TVEITT: Piano Concerto No. 1 in F, Op. 1. Piano Concerto No. 5,
Håvard Gimse, pianist/Royal Scottish National Orch/Bjarte Engeset, cond.
NAXOS 8.555077 (B) (DDD) TT: 52:10
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Many of us would like to believe that the survival of a work of art connects inextricably to its merit. The best survives. The unworthy shakes out and eventually disappears. The view may comfort some, but it's really a circular argument made extremely doubtful by the facts of history. Aristotle's treatise on dramatic poetry, possibly the single most influential piece of criticism in Western European culture, had a brother, on comedy, which hasn't survived. We know of plays by Sophocles and his contemporaries, but not the plays themselves. In fact, we know of many of Sophocles's contemporaries solely from excerpts quoted in Aristotle, Plato, and other classical non-dramatic writers. Who can tell what was destroyed when Caesar burned the library of Alexandria, one of the glories of the classical world, to the ground?
Closer to our own time lies the case of Norwegian composer and piano virtuoso Geirr Tveitt (1908-81). His critics described him as an "unstoppable waterfall" of composition, with well over three hundred works to his credit. In 1970, fire destroyed Tveitt's house and the over 300 manuscripts stored there. Tveitt had published very little, mostly by his own choice, since he liked to revise and tweak. Indeed, stories abound about him arriving at performances of his own music with new orchestral parts, the revisions having occurred to him at the rehearsals, and his apparent improvisations of new material during performance. A major source of Tveitt's pre-1970 music comes from recordings, but very few of these recordings jibe with published scores.
It seems to have been a disaster for us, as well as for the composer. This CD counts not only as my first exposure to Tveitt's music, but to his name. I've been listening to classical music for a very long time, and I've made it a point to seek out composers I don't know. Often I've wasted my time and my money. Occasionally, however, I come across something quite fine, if not exactly life-changing, and that's enough. If you enjoy composers like Alwyn and Rubbra, you might give Tveitt a try.
As a modern Norwegian nationalist, Tveitt consequently had to deal with the facts of Grieg and Johansen. He initially reacted against Grieg and for Johansen in terms of anti- and pro-Norwegian, respectively. Grieg he felt had been hurt by German training. Later, however, he cooled toward Johansen and began to more greatly appreciate Grieg's achievement, perhaps because he knew more of Grieg's work and began himself to arrange Norwegian folk tunes. Tveitt's music strikes me as an unusual and very compelling mix: Grieg meets Modernism. But Tveitt has more compositional skill than Grieg His own German training (in Grieg's Leipzig, by the way) seems to have helped him produce works that convince over the long haul. However, his command of structure is complete and highly individual. He doesn't really have to think about form because he's thoroughly assimilated the principles, just as a composer like FaurČ does. As a result, he tends to work with sonata-like, rather than with sonata, structure.
Furthermore, Tveitt had these gifts early. His first concerto, written around the age of 18, bowls you over with its complete assurance and its unreliance on classroom models. The liner notes by David Gallagher talk of the influence of Prokofiev and Holst, but I really don't hear these composers in either concerto. I do hear Grieg, mainly because Tveitt writes symphonic springars and hallingsin other words, the folk heritage they share. Rachmaninoff tends to come in at large lyrical climaxes, and that's fine by me, but he is largely otherwise absent. In the first concerto, I hear something that sounds like Hindemith, but that probably comes from themes heavy with fourths and fifths (an upward fifth generates almost every single theme in the concerto). The movements run to an unusual slow-fast-slow. The first movement, "Tranquillo," lives up to its billing. In some ways, it recalls the opening to the Beethoven fourth concerto. Its heart-stoppingly beautiful recapitulation seems to appear almost by magic. The second movement, a halling, provides a high-spirited contrast, without one predictable moment. The finale, my least favorite movement of the three, takes a gorgeous song-like theme for a walk and builds to large climaxes. It's those large, loud places where Tveitt's youth betrays itself. He tends to fall back on the tropes of the late Romantic concerto, and, if we consider the amazing originality of the rest of the work, jarringly so. Still, the ending is a honey. The concerto just ends, kind of in the middle of something, as if a staircase led to a drop. It is, nevertheless, a serene ending.
The fifth concerto shows a composer who has gone his own way without becoming eccentric or even bizarre. There's an opening passage for trombones which Gallagher ties to Holst's "Uranus," but the moment is so fleeting and no other Holst is there that I strongly doubt an influence and to learn that Tveitt had never heard The Planets wouldn't surprise me. Tveitt's idiom has become tougher, conceding little to the song-like lyricism of the earlier concerto. Even its lyrical sections are ruffled by well-judged dissonances, rippling just beneath the surface. Gallagher also connects the concerto to such British composers as Moeran, Bax, and Alwyn, although he does make the point (I believe closer to the truth) that the affinity is probably due to the shared influence of Sibelius. In this fifth concerto, I also sometimes hear startling reminders of second-period Tippett. Yet this hunt for resemblanceshelpful in trying to convey the nature of Tveitt's music to those who haven't heard itin many ways misses the point. All of these people, including Sibelius, sound mainly like themselves.
The later concerto surpasses the youthful one in the complexity of form and ideas. The first movementthe longest on the CDhas little relation to familiar classical forms but is nevertheless very tight in its use of motives. It certainly doesn't sound episodic (Gallagher's phrase) to me. The second movement spins out a song of great emotional ambiguity. It's beautiful, but it stands so far away from conventional lyrical rhetoric, you may not know how it's pushing you.Just enjoy it. he finale, a vigorous dance movement, sounds like one of those "nearly-but-not-really-a-sonata" things that Tveitt apparently turned to naturally. It's really a sign of his mastery of composition, this kind of freedom. I find particularly interesting his use of "motor rhythms." Somehow he manages to sound thoroughly modern and yet relate them to late Romantic musicperhaps Norwegian folk dance provides the key. It's a grand affair, with again the ghost of Rachmaninoff hanging around the major climax of the movement, but the work impresses me, at any rate, as more psychologically complex than the Russian master.
Obviously, since I've not heard anyone else perform this music, I find it difficult to say how much of my rave for this disc comes from the music itself and how much from the playing. The music absolutely knocks me out. Obviously, the players do at least well enough. The key, I believe, lies in the fifth concerto. Engeset commands the musical argument to such an extent that he never loses you. Gimse's fingers generate some exciting climaxes and some beautifully lyric playing. Occasionally, the textures become a trifle cloudy, and I'd like to hear what Hamelin or Blumenthal would make of these works. Nevertheless, I'm not sure the results would significantly better the Naxos people. Very fine music-making in unfamiliar territory. The sound is quite good.
This will probably remain one of my favorite Naxos discs.
S.G.S. (May 2001)