Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Ronen finale: Norwegian guests join Ronen Chamber Ensemble for program of Grieg, Franck and others

The Ronen Chamber Ensemble marked the conclusion of its current Sister Cities Project season with a focus on
Norway that benefited from the participation of two first-class Norwegian musicians.

Chamber-music masterpieces performed by locally connected musicians constituted the two substantial works at the program's start and finish at Indiana Landmarks Center Tuesday evening.

Adept pianist Einar Røttingen
Paying immediate tribute to its guests, the Ronen program opened with Edvard Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 2 in G major, op. 13.  Violinist Jayna Park was joined by Ronen pianist/artistic director Gregory Martin in a work typical of its composer in melodic charm contrasted with energetic dancelike episodes.

The recitative-like opening statement by the violin first grabbed the attention, performed as if in confirmation that the minimizing label of "nationalist" composer sits uneasily upon a creator with fresh things to say in absolute music. The florid phrases in the main theme of the second movement were particularly inviting, as if fulfilling the hesitant promise of the piano introduction. In the finale, lyrical contrasts to the music's vigorous manner were balanced and expressively forward-looking, which made the duo's relative lack of bravura in the final measures a tad disappointing.

Jumping to the program finale, Martin was back onstage to be joined by violist Li Li, co-founder and artistic director Ingrid Fischer-Bellman (cello), and violinist Joel Smirnoff for a sojourn away from Scandinavia that lent the program part of its title, "Grieg and Music of Fin-de-Siecle France." The vehicle was Gabriel Fauré's Piano Quartet No. 1 in C minor, op. 15.  The weight of that "fin-de-siecle" label may today be a bit lost amid wave after wave of successive fads and trends both cultural and specifically musical.

Yet it's clear that the continuing appeal of a late-19th-century aesthetic, especially that centered in France, comes through in some of Fauré's best music. It's summed up in a sentence of description from the entry about the composer (1845-1924) in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians: "He...sometimes yielded to the gracefulness of the '1880s style' — melodious, tortuous and languid...." The rippling rapidity of the piano in the second movement, against pizzicato strings, emphasized gracefulness for its own sake. And those three salient adjectives all apply significantly to the third movement; the pathos of the second theme in particular was well-marked in this performance.

Njål Sparbo, Ronen's guest baritone
It must be said that there was a meeting of musical minds in the performance that was not always matched by the execution, which reflected the unalterable fact that we were hearing a one-time-only group of four professionals aiming to produce a common effect. It came close to representing the piece well, however.

The great treat that made the concert special was the participation of Njål Sparbo, baritone, and Einar Røttingen, his countryman at the piano for several songs,  as well as for some short solo pieces. Røttingen showed a gift for fully characterizing miniatures, such as Harald Sœverud's "Her Last Cradlesong," a mother's lament for her dead infant, and a sonatina movement that was plainly frivolous, with a flippant ending that delighted the audience.

Similarly, Geirr Tveitt, like Sœverud a Norwegian countryman esteemed as a lesser light to Grieg, was represented as a composer for solo piano by the brooding, romantic "Fare Thee Well" and the picturesque "Mountain Call," in which Røttingen deftly projected the echo effect of phrases repeated as if over a wide expanse. After intermission, Grieg, an exquisite composer for piano, got proper exposition with two memorable pieces given full honor in the guest pianist's interpretation: "Arietta" (op. 12, no. 1) and "Notturno" (op. 54, no. 4).

Sparbo displayed a fine, flexible baritone, solid in all registers, in Grieg's "The Time of Roses," "With a Water Lily," and "The Old Mother." The tone had a consistent glow, and especially in "The Old Mother," sensitively applied dynamics. His easy reach into a floating upper voice reminiscent of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's first showed up in Tveitt's "March Evening." That composer was also represented in what could almost be called a scena after the linked dramatic solos familiar in Italian opera; but "Night and Day" did not involve dramatic impersonation embracing several moods so much as a diverse narrative that brought to life a Norse creation myth involving a striding giant and cosmic horses galloping in relay. Thus the steeds were imagined to have created night and day — which, in the Arctic regions, have commanding positions for about half the year each. Sparbo's characterization was full-bore and as spellbinding, even given the language barrier, as a master storyteller's.

1 comment:

  1. It was a wonderful concert! Especially breath-taking was Norwegian baritone Njål Sparbo and his countryman Einar Røttingen, at the piano. Their presentation of two songs by composer Geirr Tveitt, and (after Intermission) three songs by Edvard Grieg was transporting into the different moods and scenes of each piece. Mr. Harvey did not overstep when he likened Njål Sparbo to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. I am lucky enough to have heard Fischer-Dieskau singing lieder in a small hall in the mid 1960's and I realized immediately that I was being treated to that special feeling of being drawn in to inhabit the setting of a song.