Lofoten Festival, Various venues Lofoten, Norway

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The Independent Culture

The Lofoten Islands, draped across 200km at the northern tip of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, might appear an odd place to start a music festival.

The Lofoten Islands, draped across 200km at the northern tip of Norway, inside the Arctic Circle, might appear an odd place to start a music festival. The staple of the local economy has always been fish. You smell fish as you leave the mainland on the ferry from Bodo, and the whiff of fish comes to meet you as you land four hours later. The tiny ports tucked into the inlets and fjords are festooned with wooden frames, where rows of cod are hung out to dry.

But now, with the 25,000 islanders augmented by a daily intake of 2,000 tourists, and the midnight sun barely dipping to inspect the horizon, it seemed a good time to try. And the first Lofoten International Chamber Music Festival, held over five days in the middle of July, proved an exhilarating success.

The permanent light allowed two concerts per evening, held in wooden churches scattered sometimes 70-80km apart. Anywhere else, such distances would be impractical; here the effect is to bind the staggeringly beautiful scenery into the music-making.

The combination threatens sensory overload. One Schubert evening began with the German baritone Dietrich Henschel and Norwegian pianist Nils Mortensen (who lives even further north) in lieder, followed by the Vogler Quartet from Berlin in the Death and the Maiden Quartet and Leif Ove Andsnes, Norway's best-known musical export, in the late B-flat major Piano Sonata - all performances of the utmost intensity.

But then comes a journey through landscapes that beggar belief: towering mountains, three billion years old, their monumental rocks whorled and looped into bizarre formations, their stark summits ringed around with cotton-wool clouds lit from below by the ever-vigilant sun.

Already drained by the Schubert, and now humbled by nature's haughty grandeur, you arrive at the next fishing-village church for the Second Brahms Viola Sonata (the Leipzig-based Tatjana Masurenko, with Mortensen again) and the Kodaly Duo, with the Norwegian violinist Arvid Engegard and Finnish cellist Jan-Erik Gustafsson - here, too, playing with a fire and commitment that drained the listener's reserves of concentration.

The programmes mixed this band of performers - joined by Daniel Phillips, first violin of the New York-based Orion Quartet - in a kaleidoscopic menu of standard classics given new meaning by the obvious pleasure the musicians found in these brief chamber partnerships. Mozart and Brahms String Quintets were lent added intimacy by a tiny church setting that pushed the audience against the players; then another boulder-strewn cross-country dash caught Henschel and Andsnes extracting every ounce of meaning from Schubert's "Schöne Müllerin".

"The world's most beautiful music festival", claimed the advance publicity. It might well be right.

www.lofotenfestival.no </>

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