Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor has a storied past at the Bergen International Festival. In many ways it functions as a kind of theme tune for the festival – it has been performed every year except two since the inaugural festival in 1953. The choice of the Bergen Philharmonic and conductor Edward Gardner of pairing perhaps the most well-known piece of Norwegian music with a concerto by festival composer and the current grande dame of Russian music Sofia Gubaidulina was an interesting choice, presented two distinctly different ways of writing for a solo instrument.

Gidon Kremer © Roy Bjørge
Gidon Kremer
© Roy Bjørge

Sandwiched between the concertos was Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, providing something of a bridge between the two – the broad and generous string sound of the Grieg as well as soloistic writing for the orchestra vaguely reminiscent of what Gubaidulina would get up to over half a century later. Particularly effective were the antiphonal sections – the string orchestra on the stage being answered by a smaller ensemble in the wings – which were beautifully played.

Gubaidulina’s Offertorium takes as its starting point the theme that forms the basis of Bach’s Musical Offering. The piece starts out by stating the theme, the melody jumping almost note-for-note between different instruments of the orchestra. When the solo violin subsequently enters, it is like the music is spinning in huge circles – from the solo violin to the orchestra and back again. The music expands into web-like structures before suddenly contracting back to a single note, which is then passed on. Ever more transfigured statements of the opening Bach theme are repeated, with the music in between being dominated by characteristic downward slides – soon any remnants of Bach have been transfigured, slid away, before the theme again appears reconstructed at the end, in reverse.

Ah Ruem Ahn © Roy Bjørge | Festspillene i Bergen
Ah Ruem Ahn
© Roy Bjørge | Festspillene i Bergen

A few thundering climaxes aside, Offertorium is an exploration of quiet musical figures, with solo lines jumping around the orchestra only to be dissolved into shimmering texture. Gidon Kremer, the violinist for whom Gubaidulina wrote the concerto in 1980, played with captivating intensity, his lines soaring into the orchestra – this is a concerto where the soloist and the orchestra play together, not against one another. The two concertos by Gubaidulina and Grieg do not, perhaps, lend themselves easily to comparison, yet one thing stood out: the ways the two pieces deal with the relationship between the orchestra and soloist. They both form part of a coherent whole, yet in the Gubaidulina, the soloist becomes an even more integral part of the music, inextricably enmeshed inside the music, whereas in the Grieg – as with most concertos – the viewpoint of the soloist changes, from the decorative and accompanying to the grandly virtuosic and purposely soloistic.

Edvard Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A Minor is by far the composer’s most emblematic piece, despite, or indeed because it’s so different from most of his other music – it is a formally developed, three-movement concerto in the mould of Beethoven and Schumann, quite unlike his folk music-inspired songs and piano miniatures that so dominated the majority of his career. The opening – the timpani roll followed by a pianistic cascade – was taken surprisingly slowly, or more to the point, rigidly. Soloist Ah Ruem Ahn’s playing was very matter-of-fact, at times ploughing straight through the music and not allowing it room to stretch and grow. Ahn and Gardner seemed to go for an oddly square version. Not before the cadenza did Ahn appear free to shape the music, taking her time with delicate phrasing and monumental, impassioned chords.

Despite the inflexible interpretation from Ahn and Gardner, the orchestra still sounded remarkably good, with solid woodwind playing and a warm, homogenous string sound. Especially beautiful was the hushed opening of the slow movement, with honeyed strings and beautiful horn playing, before being transported into weightlessness by the piano.