When I heard one of the main concerts of the Nordland Music Festival was going to be the Tromsø Chamber Orchestra playing Vivaldi’s violin concerto cycle The Four Seasons with Henning Kraggerud as soloist, I must admit I was rather disappointed. Couldn’t they play something a more interesting, not something that has been played almost to death over the past century or so? Then I read that Norwegian author Erik Fosnes Hansen was going to write new texts for the concertos, and it started sounding much more interesting. But I did fear, as I entered Bodø Cathedral Monday evening, that I was in for an hour and a half of paint-by-numbers Vivaldi and some fairly uninteresting violin playing. Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

© Nordlands Musikkfestuka
© Nordlands Musikkfestuka

“I am a wind.” Thus begins author Erik Fosnes Hansen’s new texts to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The texts tried to draw parallels between 17th-century Venice and the north-Norwegian coast, but also focused on Vivaldi’s own life, from his birth in Venice in 1678 until his death in Vienna in 1741. Fosnes Hansen started out comparing the weather here on the coast of northern Norway to that of Venice, but his text soon became more of a Vivaldi biography, longwinded albeit interesting, each section culminating in a reading of the sonnet Vivaldi supposedly wrote himself for each of the concertos.

But onto the playing. And what playing! This performance was one of those rare performances where a well-known piece sounds completely new; new details emerge, and even the most well-known phrases that have gone stale by having been played countless times sound fresh again. In his time, Vivaldi was primarily known for his operas, and this performance showed Vivaldi as the musical dramatist that he truly was, conjuring up wildly different moods and scenes, all with only a string orchestra and a solo violinist.

The playing was first and foremost characterised by a desire to use the orchestra – a string orchestra plus harpsichord and theorbo – to its full potential. This included the use of quite extreme dynamic changes, from a sound so quiet that the theorbo was the loudest instrument, to a big, lovely string sound. Kraggerud’s approach to the tempo was also rather unorthodox, pulling here and there, at times with an almost Romantic sense of rubato, especially in the first concerto, Spring. The attention given to articulation was also staggering, ranging from the shortest staccatos to the broadest legato, and almost everything in between. At one point in the third movement of the third concerto, Autumn, the orchestra even used Bartók pizzicato to underline the pastoral nature of the dance. Very creative effects utilised by Kraggerud and the orchestra that worked with the music, seemingly having been there from the very beginning.

The orchestral playing, in addition to being full of at times surprising effects, was also very good. The orchestra sounded homogenous and full, even when playing as softly as possible and in the many very dramatic crescendi and decrescendi. Still, they weren’t afraid of aggressive playing, as shown by the downright menacing third movement of the Summer concerto. Another highlight was the shimmering pizzicato during the slow movement of Winter, where you could almost see snowflakes falling from the cathedral ceiling. Vivaldi’s seasonal pictures were most effectively characterised, from the bagpipe drones of the Spring to the peasant dancing of the Autumn, complete with the harpsichordist drumming on the harpsichord!

Kraggerud’s violin playing was another marvel, just as competent with Vivaldi’s fiercely virtuosic music in the faster movements as with the calmer music of the slower movements, both when playing along with the orchestra and when playing alone.

Being able to present such a well-known piece and have it sound completely new is truly a testament to Kraggerud’s skill and creativity – as a violinist, but also a conductor. Even though Fosnes Hansen’s new texts proved to be on the long side, they were still interesting, and provided a very interesting context for the concertos themselves. While maybe not a performance for purists, Monday’s performance of The Four Seasons was exciting, eye-opening and most importantly fun, and I doubt I was the only one leaving the church grinning Monday evening.