The dark sound of violas introduces the mysterious theme of In Folk Style, the theme-and-variations first movement of Edvard Grieg’s Two Nordic Melodies. The theme Grieg used was presented to the composer by Frederik Due – a Norwegian diplomat – as a folk tune, but it later turned out to have been Due’s own invention. Led by Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Grieg and Beyond was a study in themes and variations – the concert itself almost a set of variations on that form. A relatively straightforward theme and variations, In Folk Style saw the ACO navigating delicate, whispering entries in the opening, building to the full-throated sound of the combined ensemble. A variation in the violins, triplets creating a shimmering halo around the melody, was particularly magical.

Grieg and BeyondHenning Kraggerud and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Prudence Upton

Ross Edwards’ Entwinings, enjoying its world premiere performances on this tour, continued the exploration of variations in its second movement. The first, Animato, danced into life with bright string fragments – leaping across the ensemble from section to section – coalescing into a wider celebration of life. Violin glissandi snapping Piazzolla-like above driving lower strings became a chorus of rainbow lorikeets, while a more sombre middle section painted a night sky with drones and ghostly harmonics. While not quite a traditional recapitulation, light returned with folk-inspired intensity, conjuring the dawning of a new day, cacophonous lorikeets and all.

The second movement’s variations was based on material taken from Edwards’ Second String Quartet Shekina Fantasy, which was itself drawn from the Magnificat or Canticle of Mary. Titled Lento magico, the movement saw a more veiled, enigmatic approach to the theme and variations form than Grieg’s, the variations less distinctly delineated. The opening theme seemed to splinter apart, fragments treated in contrapuntal, almost fugal complexity, surging into a joyful sense of worship at times and culminating in a tranquil meditation on the opening theme.

Rounding out the first half of the concert was Grieg’s Violin Sonata No 3, Op. 45, reimagined as a concerto by Kraggerud and Bernt Simen Lund. (Kraggerud and Lund have arranged all three of Grieg’s Sonatas for this combination, which have been recorded on Naxos). Augmented by four wind players – Sally Walker on flute, Michael Pisani on oboe, Rowena Turner on clarinet and Andrew Barnes on bassoon – the orchestra leapt into an impassioned reading of the sonata with a humming energy. Grieg’s final Violin Sonata was inspired by a visit from the 20-year-old violinist Teresina Tua who was making a splash in Europe with her captivating performances (if not, as some accounts suggest, her skill as a player). “The little fiddle-fairy on my troll hill,” inspired Grieg to write for a combination he hadn’t touched in two decades. The manuscript bears the note: “Bold and exuberant, the way I like it.”

Grieg and BeyondHenning Kraggerud and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Prudence Upton

The orchestration of the piano part in Kraggerud and Lund’s arrangement left the violinist enveloped much more tightly in larger sound, but Kraggerud cut through with his biting tone – he’s certainly not short on exuberance – at times floating just above the surface before ascending to soaring heights. The orchestration also allowed for some beautiful moments – a heartbeat accompaniment was given vibrant life in celli and bass pizzicati, while Walker’s flute took the opening solo melody of the second movement, floating above the strings with a sweet, transparent sound. The folk dance of the finale alternated joyful flair with something slightly darker, the ensemble’s energy pressing forward right to the final bars.

Kraggerud’s own composition, Topelius-Variations (From Topelius’ Time) opened the second half of the concert, the work – receiving its Australian premiere – a commission by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, the result of a supporter’s good fortune at the race track. Inspired by the writings of Zachris Topelius and Grieg’s Holberg Suite, Kraggerud’s variations – like Edwards’ – were not bound to the conventions of the form, presenting two themes (the second derived from the first), with the composer exploiting the tension between them. Kraggerud himself presented the first theme, in the style of a Nordic folk song, his violin lonely above shimmering strings. The lush orchestral sound and melodies recalled Grieg, with Kraggerud leading the orchestra as concertmaster rather than soloist. The motoring second theme was propelled forward by pizzicati in the lower strings, before the motion was subsumed into tranquil, hymn-like moments, with pizzicati chiming like bells.

While Grieg’s String Quartet can’t strictly be called a theme and variations, its opening theme – a melodic fragment borrowed from the Spillemaend (Minstrels) of his Op. 25 Six Poems – is worked throughout the movements and returns in various guises. Presented here in Richard Tognetti’s arrangement, the wild energy and razor sharp ensemble work that typified this concert from the start showed no sign of abating, the orchestra riding sudden soft and madly surging crescendos with power and precision. Tognetti’s arrangement exploits the full gamut of textures from the roaring tutti orchestra down to clean one-a-part quartet writing. There was only one rubato moment in the second movement when the orchestration felt a little soupy and could have been trimmed back further.

Timo-Veikko Valve’s cello opening of the Romanze was a highlight, underwritten by pulsing violins while the Intermezzo packed a punch before dropping back to more whimsical motoring. The finale, beginning with staggered entries from the core quartet was vigorous and articulate, culminating in an explosion of furious energy.

Kraggerud was a gregarious musical host, with a story to tell for each performance, his own joy and vitality reflected in the ACO musicians. While there were some quieter more meditative moments in this programme, the overall mood was one of relentless movement and passion. The audience left exhausted while the musicians didn’t seem to have broken a sweat.

Henning Kraggerud and the Australian Chamber Orchestra tour Grieg and Beyond nationally until September 12.


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