In tune with the chill of autumn

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The Baltic Sea island of Usedom, with its endless beaches and old-world elegance, has come a long way since the Nazis used it for rocket research. Alongside classy revamps of grand hotels, an essential part of Usedom’s post-unification rise from shabby neglect to must-see desirability has been a rethink of how the island views its own history. Music has played a vital role.

Usedom’s Music Festival, now in its 14th year, is blossoming along with its home. The festival’s main event, a concert in the abandoned power station of Peenemünde’s erstwhile weapons factory, has become an important point in the German music calendar. It has also helped the island to forge a new sense of identity.

This year, the Peenemünde concert is to be the final event in a 33-concert cycle. For the first time the festival runs to three weeks, rather than the usual two. For Usedom, this means that the summer season stretches on well into autumn, with concert-goers filling the beachfront hotels long after the bathers have gone home.

In tune with the autumn chill, this year’s festival theme is Norway. As 2007 marks the 100th anniversary of Edvard Grieg’s death, it is a perfect excuse to celebrate the Norwegian composer’s oeuvre alongside the works of his compatriots and their contemporaries. And Norway offers a disproportionately plentiful supply of suitable musicians.

The intelligent programming that characterises the festival was evident in Saturday night’s opening concert. Grieg’s oh-so-famous piano concerto could be horribly hackneyed. But not in the hands of the young Norwegian pianist Sigurd Slattebrekk, a refined and thoughtful performer who has spent long enough with Grieg’s own neglected recordings to be able to offer any number of surprising insights. Slattebrekk has just the right combination of introspection and charm to bring dignity to this music, coupled with a clean lack of sentimentality, a polished technique and an occasionally startling imagination. His playing is a treat.

Berlin’s well-matched Kammersymphonie and conductor Jürgen Bruns opened the concert in pretty Heringsdorf’s unprepossessing Kursaal with a brisk yet well- structured account of Mendelssohn’s “Hebrides” overture, somewhat hampered by the dry acoustics. This mattered less in the Grieg concerto, where the interpretation won over the circumstances, and less again after the interval.

Here Harald Saeverud’s 1936 “Lucretia” suite provided an intriguing look at the clear, pictorial skills of a seminal Norwegian composer less well-known abroad than Grieg, and the world premiere of the chamber orchestra version of Atle Halstensen’s up-beat cinematic The Evolving European offered a garish glimpse of what is happening on the electronic end of the country’s new music spectrum, with live mixing and a range of cityscape special effects spicing up a largely melodic score.

Sounds strange in a different way came the following morning, with a Hardangergeige concert in the intimate setting of Koserow’s Otto Niemeyer-Holstein art gallery. Knut Hamre, a leading exponent of the eight- (or more) stringed Norwegian folk fiddle, gave a startling account of five of Grieg’s “Slatter”, rustic dances written for this rasping, resonant, discreet little instrument. It made for an interesting insight into the origins of Grieg’s more conventional works.

Some of these were on show in Ahlbeck’s 19th-century Protestant church that evening, in the form of a Lieder recital by the Norwegian mezzo Randi Stene and the pianist Havard Gimse. The emancipated cavorting of Grieg’s “Mountain Girl” song cycle formed the concert’s centre-piece, a rare chance to hear these feisty and poignant pieces sung with expressive relish in fine Norwegian. Six further Grieg songs after the interval found Stene in similarly good form, though songs by Sibelius and Delius (both admirers of Grieg) revealed some insecure intonation alongside pleasant vocal colours. Gimse’s sensitive accompaniments and a fluid account of solo Sibelius works were a highlight of the evening.

Festival continues until October 13
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