The Rising Star – Ellen Nisbeth

Kristofer G. Skaug, DVS
Concertgebouw kleine zaal, 13/12/2017

This season marks the first time that a young viola soloist is selected by the European Concert Hall Organisation (ECHO) for their “Rising Stars” chamber recital series. Ellen Nisbeth (Sweden) is the rare exception. Word of her talent reached me several years ago, so her debut in the Concertgebouw was a must hear.

Ellen Nisbeth (photo: Nikolaj Lund)

She started off with a commissioned work by Swedish composer Katarina Leyman: Tales of Lost Times, a four-part solo piece. The introduction presents resounding fifths (a whiff of Scandinavian folk music) interspersed with dialogic passages. A buzzing, agitated tremolo movement titled Around the Campfire brought memories of Northern summers with … well, insects! The final part answers to the opening movement with similar figures. A fitting and personal way to introduce herself to the audience.

Next came Schumann’s very familiar Märchenbilder. The first and last movements are perennial favourites with their warm and sweet melodic material – brought with great musicality and a very fine-tuned sense of co-musicianship with pianist Bengt Forsberg. In the 3rd movement (Rasch), we were treated to a flash of Nisbeth’s considerable technical prowess, with an uncompromising tempo choice.

Time to bring on Britten! Lachrymae – Reflections on a song of Dowland is a perfect showcase for a gifted musician like Nisbeth. She brought some very original interpretations, and made full use of the freedoms afforded by Britten’s score. The references to the Dowland themes remained very clear throughout, and in spite of some perceived dynamic balance issues, the overall performance was very gratifying.

After the intermission, Nisbeth brought her own transcriptions of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel, inspired by the writings of R.L. Stevenson. Although these songs felt quite “light” in emotional terms (compared to the Britten), the melodies work well on the viola. Yet another song transcription came with Mut from Schubert’s Winterreise, which in its time had inspired one of R.L. Stevenson’s poems.

This led directly into Schubert’s Arpeggione sonata, which can be a treacherous stage companion. Nisbeth and Forsberg however co-created a warm and charming rendition. I was very happy to note, for example, that the repeat of the (lengthy) first section was all but a repeat exercise – it was significantly re-invented, reconsidered, re-articulated as if played for the first time. The slow movement was beautifully phrased, with great warmth of tone radiating from Nisbeth’s Amati viola. After all this beauty, I was a bit worried for the last movement, which to me often feels like an overdone “extended remix” version of itself. There was however no let-down, because Nisbeth invigorated the music with megawatts of musical energy throughout.

So there is no doubt, Ellen Nisbeth deserves the status of rising star! (while coincidentally, last night astronomers were busy studying the Geminid meteor shower in the night sky – falling stars! none of them were observed to be playing the viola, though).

Could we convince her to visit our Viola Congress in Rotterdam next year?