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Sverre Bergh – Epigrammer etter et motiv av Rikard Nordraak (Epigrams after a motif by Rikard Nordraak)
(2. November 1915 – 8. December 1980)
String Quartet no. 2 – (1973)
First performance date unknown
Recorded by Hansakvartetten:
“Hvoslef, Bergh & Sivertsen” VNP 2002-0057
Sverre Bergh was born in Hamar. During the years 1935-37 he studied music theory and composition with Fartein Valen. At the same time he also took piano lessons from Erling Westher and was Arild Sandvold’s organ student. Between 1937 and 1946 he worked as a freelance musician in Oslo. After that he was employed as arranger and composer in residence in the newly established Norwegian Radio Orchestra (Kringkastings orkesteret, known as KORK). That same year he began his work as music critic, which he would carry on with a number of Norwegian newspapers.
From 1952 on he worked as conductor at various theatres, most notably The National Theatre of Bergen. He arranged and composed a vast array of music for the stage, films, radio and television. His two most important works in this field are the television opera Lyrikkens Verkefinger (The Swollen Finger of the Poetry) and the pop musical Alice in the Underworld, which uses the title of the famous Lewis Carroll story to describe the world of advertising (“underverden” in Norwegian means both underworld and wonderland).
Bergh also composed chamber, choral and orchestral music of very high quality. His serious compositions are largely written in a neo classical style, with elegant use of counterpoint and harmony and, often, humorous overtones. His most outstanding chamber works are two string quartets, a string quintet, a string trio, a duo sonata for two violins and a concertino for clarinet and strings. His organ piece Invocatio and the choral work And death shall have no dominion – based on the Dylan Thomas poem – are amongst his most often performed compositions.
During most of his life Sverre Bergh was active as an organiser and artistic consultant. He held many official positions in Norwegian musical life and contributed significantly to the inclusion of contemporary music in the repertoire of Norwegian performing institutions. He spent his last four years as the director of the Bergen International Festival.
(Biographical information gathered from MIC – Listen to Norway - http://www.listento.no/mic
Edited by Ricardo Odriozola)
Having written his substantial three-movement first string quartet in 1958, Sverre Bergh waited fifteen years before he approached the hallowed genre again. For his second string quartet, Epigrammer etter et motiv av Rikard Nordraak, he chose to make a short series of variations flanked by a Prelude and a Finale. The basis for the variations is a theme by the greatly talented contemporary of Grieg, Rikard Nordraak (1842-1866) who, in spite of writing a fair amount of inspired music in his tragically short life, is today mainly remembered as the man who wrote the music of the Norwegian national anthem "Ja vi Elsker Dette Landet" (yes, we love this land), with text by his cousin Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson.
Nordraak's theme is presented by the unaccompanied viola in the first movement, "Preludium". This, however, is preceded by a tutti introduction in which cells from the theme are explored both vertically and horizontally. After the viola has played the theme in its entirety, it is taken by the first violin, now with full participation from the ensemble. Rich in harmony, the music proceeds organically towards an ambiguous final chord that leaves the door open for the following set of variations or epigrams.
True to the title of the piece, Bergh creates a set of five short character pieces. Ingeniously he assigns a specific style of playing or technique to each of these short movements. In this way they retain a properly epigrammatic quality. While clearly belonging to a larger entity by dint of their shared material, each movement stands in sharp relief from each other and the whole.
"Spiccato" is light-hearted and fun, with the cello's implied 3/4 metre coexisting with the 3/8 in the rest of the ensemble. Each instrument plays a distinctive role, the ensemble sometimes meeting in rhythmic agreement. There is room for some two-part and even three-part canon imitation before the music bursts out in a bustle of activity, finally ending with a friendly wink to the listener.
"Detaché" is written in contrapuntal style and it explores the non legato articulation. It shows the more serious, but not solemn side of Bergh's music. It ends on a loud unison E, the dominant of the A minor Nordraak theme. It is, as such, also an open ending that makes room for the continuation of the music.
By contrast, "Pizzicato" shows the more mischievous side of Bergh's musical personality. It is the central and most extensive movement. In this march-like variation Bergh plays with sharp dynamic contrasts, surprises and grotesque glissandi, using both the normal and Bartók varieties of pizzicato. It ends, unceremoniously with a very high and soft note on the first violin.
"Legato con Sordino" is lyrical, introverted and pensive. The movement is written in polyphonic style and, although the individual lines have a degree of independence, they always breathe together, like a choir, in preparation for the next musical phrase. It ends in the most inconclusive harmony of all the movements.
The very brief "Ponticello e col Legno" whisks by like a breeze, giving the impression of a short gathering of strength before the final movement. The two playing techniques coexist in the first twelve measures, thereafter being juxtaposed. The only two measures in which the group plays ff ordinario (i.e. neither ponticello nor col legno) stand as a well-intentioned joke, after which everyone goes back to their whispering. The surprising tutti ff ending figure acts as an upbeat to the stately "Finale".
The final movement gathers the strands of the whole work into a majestic conclusion. Most of the techniques used previously are referenced (legato, non-legato, pizzicato, spiccato). It begins ponderously. A first attempt is put into question by wispy harmonics while the second, equally determined attempt opens up for a gradually rising of intensity and register. This also happens in two stages, reaching the Maestoso section at measure 46, the work's final stretch. Interestingly the piece ends in the key of D, a tonal centre that has hitherto played no role whatsoever in the work. It appears that the A minor of the Nordraak theme, which albeit in a free-tonal landscape, is retained in the first three movements and the beginning of the Finale, acts as a Dominant to the final D tonality - first minor then finally major.
Epigrammer... is a conscientiously crafted work. Its free-tonal language sits well in the traditional style of writing. The clarity of the form and presentation, together with the many moods the music traverses, makes this into a work that is at once very accessible and meaningful.
Ricardo Odriozola, Bergen 19. September 2021
No German version available ...
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