Whatever happens to me in the afterlife I hope it won’t be like the Berlioz Requiem, whose heavily French 19th-century sense of death is probably the most oppressive, overbearing, dark and loud liturgical setting of its kind. Not that it’s ever done liturgically, given the difficulty of finding the four separate brass bands Berlioz requires to be placed at the far corners of an already swollen orchestra and chorus.
This was a composer who thought big. And I suspect he’d have taken pride in the way the audience were offered ear plugs as they filed in for the monumental performance that played last week at the Bergen Festival in Norway.
Bergen is the Scandinavian equivalent of Edinburgh: a sprawling, all-embracing annual festival that programmes grand events alongside radical and crazy ones. The Berlioz qualified as grand on all counts. But where music on so huge a scale tends to be blowsy and unfocused, this was strikingly well disciplined – thanks to the keen control of Edward Gardner (former music director of English National Opera, these days chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic) and the surprising clarity of a chorus that included students over from the Royal Northern College, Manchester, and an elite professional vocal group called the Edward Grieg Choir that’s Bergen-based but run by Brits.
Given that the Bergen Opera is run by Brits as well, you might think that cultural life in this part of Norway had been taken over by the Union Jack. And it was interesting the next night to hear Bryn Terfel give a Festival recital of Welsh and Scottish songs, in the course of which a 95 per cent Norwegian audience sang along to The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond as though they were born to it.
But Norwegians are in fact a patriotic people with a strong sense of identity – which is why Bergen makes a point of having concerts by native talent in the nearby homes of great figures from its own musical past. At Edward Grieg’s famous Troldhaugen villa I heard a stunning young violist, Ellen Nisbeth, play Sibelius and Shostakovich. And the island summer house of Norway’s 19th-century violin virtuoso Ole Bull was the picture-book setting for a recital by an absurdly young but seriously promising violinist Johan Dalene.
Representing the more off-the-wall side of the Bergen Festival, though, was a concert played on instruments entirely made from chunks of ice. They had to be replaced at intervals or they’d have melted. And I daresay the performance carried risks of frostbite – although everyone on stage was well wrapped up in furs and gloves. The sound was haunting, the experience chilly.
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