Saturday 18 July 2020

Thankful to be able to play together at all: the Engegård Quartet on recording Mozart, collaborating with Ola Kvernberg and their festival devoted to Olli Mustonen's music

The Engegård Quartet (Photo John Petter Reinertsen)
The Engegård Quartet (Photo John Petter Reinertsen)
The Engegård Quartet (Arvid Engegård, Alex Robson, Juliet Jopling, Jan Clemens Carlsen) is a string quartet based in Norway but with a developing international reputation. The quartet's debut CD won praise The Strad, and more recent discs have included works by Grieg, Sibelius and the Norwegian composer Olav Anton Thommessen (born 1946), and the complete Schumann quartets on BIS. Like everyone else, the quartet's plans for 2020 have been upset, but when I chatted to Arvid Engegård and Juliet Jopling by Zoom they were surprisingly upbeat, with cultural events in Norway planning to re-start on a smaller scale and the quartets mini-festival devoted to the music of Olli Mustonen will be going ahead in Oslo in September.

The quartet is part-way through recording Mozart's complete works for string quartet on the Norwegian Lawo label. Issued so far are discs of Mozart's Prussian quartets, and Haydn quartets, with the third volume about to be released. When complete,  the set will run to seven or eight discs (depending on whether items like the arrangements of Bach fugues are included). Whilst the quartet see it as a fun project, the idea arose with the record company, though the quartet had plans to play all of Mozart's mature quartets. The discs will include his early music, written when he was a teenager and this is a totally different world. Yet whilst the music is in a different style to mature Mozart, he is already himself and there is plenty for the listener in the music.

The quartet has other recording plans besides Mozart, though they describe plans to record all three Brahms' quartets as a slow burn project. They have an ongoing project with the Norwegian composer and jazz violinist Ola Kvernberg (born 1981), and he was written two quintets for himself and the Engegård Quartet to play, The Flight and Hypnagogia. They have toured the pieces extensively in Norway and found them popular. The quartet and Kvernberg have already recorded the works, but plans for a release with an associated tour are, inevitably, on hold.

Another ongoing recording project is the complete chamber music of Finnish pianist, conductor and composer Olli Mustonen (born 1967). The quartet commissioned Mustonen's String Quartet No. 1 in 2017 and loved playing it and Mustonen has a number of other chamber works in his output [see the Schott Music website], and in fact the Australian Chamber Orchestra has recorded an arrangement of Mustonen's Violin Sonata with Arvid Engegård leading.

Each year, the Engegård Quartet holds a festival in Oslo, På 123, devoted to a particular composer, and this year that composer is Olli Mustonen. This is something of a break with previous festivals, which have been devoted to older establish composers, Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.

The festival will be taking place in Oslo from 4-6 September 2020 at Nynorskens Hus, thanks to relaxation of lockdown rules in the country to permit small-scale gatherings. The quartet will be joined Mustonen himself on piano and other friends, though lockdown has caused changes and originally Steven Isserlis was due play Mustonen's Cello Sonata at the festival, but he is unfortunately unable to travel and so the sonata will be played by Swedish cellist Torleif Thedéen, with Mustonen on piano. Over the course of three days there will be five concerts and a masterclass, with solo and chamber music by Olli Mustonen alongside music by Bach, Beethoven, Sibelius and Shostakovich. The quartet has recorded the Olli Mustonen String Quartet and plan to have the disc released in time for the festival, and there are plans to record Mustonen's Piano Quintet with the composer.

Olli Mustonen String Quartet, first movement from Robert Hugill on Vimeo.

It is three years since the quartet commissioned Mustonen's String Quartet and for Juliet it is fun to be still working on a piece after three years and still love it. She finds that she can be herself with Mustonen's music, finding it powerful with strong emotions, yet also with high integrity and an immediate communicative strength. The quartet enjoy programming Mustonen's music and there is never a feeling that they 'ought to include something'. Whilst Mustonen's music is played in Norway, his is not a big name in the country and the quartet feels something of a missionary zeal for performing the composer. By contrast, when Arvid toured Australia performing Mustonen's music with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Mustonen was very much a big name.

But they also perform contemporary Norwegian composers, and feel that they are lucky to benefit from the wonderful Arts Council Norway which encourages a focus on Norwegian composers.

The Engegård Quartet arose out of the Lofoten International Chamber Music Festival, which is based in the picturesque Lofoten Islands in the North of Norway. Arvid founded the festival in 2004 and felt that it was strange to have a chamber music festival without a resident quartet and so by the time of the 2006 festival he had created the Engegård Quartet. All four players are based in Norway (three in Oslo and one in Trondheim), and they rehearse in Oslo and give around 60 concerts per year.

This year, they will probably give around 50 concerts; though a big UK tour was cancelled, and they lost a lot of work in April and May, they are finding that from August onward they are getting more work from smaller Norwegian festivals and events as these are obliged to use Norwegian artists rather than international ones. And this year's Lofoten Festival has been postponed until November, when it returns as November Light (11-15 November 2020).

Also in November, the quartet is joining with two other Norwegian quartets (the Oslo String Quartet and the Vertavo Quartet) to perform the complete Beethoven string quartets over a weekend (6-18 November 2020) as part of the Olso Quartet Series. For the quartet this will be an interesting musical journey at the new Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo (the museum will not officially be open), and the striking new building by the Spanish architect Juan Herreros includes a main hall with good acoustics.

The Engegård Quartet in Lofoten
The Engegård Quartet in Lofoten
The quartet is humbly thankful to be able to play together at all, and that they will be able to do so inside, with an audience, is phenomenal. In fact, there was a period when they would have been able to meet for rehearsals but were unable to find a venue because of the new hygiene rules. And they realise that no-one knows what is likely to happen in the future. But the quartet feels that there will be changes.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Almost sacred opera: the French group Les Accents in an engaging account of one of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorios for 17th century Rome - CD review
  • Music when no-one else is near: Michael Mofidian and Julia Lynch live from Glasgow City Halls on BBC Radio 3 - concert review
  • Vienna 1910: the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien in sophisticated and vibrant accounts of works by Mahler, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss - CD review
  • Joyful and imaginative: written for a late-18th century English aristocrat, Tommaso Giordani trios for violin, viola da gamba & fortepiano prove delightful finds - CD review
  • The Invention of English Opera: the surprising history of opera in 17th century England, part one, from masques to dramatic-opera - feature article
  • Heroic Handel: I chat to Chris Parsons, artistic director of Eboracum Baroque, about the group's plans including a large-scale on-line concert - interview
  • Incidental music to The Ruins of Athens: prime Beethoven linked to a forgetten play - CD review
  • Schubert's Four Seasons: an imaginative exploration of Schubert song from Sharon Carty and Jonathan Ware - CD review
  • They that in ships unto the sea go down - Music for the Mayflower from Passamezzo on Resonus Classics - CD review
  • French seasons and a Belgian violinist: I chat to Anna Ovsyanikova about her explorations of violin repertoire and her new disc - interview
  • Lyrical English pastoralism and more: the choral music of Owain Park showcased by The Epiphoni Consort on Delphian - CD review
  • 'Home

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