Celebrating Beethoven, Late But Gloriously, In Norwegian Countryside

Nestled in a subartic sierra landscape, the six year-old Rosendal Chamber Music Festival offers a four-day feast of music and conversation masterminded by founder and native son Leif Ove Andsnes. (Matthew Gurewitsch photo)

ROSENDAL, Norway — Ten concerts in four days in a spot of breathtaking natural beauty featuring two dozen hand-picked musicians in ever-shifting constellations, plus, for the intellectually indefatigable, a half-dozen related conversations and lectures. This, in a nutshell, is the Rosendal Chamber Music Festival, inaugurated in 2017 by the shore of the Hardangerfjord, second-longest of the waterways that snake east from the Atlantic between Western Norway’s rugged yet lush subarctic sierras.

Andsnes engages in spirited chat with Jan Swafford, author of Ives, Brahms and Beethoven biographies. (Liv Øvland)

The founding artistic director is Norway’s native son and international concert pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, whose roster this year included his countrymen Sveinung Bjelland, a pianist, and Håkon Asheim, master of the traditional Hardanger fiddle, as well as international marquee names. Two of the busiest were Kristian Bezuidenhout and Víkingur Ólafsson, both heard on fortepiano as well as modern instruments. Others carrying heavy loads were Steven Isserlis, cello; Dorothea Röschmann, soprano; and Jan Swafford, author of Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph, whose spirited, musically and biographically omniscient, psychologically all-but-clairvoyant talks were worth skipping a nap for, or even breakfast.

Now 52, Andsnes first visited Rosendal at 22, fresh out of music school, when he was invited to play at the Baronie Rosendal, the 17th-century manor from which the village takes its name. Now a house museum, the solid block of a building under its high-pitched roof houses lovingly preserved period interiors of delightful countrified refinement; the curve of the wooden grand staircase leading to the salon is less baronial than actually majestic. But that salon where Andsnes was heard all those years ago, playing an 1860 Pleyel from Paris, is too intimate for public recitals. When the Baronie management hatched the idea of converting a former sheep barn on the grounds into a concert hall seating some 400, Andsnes was brought in to advise on acoustics.

The festival’s primary concert venue is the Riddersalen, a one-time barn, acoustically engineered by Meyer Sound. (Øvland)

If you build it, they will come. With the new-minted “Great Hall” in place, no-frills yet inviting, the festival was born. The 2022 edition, which ran July 7-10, was planned for 2020 as a 21-gun salute to Beethoven in the year of the 250th anniversary of his birth. Then came the pandemic.

Going on lunchtime on July 11, Andsnes was sitting for a couple of farewell interviews on the patio of the Rosendal Fjordhotel, a stone’s throw from the inlet’s sparkling salt waters. There simply had been no time before.

“I feel exhausted,” Andsnes said as he settled in for the very last of his chats with press, not seeming especially exhausted. “It’s a normal feeling after a festival. I always like the enormous intensity of it. You’re half exhausted, half running on adrenaline. You don’t have much protection. You’re very open emotionally, and I like that.”

In fact, he was still feeling the buzz of the festival’s final offering, the second and far lesser known of Beethoven’s two Op. 70 piano trios. With characteristic self-effacement, he had handed the piano part in the festival finale to one of four fellow keyboardists on the festival roster, Enrico Pace.

Violinist Alina Ibragimova, pianist Enrico Pace, and cellist Christian Poltéra in a blissfully spontaneous Op. 70 No. 1. (Øvland)

“It’s not one of Beethoven’s iconic pieces,” Andsnes said. “The first of the Op. 70 piano trios, the Ghost, would have been a more obvious choice — and also wonderful. But I wanted to end with something quirky, less obvious, more transitional and enigmatic — but still with that exuberant last movement. And listening to it in the hall, I was getting all teary, I loved it so much. What amazing hope there is in this music in our world with so many terrible conflicts! I got very emotional.” He wasn’t the only one. The jubilant concluding Allegro movement, ascending ever higher into the ether, had at least one other listener walking out of the hall on air. Kudos, big time, to Pace, violinist Alina Ibragimova, and cellist Christian Poltéra for a polished, sensitive, and blissfully spontaneous performance.

But then, there had been so many amazements. To start with, the setting. Though heavy rain was predicted for the entire period, brief, gentle summer showers were the worst that materialized. Heat waves were savaging Europe’s temperate latitudes, yet here, where daylight clocked in at nearly 19 hours of every 24, romantic cloud cover kept the air refreshing, even on the final Sunday, when the skies turned sapphire. The ferry from the Bergen Flesland airport sailed by postcard-perfect panoramas of precipitous mountains and glacier-fed cascades. Paths up to the Baronie grounds, through meadows along clear, rushing streams, recall the Schubert of Die schöne Müllerin; tinkling bells of grazing sheep evoked the celestial pastorales of Mahler.

At Kvinnherad Church, the young Quatuor Van Kuijk. (Øvland)

Between concerts, there was the Baronie’s rose garden to admire, planted with such (mainly) Danish-themed varieties as Royal Copenhagen, Prinsesse Marie, Carl Nielsen, Victor Borge, and Fabulous. A different route, along the shore road through the village, leads to the Kvinnherad Church, the festival’s second concert venue, seating about 300, docked like a monolith or perhaps a spaceship overlooking the harbor. The tall single nave is narrow but inspirational, overarched by a star-studded barrel vault of midnight blue.

But let’s get back to music. There were no “recitals.” Every program was mix-and-match, juxtaposing solos with pieces for varying forces. The young French string players of the Quatuor Van Kuijk aside, everyone was changing partners constantly. In sets on different programs, Röschmann sang with a trio on historic instruments, a different trio on modern instruments, and one solo pianist.

“I hoped that we would experience the diversity of Beethoven, not only the revolutionary, mighty aspects of his personality,” Andsnes said, looking back. “I think we achieved that.” Alongside such mainstays as the Kreutzer Violin Sonata, the Archduke Piano Trio, and the first of the Razumovsky String Quartets (with its “Thème Russe” chasing through the finale), there were selections from the vast, neglected cache of Irish and Scottish folksong arrangements, the larky Twelve Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” for piano and cello, and the wild, crazy Fantasia for Piano in G minor, Op. 77, probably the closest thing we have to a transcript of one of Beethoven’s legendary improvisations.

The stage was most crowded for the popular Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20, for strings and winds. “I programmed it as a piece unique in music history,” Andsnes said. “There’s nothing else scored that way. It’s pure entertainment. But in the performance we heard, it also became a piece of wonderful power — fun but sharp, really eye-opening. I’m ecstatic when that happens!” The Septet also represented something of an extravagance. Several of the players involved were not heard at any other time during the festival; among those was the horn player Ragnhild Lothe, noble and secure, who happens to be the artistic director’s wife. Now and then, their 12-year-old daughter and 9-year-old twin son and daughter could be spotted in the hall, the girls with braids and a ponytail down to here, fit to be immortalized by some Scandinavian Norman Rockwell.

Some of the artists were new to each other. “I don’t always know who has played together before,” Andsnes said. “Most of the constellations are new. I always hope they’ll work out. Sometimes it’s not easy for the musicians to find a way. Other times it leads to wonderful coherent performances. You never know.”

Rare duo: Víkingur Ólafsson and Andsnes played Czerny’s four-hand version of the Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th. (Øvland)

In surely the most surprising pairing, Andsnes played secondo to Ólafsson’s primo in Czerny’s four-hand arrangement of the spooky, beloved Allegretto from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. As it turned out, this wasn’t their first rodeo together. “We played the Stravinsky Concerto for Two Pianos five years ago,” Andsnes recalled. “That piece is so hard! I don’t imagine Víkingur would have studied that today for just one performance! With kids now, he has so much less time to practice. Like me!”

Each of the four visiting pianists got a solo turn in the spotlight with one of the Beethoven piano sonatas, but not Andsnes. “I like the idea of me being a humble host,” Andsnes said, taking stock. “Other years, I’ve also done bigger pieces. It was partly a practical thing. Beethoven isn’t featuring so much for me at the moment. So, if I had to do one or two of the big sonatas on my own, it would have been quite an effort. Also, I’d have had to miss out on other things I wanted to do. The daily responsibilities of the festival are just relentless. There’s no time to practice. I’m happy that all my pianist colleagues did a Beethoven sonata. And I played Für EliseFür Elise, known to tyros everywhere piano teachers give lessons, and a mainstay of beginners’ recitals.”

(As Falstaff knew, the better part of valor is discretion. After what struck me as an Evel Knievel account of one of the big piano sonatas, a Norwegian critic sneered, “I felt I was hearing a mediocre pianist, half drunk, playing from memory a piece he hasn’t looked at for ten years.” Some folks know how to turn a phrase.)

Nordic maverick composer Ketil Hvoslef rehearsed his “Beethoven Trio” with cellist Audun Sandvig and clarinetist Björn Nyman (Liv Øvland) The pianist Sveinung Bjelland, not pictured, was at the keys. (Øvland)

Tops among those other things that Andsnes wanted and perhaps felt honor-bound to do were selections by a pair of Norwegian composers-in-residence, the grizzled Nordic maverick Ketil Hvoslef (born 1939) and the jazz-saxophone virtuoso Marius Neset (born 1985). “I made a point of that,” Andsnes noted. “It took quite a lot of preparation.” The most striking of the contemporary pieces was the opening-night opener, Hvoslef’s elvish, evocative Hardingtrio (1995), for Hardanger fiddle, soprano singing without words, and prepared piano, with Andsnes plucking the strings (a first). According to Hvoslef, the scattershot perpetuum mobile of his Beethoven Fantasy (1982), heard on a later occasion, drew on unused sketches of Beethoven’s own, though he no longer knew which ones. I can’t say whether Neset meant the hovering introduction to his four-movement Who We Are (2020) to relate to the opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, but it did. (Andsnes was heard in that one, too.)

Håkon Asheim performed on opening night in Hvoslef’s elfish 1995 ‘Hardingtrio’ for prepared piano, Hardanger fiddle, and soprano. (Øvland)

As is his specialty, the owlish Ólafsson teased out crosscurrents of a more meaningful sort. On one program, he proposed to shed light on Beethoven’s practice by sharing strategically selected movements by Bach (arranged by György Kurtág) and Mozart (arranged by Ólafsson). On another program, he dispatched Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 14 and Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8, Op. 13, both in C minor, back-to-back, brooking no interruption in between. His contributions were highlights of the festival, for sure. I’ll list just two or three more. Bezuidenhout’s by turns bardic and feathery reading, on fortepiano, of the Piano Sonata No. 7 in D major, Op. 10, No. 3. Röschmann’s glazed, time-suspending reading of Beethoven’s arrangement of the Irish song “The Return to Ulster.” As for all who, alas, have gone unmentioned: You were heard; you were appreciated; you’re not forgotten.

Before the bell strikes midnight, let’s touch on one final matter: sound. Kvinnherad Church has the saintly acoustic you’d expect, hazy and embracing. The Great Hall, by contrast, is a digitally balanced environment engineered by Meyer Sound, based in Berkeley, Calif. Samplers and speakers are arrayed in profusion throughout the hall to achieve what John Pellowe, the company representative who monitors Rosendal concerts and spoken-word events in real time, calls “linear” sound distribution. In lay terms, we’re talking not about pumping up the volume but rather about fine-tuning the resonance. Such systems have gained wider international acceptance than casual listeners may realize. They’re all over the place. “People have different opinions about the sound of the Great Hall,” Andsnes says. “I like it most of the time.”

I didn’t get wise to the electronics until I’d heard two or three programs, and what impressed me, purely subjectively, were qualities of clarity and intimacy suggesting a collective purpose on the part of the musicians to make chamber music — to play conversationally, mindful among themselves, allowing audiences to listen in. Then came Sveinung Bjelland with the Hvoslef Beethoven Fantasy mentioned above, delivering bigger, bossier projection I would classify as concert hall sound. As the festival proceeded, different cohorts of musicians landed on different points along that chamber-to-concert-hall spectrum. It would seem, then, that the Great Hall is as truthful and adaptable to musicians’ intentions as fine rooms of old. In a talkback with the audience, Ólafsson — who had just quipped that he had strong feelings about “everything” — had this to say about developments in recorded sound over the last several decades: Recorded sound in the dawning CD era had typically been “too in-your-face,” he thought, but now “it’s friendlier.” Would the same apply to concert-hall electronics?

Andsnes in the festival concert barn, engineered for sound. (Øvland)

Andsnes, it turns out, had been thinking a lot about sound, too. “Jan Swafford told me privately that it seemed as if Beethoven had different sounds in mind for each of the sonatas. We often talk about the creative structures and invention in the Beethoven piano sonatas, but rarely about them being very different sound worlds. I’d never thought of it that way. But it became very clear to me as the festival went along. That delighted me and surprised me.”

The keyboards included two restored modern Steinways, from 1977 and 1982, purchased by the Baronie when the festival was just launching, plus an assortment of fortepianos. A piano technician from Sweden brought along a fortepiano dating to 1783, the handiwork of Johann Andreas Stein, founder of a whole dynasty of Viennese piano builders. Another was built in 1840 by Johann Streicher, a grandson of Stein’s who was on friendly terms with Beethoven. The Streicher, long deemed unplayable but now restored to concert standards, comes from the Baronie’s historic collection. Finally, on loan from Torleif Torgersen, pianist and professor at the Grieg Academy Department of Music in Bergen, there was a fortepiano built in Vienna ca. 1830 by Gottlieb Hafner. That one belonged to the pioneering musicologist and period-instrument specialist Malcolm Bilson once upon a time. Every instrument has its story.

“I ended up using the Stein just once,” Andsnes said, “in a talk, to show what it sounds like when you keep the pedal down all through the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata on the kind of piano Beethoven had in mind.” That’s what Beethoven’s markings say to do, but as Andsnes demonstrated in an A-B comparison, on a Steinway the robuster sound goes sour on the first chord change. “On modern instruments, we’re constantly making adjustments. Is the compromise too much? Modern instruments have their advantages, too! Für Elise I played on the Streicher. And didn’t it sound beautiful?”