The acclaimed Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes organised a mini-series of three concerts featuring music by his countrymen to coincide with an exhibition of the work of Norwegian artist Nikolai Astrup (1880 - 1928), the first ever outside of Norway. It is a mark of how important this artist is in the cultural landscape of Norway that Andsnes came to the leafy suburbs of south-east London to present these concerts, which amply proved, in the words of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s director Ian Dejardin, “there is more to Norwegian music than Grieg”. In addition to exploring the music, visitors were invited to view the exhibition of Nikolai Astrup’s colourful and expressive paintings, prints and woodcuts.

Nikolai Astrup,<i>Midsummer Eve Bonfire</i>, SBF DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen. © Stuart Leech
Nikolai Astrup,Midsummer Eve Bonfire, SBF DNB/The Astrup Collection/KODE Art Museums of Bergen.
© Stuart Leech
Music was important to Astrup. He grew up in Jølster in the region of Sogn og Fjordane, a landscape of scattered farms around a scenic lake, surrounded by high mountains. With no towns or large hubs nearby, access to classical music was minimal and the music that was most accessible to Astrup as he was growing up was Norwegian folk music, in particular the type played on the Hardanger fiddle. Dancers and fiddle-players appear frequently in Astrup’s ‘Midsummer Bonfires’ paintings, and references to music and musicians feature in many of his other paintings, along with the landscape of the area of Norway he knew well. Thus the programmes for the three concerts at Dulwich Picture Gallery revolved around the theme of Norwegian folk music and its influence on composers who succeeded Grieg. The music was selected to reflect the themes and beauty of Astrup’s paintings.

Although influenced by the great German musical tradition, most notably Schumann, Grieg was also drawn to the folk music of his homeland: he travelled around the country collecting folk music and its melodies, rhythms and idioms are heard in almost everything he wrote.

Leif Ove Andsnes opened the concert with three of Grieg’s Lyric Pieces, which reflect the shifting moods of Norwegian folk music, from “the most profound melancholy, only interrupted here and there by a passing glimmer of light” (Edvard Grieg). The first, simply called ‘Norwegian’, opened with the bright fanfares of a national song, while the ‘Folk Tune’ was subdued and lyrical. Finally, a sprightly ‘Peasant Dance’ with a stamping bassline concluded the triptych, all delivered with clarity, elegance and colour by Andsnes.

For the remainder of the concert, Andsnes was a modest participant, accompanying Guro Kleven Hagen and Eivind Holtsmak Ringstad. The second work in the programme was a piece for solo violin by Klaus Sandvik (b.1966), performed by Guro Kleven Hagen. Entitled Classical Brace, the opening section was inspired by Hardanger fiddle music with unisons or chords which utilized techniques such as sustained double-stopping and ‘barriolage’ to create haunting timbres redolent of the wind or wailing seagulls. The middle section had the flavour of a Bach fantasy, with complex textures and Baroque figurations which then moved into a more lyrical final section. Throughout this atmospheric piece, Hagen’s performance was compellingly controlled.

Her more expressive side was revealed in the Romance by Johan Svendsen (1840-1911), to which she brought warm-toned tenderness and sensitivity to the bittersweet mood of this work. Meanwhile in the lively and witty ‘Norwegian Dance’ by Johan Halvorsen (1864-1935) she once again proved her musical versatility.

Capricci, by Bjarne Brustad (1895-1978), introduced violist Eivind Holtsmark Ringstad, like Hagen still in his early 20s. This unusual four-movement work for violin and viola combines elegant folksy melodies with complex colourful passages, and amply demonstrated the virtuosity and camaraderie of these young performers. A daring choice for this programme, it provided opportunities for much vigorous and witty dialogue between to the two instruments.

The concert concluded with a Suite in the Old Style by Christian Sinding, best known for his piano miniature Rustle of Spring. Performed by Ringstad. who brought both rich expression and impressive virtuosity to the work, it gives a flavour of how the early twentieth century imagined Baroque music with an opening movement redolent of a Baroque Praeludium, followed by an elegant Adagio and a tempo giusto finale. Throughout Andsnes offered sympathetic accompaniment.

The encore was Grieg – who else? – a transcription for viola and piano of Solvieg’s Song from Peer Gynt. Poignant and reflective, it was a fitting end to an imaginative and beautifully executed lunchtime concert, and we set off to explore Astrup’s art suitably primed by the music we had heard.

Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway continues at Dulwich Picture Gallery until 15th May.