Concert: BBC Concert Orchestra/Engegard

22 February, BBC Concert Orchestra/Engegard at Queen Elizabeth Hall

12/09/2005 :: From Times - 22/02/2005, by Geoff Brown

BBC Concert Orchestra/Engegard. Queen Elizabeth Hall ***

Look up Hardanger fiddle in the 1954 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music and you will find yourself being directed to "Violin Family (Obsolete Members)".

Frankly, that is rude. And also untrue: last week there was nothing remotely obsolete about Nils Okland, accoutred in red tunic, breeches and buckle shoes, escorting his richly decorated Norwegian folk fiddle through solo dances, a bridal march, a foot-tapping concert and two of his own evocative pieces.

To make matters worse, Grove suggests that this Hardanger fiddle, cousin in build and size to the Baroque violin, endured a "brief and unimportant life". Time for a libel action, I'd say. I'd not even label the actual music in this BBC Nordic Adventures concert unimportant: instead let's say refreshing, novel, easy to listen to. Radio 3's Fiona Talkington was our host: too much the sandwich board at times -concerts, CDs, the fabulous fjords -but at least she believed in what she advertised.

And Okland's fiddle? A charming instrument, though like its Baroque relatives with a quick ability to slip out of tune: audible mostly in the alternately swirling and hovering sounds of the Three Fjords concerto by the intriguing 20th century composer Geirr Tveitt. Most of the night's sweetest sounds emerged during Okland's own solo pieces, where the fingering often took him high in register, ideal for contemplating his chosen subject-matter: the far horizon and walking in Norway's mountains.

The conductor Arvid Engegard, new to Britain, joined Okland on violins for some spirited fiddling himself. But his chief task was using his hands to steer the hard-working BBC Concert Orchestra through unfamiliar music from Norwegian nationalists other than Grieg: along with the Tveitt, Halvorsen's winning Devil's Dance and Svendsen's bustling Norwegian Artists' Carnival. You couldn't call the performances idiomatic, or polished to the nth degree; but they got the notes out.

And in Anne Dudley's Northern Lights, the last new piece to emerge from her term as the orchestra's composer in association, the players did something more.

Sluggish cold strings suggested the dark on a frozen lake. Then glints from harp and celesta led towards the aurora borealis, the fiesta of light, conjured up in brilliant orchestrations. For 13 minutes, you felt yourself in Norway itself, far from the unlovely Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Limited

From Independent - 22/02/2005, by Robert Maycock

ANOTHER Nordic Adventure, and after last September's Finnish package, the BBC Concert Orchestra had a better time with Norway. The mix was again classical and folk in the style of Radio 3's Late Junction, complete with Fiona Talkington to present from the platform and a notably obscure repertoire, but the programme gelled and the orchestra played like a snow tiger let out of its cage.

Much of this effect was down to the energy and sympathy generated by Arvid Engegard, a leading violinist developing a career as conductor. Much, also, to a wondrous instrument called the Hardanger fiddle.

This violin variant has extra strings that vibrate freely, like those on a sitar, producing an extra halo of resonance and overtones that colours the sound in haunting shades. In the hands of a virtuoso like Nils Okland, the visiting soloist, it can generate subtle grades and changes of timbre, but the tuning systems and harmonics and drones have limited its appearances in classical music.

Okland dipped into its rich traditional repertoire, including his own compositions, some of the pieces in lively duet with Engegard and some played on conventional violin. More, please, would have been the feeling of many listeners.

The evening moved on to the first-ever piece for Hardanger fiddle and orchestra, a short dance composed 100 years ago by Johan Halvorsen - really an arrangement of an old fiddle tune, with the "orchestra" featuring just the violins.

More of this effect appeared in the Concerto No 2 by Geirr Tveitt, a prolific 20th-century composer whose obscurity is down to most of his scores being lost in a fire. On this showing, he had a flair for combining refined sounds with national feeling - a Norwegian parallel to his Finnish contemporaries Merikanto and Klami.

Because of its length, the concerto had to deal with the Hardanger fiddle's inability to change key. Tveitt tried hard to introduce harmonic variety, but had to fall back on silencing the fiddle and having fun with the orchestra. He found ways to let the fiddle timbre shine through, weaving ingenious chord patterns around it in the darkly coloured slow movement.

But it took a dose of Grieg, in a vivid performance of the Norwegian Dances, to show what real genius could do by way of combining folk-style melody and classical key structures.

The surprise treat of the concert was its premiere, a Radio 3 commission from Anne Dudley, and her final act as the orchestra's composer in association. Northern Lights is a tone poem that follows the form of an aurora borealis display Dudley had seen. Dense string chords shift in regular groups, the rhythm gradually loosening until the pace increases with touches of harp, solo violin, celesta, timpani roll and eventually woodwind. A folk tune sings out, lines intermix. The later stages seemed to need a bigger event than they got, but the end itself, with timpani and string chords, had a quiet, compelling atmosphere that rounded out the sense of subdued wonder.

Copyright 2005 Newspaper Publishing PLC

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