TVEITT: Prillar; Sun God
I recently encountered this composer for the first time with a Naxos release of the first and fifth piano concerti (reviewed at this site). The program here consists of two orchestral works. As with most of Tveitt's compositions, these represent a kind of editorial compromise. Like Chabrier (who left many of his scores in pencil), Tveitt seemed to have a holy horror of publishing or of finishing a work. He continually tweaked his manuscripts, often from rehearsal to performance, and he left most of his catalogue in manuscript. Over 300 scores went up in flames in a 1970 house fire, of which some were salvageable, some were recorded, and some had actually seen print. Discrepancies among manuscripts, recordings, and published scores jump around like a swarm of fleas.
Prillar had an even more interesting flirtation with oblivion than most of Tveitt's scores. He wrote it while still technically a student in the late Twenties. He planned a series of similar pieces, but the score never got a performance. Almost ten years after Tveitt's death, his son, rummaging in his father's barn (which had escaped the fire), found the manuscript, torn into strips, in a bag. The composer had apparently torn up the score in frustration, consigned it to the rubbish, and forgot about it. This, ironically, saved the score. It's one of the few we have in the composer's hand.
Prillar refers to the prillarhorn, a Norwegian folk reed instrument made from a goat's horn. To Tveitt, the prillar was to be a composition that formally went its own way. However, everything I've heard by Tveitt does that, so I have little idea how he distinguished prillars from the rest of his output. Tveitt subtitled the piece "Music in Norwegian Modes for Orchestra." The work divides into three movements. From the first, Tveitt grabs the listener with an arresting idea emphasizing the Lydian mode. It sounds like everybody's idea of the ideal Scandinavian music: broad melodies in the brass, drones in open fifths, and crisp, clean orchestration. The liner notes by Hallgjerd Aksnes point out influences from Norwegian fiddle music, which I know next to nothing about. It reminds me of the folk-influenced compositions of Hugo Alfvén, musically raised to a whole other level. However, Tveitt, unlike Alfvén, seldom indulges in nostalgia. His artistic personality lies closer to someone like Vaughan Williams -- folk music gave him a key to expressing current concerns. Structurally, the work rattles a bit, unlike, say, the piano concerti. Still, Tveitt impresses one with the variety he can extrude from essentially two ideas. The first movement lasts over 15 powerful minutes, imposing for a young composer barely out of his teens. The second, slow movement strikes one on the whole as less original, more open about its influences, including the Ravel of Daphnis et Chloé. Here, the student composer shows himself more clearly but nevertheless earns one's admiration in sustaining yet another long movement (about 12 minutes). People said of Tveitt that music poured out of him "like a flood," and apparently it did so early. One thing about a flood is that it's all of a piece. Tveitt not only says a lot, he says it coherently. The third movement, the shortest at a substantial nine minutes, interests me the most, with unusual, asymmetric dance rhythms. Harmonically and contrapuntally the most complex and least conventional of the three, the movement seems to bound along in large phrases of seven beats before settling into a contrasting section of triple time. The drones and the violins' imitation of folk fiddling put in an appearance. At one point, you hear startling reminiscences of Borodin's Polovtsian Dances. As Aksnes puts it, the work relates to both Norwegian nationalism and European music generally -- a powerful blend of the local and the cosmopolitan. One hesitates to call such an original work a mere "showpiece," but it has that kind of attraction.
The Sun God Symphony really is a symphony in name only. It started as a monumental ballet on the myth of Baldur and went through various incarnations, due mainly to the exigencies of performance. The last form was an orchestral suite called Three Pieces from Baldur's Dreams. The fire claimed the manuscript, although some damaged parts survive from the complete score of Baldur's Dreams. An editor, Kaare Dyvik Husby, constructed the version recorded here from a piano score, the remains of the fire, and two recordings: the first from 1938, the second from 1958. According to Aksnes, we should consider this a version of the orchestral suite of the ballet.
Husby certainly put in a lot of work, and I'm very grateful for every scrap of Tveitt saved. However, it strikes me that the work hangs together only as a ballet. Despite some inspired, even awe-inspiring moments, one needs the narrative, hard to escape for a piece conceived as a story. The work doesn't come close in running time to the Prillar, and yet it seems to go on longer. Despite brilliant orchestration, it meanders, whether due to Tveitt or to his editor I have no idea. It would make a great movie score, however, and I say it without condescension. I find the last movement the best of the three. The musical ideas and their working out are the most interesting in themselves. Tveitt conceives the plan as a crescendo over the longest span. Aksnes points out its Bolero structure, with mostly the same idea repeated with variations in accompaniment and orchestration. Tveitt's idea is much simpler than Ravel's, but he manages, nevertheless, to pull off all the repetition. The climax, with its La Valse trombone slides, will go through you. I realize I've referred to Ravel quite a bit, but Tveitt never merely imitates. All of his steals he makes his own.Ruud and the Stavanger make a fine case for this little-known composer. They pass the most difficult test of all: they make you want to hear more of Tveitt. This is one exciting disc overall. The playing and, above all, the musicianship of the ensemble are quite fine. Ruud knows what he wants from these fiery works, and the players give it to him. Almost every track tells.
S.G.S. (Aug. 2001)