Think of Norway and certain clichés spring to mind: clean air, pure water, craggy terrain. Musical associations – apart from the inevitable mention of Grieg – are more elusive. This was my first live encounter with Trondheim Soloists, who can boast up to sixteen players but were here appearing as a string sextet. They may not exactly be a household name amongst chamber ensembles, but have been around on the international circuit for more than 30 years working closely with artists like Anne-Sophie Mutter. For two seasons now Alisa Weilerstein has been their Artistic Partner.

Alisa Weilerstein © Decca | Harald Hoffmann
Alisa Weilerstein
© Decca | Harald Hoffmann

Bringing three works of high-flown Romanticism – three well-known sextets – with them posed something of a challenge. I have to confess to being somewhat underwhelmed by the results. They started with the prelude to Richard Strauss’ final opera Capriccio, which he termed “a conversation piece for music”. From the very soft beginning (and the start of the next piece was almost inaudible) it was obvious that Trondheim aims at a beautiful sound, with fine internal balances and a keen awareness of the valedictory style. This was indeed cultured discourse with all the elegance of Rococo chamber music, though vibrancy was in short supply. Collectively, Trondheim do not produce a big sound and already in Weilerstein’s solo contributions I was made aware of blend issues: her cello is darker and richer than the sounds made by the other players (less so in the case of the two distinguished viola players).

Before the start of this concert the order of the two longer works was reversed. I had wondered about the dramaturgical sense in choosing to send the audience on their way teary-eyed after Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht rather than releasing them into an autumnal night with the sounds of Tchaikovsky’s radiant summer ringing in their ears. Schoenberg’s great string sextet, as definitive a work of the fin de siècle period as you are likely to get, lies under a Wagnerian shadow. As the operetta composer Richard Heuberger remarked, “it is as if someone had smeared the score of Tristan while it was still wet.” This performance was like retrieving a sepia photograph from the back of a cupboard drawer. It had a great deal of faded beauty to it, with especially hushed playing in the penultimate “Sehr breit und langsam” section, as if the listener was actually there in the background eavesdropping on the lovers’ intimate conversation.

Ultimately, however, the reading was one-dimensional. This music contains much pain and heartache. Yet over long stretches it sounded as though pre-concert doses of Ibuprofen had been liberally applied. The passion was kept very much under control; the knife was never really turned in the wound. Above all, think of Tristan and you must be made aware of an erotic charge. Here we had cool detachment rather than sultry, fevered anguish in the moments of searing chromaticism.

Tchaikovsky’s final chamber work precedes Verklärte Nacht by less than a decade. “I wrote it,” the composer informed Nadezhda von Meck, “with the greatest enthusiasm and with the least exertion.” At the outset I was reminded of the brightness of the Hardanger fiddle as Trondheim launched into the excitable nervous energy with which the first movement is infused, though the helter-skelter of the coda sounded super-imposed, the playing almost reckless.

In the tenderly beautiful Adagio, after a shaky start with wavering intonation from the leader, the performance slowly took wing, with sets of dramatic shivers rippling through the contrasting Animato passage. Trondheim took the third movement very deliberately, paying particular attention to the Moderato marking, before an outpouring of Italianate passion in the finale.

***11