Saturday 25 March 2023

Intriguing, illuminating, frustrating: Henning Kraggerud and RNCM Chamber Orchestra

Grieg: Violin Sonata No. 3 - Henning Kraggerud & RNCM Chamber Orchestra - RNCM
Grieg: Violin Sonata No. 3 - Henning Kraggerud & RNCM Chamber Orchestra - RNCM

Grieg, arr. Kraggerud & Lund: Violin Sonata No. 3, Bach, arr. Kraggerud & Lund: Goldberg Variations (excerpts); Henning Kraggerud, RNCM Chamber Orchestra; Royal Northern College of Music
Reviewed 24 March 2023

Grieg and Bach orchestrated, inwonderfully engaged and vital performances from RNCM Chamber Orchestra under the charismatic Henning Kraggerud

The Royal Northern College of Music's (RNCM) Original Voices Festival celebrates new interpretations of classic works and as part of it, on Friday 24 March 2023, Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud (artistic director of the Arctic Philharmonic and International Chair in Violin at the RNCM) directed the RNCM Chamber Orchestra in a programme of orchestrations of smaller-scale works. So we heard Kraggerud and Bernd Lund's orchestral expansion of Grieg's Violin Sonata No. 3, and a selection of movements from Bach's Goldberg Variations

But we began with Kraggerud alone in an improvisation, part folk-inspired, part impressive technical exercise, Kraggerud played as he wandered around the concert hall. Then he talked about the importance of improvisation and how he does some each morning, and he got a volunteer from the audience to play a limited range of notes on the piano and proceeded to improvise with him!

Kraggerud explained how the music of Grieg's third violin sonata was intimately bound up with the composer's complex emotional life (Grieg even left his wife to go to Paris at one point). He also pointed out that many of Grieg's orchestral works had their origins in orchestrations of his piano piece. With the sonata, orchestrating the piano part for chamber orchestra emphasised the first movement's stormy, emotional character and Kraggerud's solo playing really built on this. Throughout the movement there was a constant pull between drama and sweetness, between strong emotions and pellucid simplicity, and the playing from the orchestra was wonderfully engaged and vital. The slow movement began with a lovely flute solo, the solo violin then taking over the melody, becoming by turns emotional, sweetly simple and soulful, with a really magical ending. The final movement was a fast, characterful dance, with lively yet transparent orchestration, and even in the passionate moments there was a sense of the dance.

They followed this with a selection of movements from Kraggerud and Lund's orchestration of Bach's Goldberg Variations for strings with harpsichord. This was more of a lecture recital than a concert performance as between most movements, Kraggerud chatted to the audience, explaining and demonstrating the music. Part of this was to try and give us a feeling for the music's freedom and innovation, and this included the strings playing the opening of one movement in a variety of different styles, of hearing part of the harpsichord original, as well as simply elucidating the more arcane elements in Bach's structure. Kraggerud is an engaging and vigorous speaker, but at a certain point in proceedings I rather wanted the talking to stop. We were given the chance to appreciate individual variations in isolation, but not the cumulative power that hearing the full sequence brings. Kraggrud and Lund's approach was very varied, from big string moments to more intimate concertino groups. Throughout, playing was elegant and vibrant with fine contributions from the front desk players in the concertino moments.

Throughout Kraggerud got wonderfully engaged performances from the orchestral players, and some of his introductions gave us a hint at the improvisation and games that might lay behind the performance. An evening that was by turns intriguing, illuminating and frustrating.

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