August is festival season in Oslo. As audiences were entering the University of Oslo’s Festival Hall for the opening concert of the Oslo Chamber Music Festival, the Oslo Jazz Festival was finishing its last few concerts just down the street. A stone’s throw away, on the Oslo Town Hall Square, the Mela World Music Festival was well under way.

This opening concert served as something of a tasting menu for the rest of the festival. It featured performers who all have full concerts of their own later on. The programme was relatively varied, ranging from Beethoven to Bartók via Brahms and Grieg. My only quibble was the absence of newer music, the most recent work performed being written almost 75 years ago. In his opening speech, artistic manager Arve Tellefsen remarked on the festival’s commitment to performing and commissioning new pieces, and it would have been nice to see that reflected in the programme.

Paul Lewis © Jack Libeck
Paul Lewis
© Jack Libeck

The concert opened with a performance of the Scherzo from the F-A-E Sonata. This sonata was a collaborative effort between Robert Schumann, Schumann’s pupil Albert Dietrich, and the young Brahms. It was Brahms who wrote the Scherzo, and it has also become the most famous movement from this sonata. Violinist Sonoko Miriam Shimano Welde and pianist Christian Hundsnes Grøvlen brought a tempestuous quality to the outer sections, even though the piano had a tendency to overpower the violin when the latter was playing in its lowest register. The middle section provided a wonderfully lyrical contrast to the outer section, and it took on an almost defiant character when it returned for the coda.

Next followed a performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 32 in C minor played by Paul Lewis. Lewis conjured up an overarching sense of dread in the first movement, a movement characterised by ever more furious outbursts. I did find his playing rather imprecise at times, and semiquaver runs in the lower register of the piano were often reduced to mere grumbles, more noise than actual notes. He more than redeemed himself in the second and final movement, a set of nine variations, playing the main theme with an almost heartbreaking lyricism and simplicity. I would have liked the transitions between the variations to be more seamless, but the variations themselves were wonderfully played, especially the two which unmistakably sound like jazz, written almost a century before the genre even existed.

Grieg never got around to finishing more than the first two movements of his String Quartet in F major. He intended it as a happier counterpart to his G minor quartet, his only extant string quartet. Grieg struggled with writing longer forms, especially late in his compositional career, and this was the main reason why the F major quartet remained unfinished. Harmonically, it might be less daring than its predecessor, but it certainly looks forward to the tonal language of Ravel and even Milhaud. The Vertavo Quartet gave a strangely unengaged performance of the first movement, lacking in dynamic contrast and line. Things improved in the second movement, a playful dance, reminiscent of Norwegian folk music. I would have liked even more playfulness in the outer sections, but the even livelier middle section was a lot of fun, almost bursting at the seams with virtuosity.

The final piece of the concert, Bartok’s String Quartet no. 6 was a great deal more affecting than the Grieg quartet. The slow, opening mesto sections were especially touching. The playing had a nerve and intensity that the Grieg lacked and the counterpoint in the first movement was surprisingly clear. This contrapuntal section can often sound very muddled, but the Vertavo Quartet brought forth every line while still keeping up the intensity. In the second movement “Marcia” there was always a feeling of inexorably marching towards something, the spectre of WWII always looming over the music. They also brought forth the faux-joviality of the middle section, but always tinged with heavy sarcasm and a sense of foreboding. What was sarcasm in the second movement was replaced with pure sardonic scorn in the third movement Burletta, a musical joke turned freak-show. In the fourth and final movement, the bitterness of the middle movements give way to a sparse elegy, written in the memory of Bartók’s mother. This slow, introspective movement proved both calming and deeply unsettling after the burlesque humour of the preceding movements.

Saturday’s opening concert of the Oslo Chamber Music Festival was something of a disappointment, yet there were moments of true excellence. The festival has barely started, so I hope the best is yet to come.