There’s something undeniably special about a concert in someone’s living room. A performance in a living room always takes on an especially intimate character – rarely more so with the 50-odd people crammed into the living room of Edvard Grieg’s home Troldhaugen, a few minutes outside Bergen. It was so crammed, in fact, that a few audience members, myself included, had to sit in the composer’s conservatory, watching the performance through lace curtains, birds singing through the open door behind us. Violist Ellen Nisbeth and pianist Bengt Forsberg – playing on Grieg’s own piano – had planned Saturday’s late-night recital around the artistic world of Australian composer and pianist Percy Grainger, but it also proved an interesting look into the world of transcriptions, how an instrument like the viola can tackle music originally written for other instruments.

Troldhaugen © Svein-Magne Tunli | Wikicommons
Troldhaugen
© Svein-Magne Tunli | Wikicommons

Grieg and Grainger met when the latter was in his early twenties, and the elderly Grieg quickly took a liking to the young Australian, proclaiming Grainger to be the best interpreter of his piano music. Grainger even visited Grieg at Troldhaugen in the summer of 1907, just a few months before Grieg’s death. Alongside the Grieg connection, Nisbeth and Forsberg also looked to the composers Grainger looked up to and considered his peers: in 1945, Grainger devised a list of his favourite composers, putting Johann Sebastian Bach as the top choice. Sharing the ninth spot were Frederick Delius, Duke Ellington and Grainger himself. Surely Grieg must have figured somewhere on that list as well?

The first piece, three movements from Grainger’s La Scandinavie – a suite of Scandinavian folk melodies – was originally written for cello and piano. Nisbeth’s own transcription seemed to highlight the warm nasality of the viola’s bottom register, particularly in the lyrical first and second movements, Swedish Folk Song and Dance and Song of the Vermeland. The third movement Air and Finale on Norwegian Folk Dances shows Grainger at his most Grieg-like, opening with an extended, gently rocking passage for solo piano, before being interrupted by Hardanger fiddle-like intonations on the viola. Grieg’s piano sounded remarkably appropriate for this movement in particular – the sound is dry and blunt, allowing for very clearly articulated playing from Forsberg.

Ellen Nisbeth © Nikolaj Lund
Ellen Nisbeth
© Nikolaj Lund

First among the transcriptions of violin pieces was Delius’ Violin Sonata no. 2. Here, too, the influence of Grieg was clearly heard, languorous phrases suddenly interrupted by skipping rhythms, not entirely dissimilar to the latter’s famous Piano Concerto. The not overtly virtuosic, almost rhapsodically flowing music fits the viola perfectly, the mellowness of the timbre lending the piece an almost autumnal flavour. Mellowness was also highlighted in the next piece, two numbers from Duke Ellington’s music to the 1959 Otto Preminger film Anatomy of a Murder. The second movement, Flirtbird, featured Nisbeth sliding around over Forsberg’s mostly walking piano bass.

Following the increasingly intense perpetuum mobile that was the Gigue from Bach’s Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor, Nisbeth turned to the one piece on the programme originally written for viola, Grainger’s Arrival Station Humlet, a fun miniature, describing the goings-on at a railway platform, crowds impatiently waiting for a train to arrive, set to the background of someone humming a little tune to themselves – the titular humlet. The next Grainger miniature, To a Nordic Princess, had slightly larger ambitions, the bridal gift to his Swedish wife Ellen Viola Ström, premiered at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to an audience of 20,000 people(!). The piece is, as its title would suggest, gloriously sentimental, and full of Grainger’s trademark dissonant chromaticisms in the piano accompaniment.

Bengt Forsberg © Erik Hanspers
Bengt Forsberg
© Erik Hanspers

Grieg’s Violin Sonata no. 3 in C minor, perhaps expectedly, presented the greatest challenge on the programme. While the turbulent opening gained an even more urgent sense of danger from the darker timbre of the viola, Nisbeth seemed occasionally out of place in the outer movements. The runs were unwieldy and intonation often rocky in the higher registers – marcato attacks in the third movement had a tendency of sounding too violent, yet the lyrical sections bloomed lyrically. Forsberg’s playing seemed to underscore the bell-like qualities of the piano’s upper register and crystal-clear articulation, but he never lost grip on the sense of line and direction. The transcription really came into its own in the gloriously expansive opening section of the second movement, with Nisbeth’s viola singing out and Forsberg’s sensitive accompaniment, both underlining the alla romanza of the tempo marking.

Playing music on one instrument that was written for another is a tricky feat to pull off satisfactorily, yet for the most part, Nisbeth and Forsberg succeeded. Even in the least successful pieces, Nisbeth still managed to add something to the music, a new way of listening. And, of course, the intimate venue and the birds happily singing away outside helped.