Norwegian instrumentalism has enjoyed two decades of unbroken springtime, and the international esteem that Norwegian musicians now enjoy is such that the best of them are discussed on equal terms with the world’s very best – Leif Ove Andsnes and Truls Mørk come to mind as obvious examples. But ’twas not always so: Arve Tellefsen is now the undisputed figurehead of the Norwegian school of violin-playing, but when as a student he needed the intensive preparation that would turn him into a polished professional, he had to go abroad to find an adequate teacher. Gradually, though – and thanks not least to Tellefsen himself – the soloists did emerge. The chamber groups took a little longer, but eventually they too came blinking into the sun, and Norway can now boast two of the most impressive chamber combinations in the world, the Vertavo Quartet and the Grieg Trio.
The Grieg Trio consists of violinist Sølve Sigerland, cellist Ellen Margrete Flesjø and pianist Vebjørn Anvik. Chance played as much of a role in its formation as it often does, as Ellen Margrete explained to me.
“It started out because the pianist and I had played together at the Academy in Oslo. Then we met Sølve, and we wanted to go to a masterclass in Sweden and play for a Hungarian teacher, András Mihály. Sølve and I had heard his lessons the previous year and we wanted to go, but he only taught chamber music, so we asked Vebjørn if he would like to come and play some trios. He did, and so we started off. Mihály was very positive and invited us to come to Hungary and play for him. That was really the start of things. It began just for fun but took off quite quickly. Anyway, then we went back to Oslo and started getting concerts and it just rolled on from there,” says the cellist, confirming that their initial concertising was in Scandinavia.
“Yes, and also a bit in Hungary: we met people there and it spread.” And it has been spreading ever since – where have their tours now taken them?
“We’ve been all over Europe, the States, Japan, New Zealand….”
Vebjørn Anvik adds that their last tour of the United States, in November 1999, will be followed by a return visit in March 2001 and in the meantime there will be tours to Germany, Holland and Russia (St. Petersburg); furthermore they recently had the rare privilege of opening a chamber-music festival in Shanghai.
The joy of chamber music
As a pianist, Vebjørn could reasonably hope to enjoy the limelight on his own, but playing in the Trio obviously brings him a pleasure that solo appearances can’t match. What, then, is the particular thrill of working in an established chamber group?
“I think it’s this interconnection and communication between the musicians, which is very rewarding – the way that you can give out impulses and signals, and then you get a response. It’s a very exciting thing. Developing a language together in this way is fascinating, and it’s something I enjoy very much about playing chamber music.”
“Do you have to be the best of friends before you can establish that common way of thinking and playing?”
“Well, obviously you can’t be enemies! And luckily we have a very good relationship in our group, and there’s no doubt that’s an advantage for the music-making.” (Ellen Margrete and Sølve are such good friends, indeed, that they are married, and the proud parents of the buoyant Johannes, now a year-and-a-bit old.)
The Grieg Trio recently returned to the record label on which, a decade ago, they made their first recordings, the Oslo-based Simax. Ellen Margrete explains how it happened.
“We had a very good offer from Simax, allowing us to play most of the standard works. We can decide almost everything we want to do, so that’s a big advantage for us. We started with Mendelssohn, both trios. And then we did Brahms. Then we went to Virgin and did Schumann, and they bought the Mendelssohn and the Brahms and released that on Virgin as well.”
That relationship foundered when Virgin, now part of the EMI stable, began to cut back on their roster of artists. They were re-organizing everything, too, so the Trio was very happy to go back to Simax.
“What are your recording plans with Simax, now that you’re back on board?”
“We’ve done one with the Shostakovich (both trios, Op. 8 and 67, on PSC 1147) and we’re going to do at least two more. We haven’t really decided yet, but we think the next one is going to be Dvorák, then maybe Schubert.”
Will they stick to the central repertoire, or will they couple it with less well-known material? The Shostakovich works, for example, are accompanied on their new CD by Bloch’s Three Nocturnes and the Martin Trio on Irish Folktunes – imaginative choices that will help give their recording a distinctive position in the market.
“If we do the Dvorák, it will be his main trios, and Schubert would be the two trios and the Notturno. But certainly we would like to do other things as well, but it has to be planned with concertising and everything.”
Dovetailing concert and recording repertoire can’t be easy – and this is where the readiness of Simax to record such standard fare must be a blessing for the Trio. The problem is disparate demand: an orchestral manager, whose main concern is bums on seats, wants mainstream material; the A&R of a recording label wants works that guarantee the field to himself. Ellen Margrete knows the problem:
“They are two different things. The audience wants what it knows and the record company wants new things that might sell, not the Brahms trios when there are a hundred recordings already. It’s quite difficult to make that balance.”
I wondered how much archaeology the Trio had undertaken; had they, for example, begun to explore the massive repository of piano trios from the nineteenth century – Antonín Rejcha, Wolfgang Bargiel, the Friedrichs Lux and Kiel, Julius Röntgen and all those other forgotten jewels that are waiting to be discovered?
“No, we haven’t, really: we’ve been too busy learning the standard repertoire. From here we would like to search in different directions, but we haven’t got that far yet.”
When I ask about the Norwegian repertoire, Ellen Margrete Flesjø immediately mentions “the Grieg trio and the realisation of the sketches of No. 2 by Julius Röntgen”.
No, I meant more contemporary material – I know that they premiered the trio by Ragnar Söderlind in 1994; what other works have they brought into being?
Commissions and recordings
“We have commissioned four pieces from contemporary composers: the Söderlind, Halvor Haug, Magnar Åm and a young guy who just finished at the Academy, Jon Øivind Ness (LtN no. 3, 1999). So we have concentrated on the contemporary Norwegians. We play the Lasse Thoresen (Bird of the Heart), which is a favourite; it’s a fantastic piece. That’s what we have done the most.”
“Have you got plans to bring also this kind of material onto disc?”
“Yes, we’ll certainly consider that as well. What we’d like to do then is the Lasse Thoresen and combine that with some other thing – maybe the Söderlind; we don’t know yet.”
“Are Simax quite open to this sort of suggestion?”
“Yes, they are. We can choose; they’re very flexible, so that’s fantastic for us. That’s the good thing about the company. We know what we can do best at this time. It’s very important because, if they tell you to do this repertoire and we feel we can’t really do it well, there’s no use recording it, actually. And we try all the time to play something in concert before we record it.”
“How about introducing music from other contemporary composers to Norwegian audiences?”
“Yes, we have done some. The Finnish composer, Jouni Kaipainen, has a fantastic trio; it’s his third trio that’s a piano trio and it’s just marvellous. Some Hungarians we’ve done: Erszebet Sönyi and we’ve looked into the trio by Peteris Vasks. We haven’t had time to learn it yet but we’d like to do it. And also Maurizio Kagel.”
I thought I should get a view from the other side of the fence and so I asked the composer Ragnar Söderlind, one of the four Norwegians they had commissioned, about his experience of working with the Grieg Trio. His delighted response could almost have been dictated by the Trio’s publicist. How first had he come to work with the Grieg Trio? It seems to have been a flawless collaboration:
“I got a commission and I wrote a trio about fifteen, sixteen minutes long. I gave them the score and the parts and after some weeks they asked me to come to listen to them. I listened to them and said, ‘I have nothing to say – only it’s slightly too fast’!”
“Did their interpretation not require a few hints from the composer?”
“No. I couldn’t imagine it. It’s one of the best first performances I have ever had.”
An orchestral premiere, of course, will get at best a week’s rehearsal, a few hours a day; chamber groups will study a piece intensively, and extensively, before they bring it out – does Söderlind ascribe their success to this kind of dedication?
“Yes – and they are highly professional. It’s marvellous to have musicians like that, and to be interpreted like that. They understood the drama in the music very well, and tempo, flexibility…everything was there. It was perfect!”
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