Hvoslef’s Piano Concerto & Other Works

Hvoslef Piano Concerto

HVOSLEF: Piano Concerto.1 Ein Traumspiel.2 Barabbas, Opera Without Singers.3 / 1Leif Ove Andsnes, pno; Bergen Philharmonic Orch.; 1Edward Gardner, 2Eivind Gullberg Jensen, 3Juanjo Mena, cond / Simax PSC 1375 (live: 2April 14-15, 2011; 3March 21-22, 2013, Bergen)

Having reviewed a goodly amount of Ketil Hvoslef’s chamber music, I was happy to have a chance to review some of his orchestral compositions. As you can see above, the Piano Concerto is performed by two well-known artists, pianist Leif Ove Andsnes and British conductor Edward Gardner. The other two works are led by lesser-known conductors.

The music is much like Hovslef’s other scores: dramatic, a bit eccentric and full of surprises, yet well developed and fascinating. The principal difference is that, having a full symphony orchestra to work with, the dramatic moments have a much greater impact. The concerto opens with a crashing chord which leads into edgy but sparsely-orchestrated motifs; the piano enters very high up in its range before coming down to the middle of the keyboard to continue. Hvoslef notes in the booklet that his concerto actually features two pianos, the soloist in the foreground and a second piano, placed further back, which plays “echoes” of the first piano’s music. In this work, however, I found that Hvoslef scatters his thematic material and does not construct the work in a linear fashion, and this may throw some listeners off. As the music progresses, there are also several episodes of metallic-sounding percussion as well as passages of swirling high winds to complement the whirlwind of music going on in the foreground. Towards the end of the first movement is a passage that sounds as if it had been lifted from George Antheil’s Ballet Mécanique.

The second movement is neither lovely nor relaxing, but more of the same only at a somewhat slower tempo. The pianos’ contribution here is sparse, which makes the echo effect of the second piano more audible, and seems to be merely commenting on the ominous mood of the piece. At the 6:40 mark, the piano continues its sparse note-making while the lower and middle strings play continuous tremolos that gradually built up in volume to a tremendous climax. This slow, mysterious mood continues into the third movement, though there are signs of more animated music at about 1:50 before it bursts out at the 2:20 mark—but it doesn’t entirely burst out, as it keeps receding into a quieter space with the principal piano playing a series of repeated notes, then moving into a series of minor-key chords which rise and fall. By and large, I liked the music without feeling it was really a piano concerto. A very eccentric work, to say the least.

Ein Traumspiel, or A Dream Play, wa commissioned by conductor Eivind Gullberg Jensen when he was appointed conductorin-chief of the Norddeutscher Rundfunk Symphony in 2009. The work is based on August Strindberg’s poetic drama of the same title from 1902. Strindberg’s worldview acquired magical overtones in the misfortunes of life he saw, “signs from the powers.,” that wanted to chastise and punish him. In Stindberg’ drama, the daughter of the god Indra descends to earth. Like the Buddha in India, she understands that human life consists of suffering, and that is their pity. It was a perfect inspiration for the already fatefully-driven Hvoslef, and he creates a typically odd work with an atypically haunting minor-key melody in the middle, though most of it inhabits a nightmare world in which no solace or resolution may be found.

Barabbas, loosely based on the Biblical thief whose life was spared by the rabid crowd when asked to choose the name of one prisoner to be released from the punishment of crucifixion, is described as an “opera without words”—yet considering how little is known of Barabbas from the Bible, the “plot” of this opera comes from Michel de Ghelderode’s surrealist 1928 play of the same title. When Ghelderode’s play was finally staged in Oslo in 1981, Hvoslef composed the music to accompany the drama. This “opera,” though containing entirely different music, grew out of that experience. It’s an interesting piece but, to my ears, surprisingly episodic for Hvoslef. It doesn’t really coalesce the way his other music does, and without a real synopsis (a couple of sketchy sentences in the booklet simply suggest a few things), it’s hard to imagine what is really going on from moment to moment. All the booklet tells us is that “Barabbas manages to approach a kind of insight into his role in the story; how he gained his freedom at the cost of another who could have achieved great things if he had lived.” Perhaps the fragmented nature of this entirely hypothetical “story” inhibited Hvoslef from writing music that had form and substance, but as I say, I found it too episodic and therefore uninteresting.

All of the music, however, is well played and well conducted. An interesting if uneven disc.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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