a kind of mirror-image of the first movement, confirms young Geirr's fondness for high piano decoration, and piles one fifth atop another en route to a grand Rachmaninovesque climax and a tender, and formally satisfying, final fade-out.
Anyone who knows The Planets will sit up at the start of the Fifth Piano Concerto: with its suggestion of Uranus, the Magician, Tveitt conjures less searchingly than Holst with his motto-theme: in contrast to the First Concerto, the Fifth, the only one to be published, is as big-boned and 1oose-limbed as Geirr himself, a glittering showpiece for an itinerant virtuoso. On 12th May 1954 the Théâtredes Champs-Elysées saw Tveitt's last, and perhaps greatest, Parisian triumph: with Jean Martinon conducting the Lamoureux orchestra, he played the First Concertos of both Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and then gave the first performance of his own Fifth Concerto; "lightning flashes, a hurricane is unleashed by his fingers" said Le Monde. Stylistically, the Fifth Concerto has many affinities with British music: Holstian austerity meets the glamour of Grainger against the filmic backcloth of William Alwyn, while Tveitt's sometimes chilly writing for strings, or woodwind in parallel thirds, is reminiscent not so much of Sibelius, its ultimate source, as of Britons supping at the same spring: Moeran, Patrick Hadley, and Bax, who also shared Tveitt's Russian influences. The central slow movement, Danse aux campanules bleues (or The song of the cattlebells in the Blue Mountains), with its wide-spaced, Prokofiev-like textures, is evocatively restrained, echoing the thematic economy of Tveitt's finest Hardanger Tunes, an innocent picture of the high pastures, or an invocation of the sinister supernatural creatures whose legendary bellsong lures humans after them inside the mountain. Structurally more episodic, the outer movements compensate with the fresh brilliance of their orchestral and pianistic effects, and their ever-inventive variations on several recurring themes -"streaming with the abundance of mountain waterfalls set free by the spring warmth", gushed another Parisian critic; one glorious, surging melody above all. It grows from embryo in the opening Springar, the most common Norwegian folk-dance, in triple time, to reach its apotheosis, transformed into duple rhythm, in the final Halling, out-Rachmaninoving Rachmaninov.
We are lucky to have the First Concerto in a definitive version: the Fifth, like so many of Tveitt's works, proved more elusive. Just as Norway's greatest artist Edvard Munch painted several variations on some of his most famous subjects, including The Scream, so for Tveitt, as for other performer-composers, a piece could have as many forms as it had performances. He would alter orchestral parts just before going on stage, and seemingly re-improvise at the piano in concert. This "fluid form", for future revision, partly explains why he kept all those scores himself, fatally perfect fuel for the fire. Manuscripts which survived elsewhere sometimes differ wildly from recorded performances by Tveitt, raising questions as to which is the "right" version. For the Fifth Concerto, several scores and two – divergent - concert recordings by the composer had to be reconciled. Some works exist only in Tveitt's recordings; should we use them to "reconstruct" the music? A musicologist's nightmare, or dream - but also an exhaustingly practical problem for performers, and for the Tveitt family. In the years since Geirr's death, the critical tide has turned again in his favour; more and more musicians want to play and study his pieces, and the loss of l2th July 1970 looms ever larger.
A final irony. The young Geirr Tveitt also showed a natural talent for drawing; music being a perpetually precarious profession, his father hoped he would prefer the safer living of architect. Would he have built wooden houses?
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TVEITT: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 5