Chamber Music with Gnats and Accordion

SwedenSweden  Sweden Saxå Chamber Music Festival 2012: Saxå and Filipstad 26 / 28.6.2012 (GF)

Last year I wasn’t able to attend the annual festival due to other assignments, so it was a special pleasure to be present again – even though I could only hear three concerts this time. There is a welcoming, friendly atmosphere in the mansion at Saxå, where most of the concerts take place. The visitors are often regulars who know each other and the musicians also return year after year, a majority of them members of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, where Peter Eriksson, the founder of the festival, plays in the viola department.

The first concert was labelled ‘Musical Salon’ and opened with Franz Schubert’s single movement string trio in B flat major D.471. This is light and feathery music, written by a 19-year-old composer, and played with youthful elegance by Jonas Lindgård, leader of the Nordic Chamber Orchestra in Sundsvall, Peter Eriksson and cellist Klas Gagge.

There followed a bouquet of Swedish songs by Stenhammar, Rangström, Erland von Koch and others and a sole song by Norwegian Agathe Bakker Gröndahl, by the side of Grieg she was probably the foremost song composer in Norway during the late 19th century. Christina Högman is one of the best Swedish song interpreters and the opening number, Stenhammar’s well known – in Sweden at least – En positivvisa (A barrel-organ song) at once caught the audience through her lovely and humoristic characterization. It seems that she has deepened her art even more the last few years. A new acquaintance to me was Erland von Koch’s setting of Strindberg’s Vinden vilar (The wind rests). The poem can be found in every anthology of Swedish poetry and von Koch’s treatment of it fascinating. Lindblad’s Sparven (The sparrow) was charmingly performed and Bakker Gröndahl’s Fågelns visa (The song of the bird) a wonderful choice. The whole programme was a delight, and Lennart Wallin accompanied sensitively.

The first part of the concert was rounded off with an early composition by Stenhammar, his single movement piano quartet in E flat major, where the string trio was joined by Anders Kilström. The freshness of the musical ideas is undeniable.

After the interval, which was spent in a losing battle with a million invisible and inaudible gnats, we were treated to Ludvig Norman’s piano quartet in E minor, opus 10, which was also a work from his relative youth. Norman studied in Leipzig in 1848 and there he also met Robert Schumann. Stylistically his quartet could be mistaken for the young Brahms, who was two years his junior. Of the three movements the energetic third is Norman at his best. One is also grateful for the opportunities to hear music that is far from the standard fare that dominate many chamber music programmes.

The following day we drove the sixteen kilometres to the Filipstad church for a lunchtime concert. The acoustics there, as I have noted before, is not very flattering to the piano, but for a solo cello it turned out to be close to ideal, rending an aura to the sound of the instrument, while being clear enough not to mask the melodic line. Elemér Lavotha was the soloist in Bach’s C Major suite. I first heard him some forty years ago when he was the soloist in Elgar’s cello concerto at the Stockholm Concert Hall. His hair is greyer today but his playing is as luminous as ever. The courante was maybe slightly smudged a couple of times but the slow sarabande spoke directly to this listener’s heart. The bourée, one of the most frequently played Bach movements when it’s encore time, was rhythmically stringent and the concluding gigue suitably bouncy.

Lindgård, Eriksson, Gagge and Kilström then offered another piano quartet, this time one of the true masterpieces in this genre, Mozart’s K.478 in G minor. The opening allegro, a whirlwind of a movement requiring virtuoso playing from all four, has a short passage in the middle, where the world calms down and listens, before the music resumes the carefree atmosphere of the opening. A riveting movement. The andante opens with the piano playing a lovely melody, Anders Kilström catching the simplicity of the tune to perfection. The whole movement was played con amore. The concluding rondeau is heavier than the allegro but there is the same playfulness – in spite of the key: G Minor.

After a brief visit to nearby Karlstad for birthday celebrations of a relative, we returned the following day to Saxå and a concert with music from three centuries. Joakim Svenheden, Patrik Swedrup and Elemér Lavotha opened with Beethoven’s string trio Op. 9 No. 3, written in the mid-1790s. The string trio has never established itself in the same way as the string quartet and piano trio has but Beethoven’s works in the genre are certainly among the best. This trio is both powerful and elegant and as played here it stood out as a masterly composition.

A more established masterpiece is Schumann’s Liederkreis Op. 39 to texts by Eichendorff. Christina Högman and Lennart Wallin performed them wonderfully, and Christina’s expressivity, to capture an audience visually and with vocal means, often scaling down to almost inaudible nuances. In Mondnacht, to mention just one of the songs, she was soft, restrained and still intense and extremely good at conveying the small wonders in nature. All the twelve songs are gems, and she did the most of each of them. A further advantage at Saxå was that not only did we get the texts but Christina Högman also provided excellent Swedish translations.

After the interval the programme said Concerto for accordion in G minor (1941), composed by A Galla-Rini. The person in question was unknown to me, probably to most of the listeners. What struck me were his birth and death years – 1904 – 2006! I looked him up back home and found that he was born in USA but his parents were Italian immigrants. He learnt to play the cornet at the age of four and made his professional debut with his father’s vaudeville band the same year. He quickly learnt to play another 11 instruments plus the accordion. The latter became his great interest and he composed lots of music for the instrument as well as being a teacher and writing instruction books. When he died of a heart attack, aged 102, he had been a professional musician for 98 years!

Accompanied by a group of string players, Matti Andersson turned out to be a marvellous advocate for Galla-Rini’s music. Rhythmic and melodious in even doses the concerto is a mix of various influences: salon music, a dose of Wiener Schrammel Quartet, a pinch of operetta, two pinches Korngold (Galla-Rini wrote music for Hollywood and played in several films, including Rhapsody in Blue and High Noon) and a lot more. The music never stays very long in one specific mood but is invariably beautiful and fresh. And the audience took it to their heart. It is a pleasure to hear music one didn’t even know existed – and be overwhelmed by it. This was a very pleasing finale to my Saxå visit this year.

Göran Forsling