The gala concert at the end of the Grieg-centred Bergen International Festival, falling on the birthday itself, was a gaudy and glittering affair, attended by the king and queen, ambassadors in some numbers, and many of the great and good. Broadcast live to six countries across Europe and scheduled for transmission to 21 more, it opened with a piece d'occasion by Arne Nordheim: Venit Rex begins with a glorious clatter of amplified percussion and choir, who intone the words of the title over a simple ascending figure as, indeed, the king arrives. The novelty was Alfred Schnittke's Hommage a Grieg, commissioned for the evening. I can't claim that the festival committee got its money's worth. One of Grieg's pastoral folk tunes is underpinned by slightly discordant harmonies and set off with a tangy role for solo violin. For the first half of its eight minutes Hommage a Grieg wanders inoffensively along until it tumbles into one of Schnittke's orchestral black holes; the Grieg quotations then resume.
The concert started with the first of the Peer Gynt suites, with Dmitri Kitayenko conducting the Bergen Philharmonic, the orchestra at the head of which Grieg himself used to stand and one of the oldest in Europe (it was founded in 1765). The music must be so familiar to the musicians that they could play it in their sleep; what was surprising about this concert was the freshness with which it was constantly invested. Kitayenko found a savagery to 'In the Hall of the Mountain King' that made it sound like a harbinger of The Rite of Spring. The first half ended with a group of orchestral songs, beautifully projected by the soprano Elizabeth Norberg- Schulz, who is rapidly making a name abroad as one of Norway's leading musicians; and on that day her domestic stature had been acknowledged with the award of the annual Grieg prize for the interpretation of his music. Norberg-Schulz has a voice that is surprisingly rich and full for someone of such small physique, and she used it to gorgeous effect, particularly in The Last Spring.
The closing item of the Bergen Festival is traditionally the Grieg A minor Piano Concerto, and this was not the year to make an exception. The soloist was another rising star among Norwegian musicians, Leif Ove Andsnes, at 23 only two years younger than Grieg when he wrote it. And it was very much a young man's performance: Andsnes played with a heroic energy, matched with orchestral vigour.