TVEITT:  Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 130  "Aurora Borealis."  Variations on a Folksong from Hardanger for two pianos and orchestra.
Håvard Gimse and Gunilla Süssmann, pianos; Royal Scottish National Orch/Bjarte Engeset, cond.
NAXOS 8.555761 (B) (DDD) TT:  60:51

Music poured from modern Norwegian composer Geirr Tveitt like a flood. About 80% of his output went up in a house fire (Norwegian houses are built mostly out of wood). Of his six piano concertos, two have completely disappeared and probably won't ever be recovered. A major composition turned up literally in a bag of trash Tveitt had forgotten to dump. Tveitt's hanging over oblivion's abyss by a toenail. His music, like his great forerunner Grieg's, is noteworthy more for its melodic and harmonic invention than for its formal construction. That is, although the music yields rewards to analysis, that's not really what strikes you about it. Certainly, both pieces here move in straightforward ways.

The Variations (1939) are (of course) variations (somewhere around thirty of them), with no attempt to build a quasi-symphonic movement as in the Brahms Haydn-Variationen. The theme sounds clearly in the bass clarinet at the outset, and the composer takes off from there. Turns of melody characteristic of Grieg will catch the ear of the alert Grieg aficionado, which probably means that Hardanger folk music inspired both composers. Although Tveitt devotes a lot of care to transitions between one variation and the next, throughout it's the individual variation which holds the listener's attention, rather than a gradually-unfolding argument. Furthermore, no variation strays far from the theme. That Tveitt commands the listener's interest over a 30-minute span testifies to his powers of invention. For example, in the third variation, the composer gets the theme going simultaneously at "regular" tempo and twice as slow. Furthermore, the ideas of one variation often pop up in another, so much so that I began to wonder if the piece were somehow palindromic (conclusion: not according to me). The liner notes talk of Tveitt's "intricate" planning, but I doubt it. Other works show him capable of it, but here I think the method more dynamically "associative" than consciously worked out. The idiom straddles late Romanticism and early Modernism. In that way, it reminds me a lot of the Rachmaninov of the Symphonic Dances and the Paganini Rhapsody. If you have no problems with those works, this one will go down easy. It's a big ol' Romantic blow-out of a piece.

The fourth piano concerto, composed ten years later, is a different kettle of fish—more obviously Modern (with a capital M), more formally distinct, although the Romantic impulse behind the music remains. Tveitt apparently loved watching the stars. From his home, he could actually see the aurora borealis and dragged mattresses outside so he and his kids could lie on their backs and gaze at the sky. His infatuation resulted in a masterpiece, formally intricate and poetic as well.

The concerto consists of the standard three movements, though not in a standard order. The first movement, subtitled "The Northern Lights awakening above the autumn colors," begins slowly and quietly with an "awakening" downward pentatonic run. In short order, two main thematic cells appear, and these generate most of the matter of a modified sonata movement. Tveitt concerns himself mostly with continual variation and fragmentation of these basic ideas, so much so that he really seems to be working with intervals (minor thirds and major and minor seconds) rather than with even cells as such. The piano has a mainly heroic part, and the music shows mainly a hard, glittery edge. The second movement, "Glittering in the winter heavens, and ...," a modified scherzo, again opens with a pentatonic theme. Indeed, a pentatonic scale generates most of the themes of the first part of the movement. Gradually, however, the scales fill in, and more and more chromatic twists and turns show up. The minor thirds and major and minor seconds have more and more to say about thematic content. Tveitt wrote the solo part for himself, one of the great virtuosi of his time. The movement expresses "glittering" and fleetness. "Fading away in the bright night of spring," the finale, is —unusually—a slow movement which begins with an extremely long tune starting from a beautiful, shimmering major-seventh chord. Indeed, it's one long tune after another, but the general thematic shapes from the previous movements show up here as well. There's a wonderful, nocturnal horn melody made up of perfect fourth intervals which manages to avoid sounding Hindemithian and comes across as the instrument singing beautifully. The movement ends with major-seventh harmonies that began it.

It's awfully hard for me to say how the performers do, if I consider what an ideal performance might be like. It's certainly a good, professional, straight-ahead job. However, consider that this is the only recording. Who knows what Zimerman and the Berlin Philharmonic could do with it (not that it's likely to happen in my lifetime)? Meanwhile, Gimse and Engeset convey the stature of both pieces and make a case for Tveitt as an important twentieth-century voice. If you like Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, odds are you'll like Tveitt, and Naxos as usual makes it easy to experiment.

S.G.S. (Oct. 2002)