Oslo’s Delightful Stable House of Chamber Music

NorwayNorway Eccles, Helland, Hoffmeister, Bloch, Tchaikovsky, Glinka: Erling Sunnarvik (double bass), Nils Lundström (piano), Annika Skoglund (mezzo), Aslak Juva (violin), Vegard Johnsen (violin), Stig-Ove Ose (viola), Hans Josef Groh (cello), Kenneth Ryland (double bass), Akershus Fortress Stable House, Oslo, 10.3.2012 (JFL)

Eccles: Sonata in a-minor
Helland: Excursion for Double Bass and Piano
Glinka: Elegy, Doubt (arr.)
Hoffmeister: Double Bass Quartet No.2 in D
Bloch: Prayer (arr. Nils Lundström)
Tchaikovsky: O Verweil, op.16/2, Mignon’s Song, op.6/6 (arr.)

"Ridehuset" Concert Hall at the Akershus Fortress in Oslo

The former stable-house of the Akershus Fortress in Oslo has been permanently turned into a charming concert hall, used by the Norwegian Armed Forces band, but also for chamber concerts of the Oslo Philharmonic. A steeply raked block of audience seating is planted at one end, the baby-blue paint peels gently off the old vaulted wooden ceiling, the atmosphere is cozy, the look sleek, and the acoustics are formidable. An exquisite fusion of modern and old and a painful reminder of everything the beastly Oslo Concert Hall isn’t.

The concert on March 10th was dedicated to that most eminent and graceful chamber music instrument, the double bass: “Leading Parts for Double Bass”. (The difficulties of the double bass as a chamber—or solo—instrument, though, were exemplified by the fact that two thirds of the program consisted of transcriptions.)

Double bassist-de-jour Erling Sunnarvik opened with a beautiful performance of Henry Eccles’ predictably-beautiful Sonata in a-minor (originally in g-minor for the gamba/cello) while pianist Nils Lundström supplied the simplistic piano part that underpins the largely lyrical, melodic tunes and their pretty embellishments with trills and mordents. If one appreciates the difficulties of playing the double bass beyond the amusing stereotypes (“a correct note on the bass is a crapshoot”, Brahms Sr.), then Mr. Sunnarvik’s efforts had to be considered most impressive, even if the Eccles-piece doesn’t amount to more than a quaint musical bit of afternoon coffee & cake.

Arne Helland’s “Excursions for Double Bass and Piano” makes considerably more idiomatic use of the instrument—not surprising, since it was actually written for it. That meant that “Excursions” didn’t sound, as so many other double bass compositions or transcriptions do, like the soloist forgot his cello and a double bass was all that could be found behind stage. The three promenades of which “Excursions” consists showed ambling, lowly-registered humor and more interesting parts to play for both musicians than the Eccles, especially for the pianist whom Helland promotes to equal partner.

Songs—of Glinka first, and later Tchaikovsky—transcribed for mezzo soprano, double bass, and piano were sprinkled in, but neither Mr. Sunnarvik’s waning accuracy nor the overly dramatic, imposing, but well-voiced rendition of Annika Skoglund did them much good. During the bows the singer’s excessive—which is to say: perfectly disingenuous—applause-deference to Mr. Sunnarvik left the uncomfortable aftertaste of having witnessed cartoonish egomania in a setting that did not at all call for it.

This called upon, perhaps uniquely in modern performance history, Franz Anton Hoffmeister to come to the rescue! That scourge of auditioning double bassists the world over, wrote a quartet for double bass, violin, viola, and cello which, in its harmlessly Mozartean way, has the power to delight. It did so most in the impressively performed second movement. Ernst Bloch’s “Prayer”, in Nils Lundström’s transcription for solo double bass and strings (a double bass quintet, D.956-style), was at the heart of the second half, substantive and gratifying, even as it could have benefitted from a drillmaster or additional rehearsals.

Whether the meager attendance reflected local double-bass attitudes or a lack of enthusiasm for chamber programs in general I don’t know. But it would be a shame not to make more of such a great venue: only six (Oslo-Philharmonic-organized) chamber performances a year seems little, and too little to generate the enthusiasm and tradition that weekly or bi-weekly events might.

Jens F. Laurson