Sheppard Skærved Plays Hallgrímsson

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HALLGRÍMSSON: Klee Sketches, Books I & II. Offerto, in Memoriam Karl Kvaran / Peter Sheppard Skærved, vln / Métier 28616

From the notes written by the composer:

In the year 2005, the highly esteemed British violinist, Peter Sheppard Skærved, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in providing him with a few short sketches for violin solo, which he intended to perform in a concert at an exhibition in an Art Gallery in Mexico City. Soon after our conversation I sent him a few short pieces for solo violin, which he performed in Mexico City and at other venues.

Many years later I came across these sketches, when I was looking for a particular composition. I have always loved the violin and enjoyed composing music for it. I decided to take a closer look at them, and I soon found myself revising this material and adding new pieces. I decided to keep the original title “Klee Sketches” for this collection, even though they have with time developed into quite substantial compositions. There are now 15 pieces which I have divided into two books, in case a violinist would like to include few but not all of them in a programme.

Paul Klee was a highly educated and cultured man who also happened to be a very good violinist. He gave nearly all his paintings and drawings titles that were not only very apt, but also very clever. The titles created an additional dimension to the artwork itself. Some of these titles are playful and quirky. I decided since my music was an Homage to Klee, to give my pieces unusual titles as well, that not only reflected the musical content, up to a point, but also forced me into unfamiliar territory as a composer.

In order to get closer to Klee the violinist, I read his diaries, where he discusses in many instances his activities as a violinist. He also expresses with confidence his opinions on the music he is performing, as well as opinions on fellow musicians, conductors, soloists and composers. I soon began to feel I was composing these pieces for Klee, to perform at his house for a selection of friends, and that I could travel back in time and accept his invitation to attend the first performance.

I admit not knowing that Paul Klee played the violin, but such was the case. And, as it turns out, Hafliði Hallgrímsson’s other piece on this recital, Offerto, was also written in memory of another abstract painter, Karl Kvaran.

Kvaran - Reputation

Karl Kvaran, “Reputation”

Although the music is decidedly modern, not all of it is as abstract as the art that inspired it. The first piece in Book I of the Klee Sketches, in fact, titled “Klee practicing an accompaniment for a popular song,” alternates between a fairly tuneful melody and abstract moments. In this piece I found Hallgrímsson to be an interesting composer, one who can both juxtapose themes and develop them intelligently. The other pieces in Book I of these variations bear such titles as “And now for the art of string-crossing,” “Klee experiments with a new scale,” “Klee takes a legato line for a walk (version B)” (version A is in Book II) and “Do not neglect your pizzicato.” Some of these pieces, such as the third named here, really are nothing more than exercises. In fact, I would go so far as to say that these works in toto are essentially etudes for the violin, modern string equivalents of Czerny or Chopin etudes for the piano. I think the thing that surprised me, who was assuming much spikier, more abstract music, was how tonal they are at heart, representing more the kind of music that Klee played on the fiddle than his abstract paintings, and this even went for the final piece in Book I which is titled “Klee entertaining Kandinsky.”

As a sidelight, I might point out that Klee’s activities as a violinist seem to be better known that I had imagined, and on YouTube you can find such videos as violinist Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu improvising a 30-second piece inspired by Klee’s painting, Senecio, so apparently Hallgrímsson is not alone in his being inspired by Klee musically.

The four individual pieces in the Offerto suite are both longer and, ironically, much more abstract than the Klee sketches, yet even within these pieces are surprisingly beautiful, lyrical moments. Hallgrímsson is quite evidently a modern composer who doesn’t like being pigeonholed and thus feel comfortable shifting styles within a single composition…a perfect example is “Written in sand,” which employs a very lyrical line but also delves into quarter-tones, and in the third piece, “The flight of time,” Hallgrímsson is surprisingly edgy, almost frantic, eventually sending the violinist screaming into its highest register. Even in a relatively “simple” piece like “Almost a hymn,” the last number in Offerto, he manipulates his material so skillfully and yet so subtly that, unfamiliar as it is, one simply soaks it in and says to oneself, “Yes, that’s how the music should have gone,” even when he again briefly dips into quarter-tones. Somehow it all makes sense.

The second Klee suite picks up where the first leaves off, though it does contain alternate versions of “Frau Klee is Sleeping” and “Klee takes a legato-line for a walk.” Here, Hallgrímsson plays a bit more with in-between pitches, particularly in “Klee ‘sounds out’ an etching he is contemplating.” “Klee sketching a tree” is particularly fascinating, being both descriptive and abstract at the same time.

So here is one more modern Icelandic composer one must consider a major creator, albeit, on this CD, in small forms. His music is thought-provoking and consistently intriguing. An extremely fine recording in every respect. Skærved plays as well as he ever has, and the recorded sound is nigh-perfect.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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