When the Trondheim Soloists begin to play, the Victorian Town Hall in Leeds was instantly filled with their fresh and crisp sound. It was with vigour and great musicality that they interpreted the first piece of a most enjoyable concert evening: Bartók's Divertimento for String Orchestra. That the Hungarian composer completed this work in only two weeks during August 1939 is most astonishing in the light of its high musical complexity – masterfully handled by the Norwegian string ensemble (its artistic director is cellist Øyvind Gimse). The first movement was full of motoric energy and sharp accents. At times, it turned into an indulging salon music sound, which was again contrasted with high-energy, almost brutally appearing sections in which you could actually see some bow hairs fly. It was a great joy to watch, particularly the violin players moving like one body, and in general, the audience took notable pleasure in listening to the string orchestra's performance.

Trondheim Soloists © Trondheim Soloists
Trondheim Soloists
© Trondheim Soloists

In the second movement, the musical atmosphere shifted and the Divertimento, commonly associated with music for entertainment, revealed its ambiguous character. After the scarcely audible beginning, quasi whispered by the muted strings, we heard passages of such intensive expressiveness that one might feel reminded of the works of the Second Viennese School (e.g. Schoenberg, Berg). And when the lower strings intoned a gritty ostinato, coupled with rising, acute trills on the higher strings, one began to sense the dark side of this divertimento. Was it the fear of the impending catastrophe that we heard through the music? Only one year after the composition, Bartók left Hungary and – like so many other European artists –emigrated to the United States. The third movement resembled in its spirit the first and, in its rather earthy and crude tone, it displayed elements of folk music. You could really hear and see the performers' joy of playing while virtually scratching and beating with their bows; a pretty, smooth string sound was not important here. In works like Bartók's Divertimento with its high technical and musical challenges, the advantages of a smaller ensemble as against a full orchestra become apparent: the musicians communicated more directly, they played and felt the music together.

Following a clear dramaturgy, the two 20th century pieces by Bartók and Britten framed two piano concertos by Bach and Haydn, the solo part being performed by Christian Ihle Hadland. The Norwegian pianist sat in the midst of the ensemble (at a modern piano), with his back to the audience, ensuring the best possible arrangement to interact with the chamber orchestra. In his playful, spirited manner he fitted in perfectly with the Trondheim musicians. Occasionally, the slow movement of J.S. Bach's Keyboard Concerto no. 4 in A major sounded so beautiful that one was likely to forget that the piece was not originally written for piano, but for oboe d'amore. In Haydn's Piano Concerto in G major, Hadland scintillated with rapid tempi – unfortunately, his certainly well-defined articulation became somewhat vague and blurry in the acoustic environment. Meanwhile, the Trondheim Soloists proved themselves once again as a charismatic, intelligent as well as an impetuous musical ensemble.

The second highlight of this concert (besides Bartók) was Britten's Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. As a commission for the Salzburg Festival, Britten finished this piece in 1937. It was a homage to his revered teacher, Frank Bridge, a British composer and conductor who is (sadly) known mostly for his composition student. Based on a theme from the second of Bridge's Three Idylls for String Quartet from 1906, it comprises a collection of ten character pieces, each representing a quality of Bridge's personality (for example “March”: energy, “Romance”: charm, and so on). It is quite impressive to hear how many different musical characters can be derived from only one musical subject. In doing so, Britten now and then allows himself the pleasure of copying a musical style. The “Aria Italiana”, for instance, interpreted with contagious enthusiasm, is written in a Rossinian manner. One thing at least was clear after this evening at Leeds Town Hall: you don't need a full orchestra to experience a colourful and rich sound. After much applause, the Trondheim Soloists said goodbye with an enchanting performance of Piazolla's Oblivion, wonderfully headed by guest leader and violinist Atle Sponberg.