Guitar Chamber Music: Stein-Erik Olsen Interview

Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco / News /
Stein-Erik Olsen explores Castelnuovo-Tedesco Quintet on new CD

As part of our occasional series of interviews with performers about their experiences recording Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s chamber music, we posed some questions to Stein-Erik Olsen, the esteemed Norwegian guitarist and professor at the Grieg Academy of the University of Bergen. He has a long-standing commitment to guitar chamber music,  demonstrated once again by his latest release: Stein-Erik Olsen: The Fifties and NOW (Simax Classics)

Interview with Stein-Erik Olsen by Diana Castelnuovo-Tedesco — Jan 2023

Your CD features an eclectic selection of work. How does Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco fit into the mix?

When I was planning the repertoire for this CD, my first decision was that it should consist of chamber music.  I wanted to present a new piece with a non-traditional instrumental setting.  I got the idea that a piece for two guitars and percussion could sound great.  Previously I have played and recorded many pieces by the celebrated Norwegian composer Ketil Hvoslef.  So, it was natural for me to ask him what he thought about my idea and if he could compose a piece for my recording. He is a composer who enjoys working with non-traditional settings so, inspired by the idea and the challenges it involved, he composed the great piece “Troika for two guitars and percussion”.

For the recording I wanted to combine this piece with two pieces for guitar and string quartet. This setting was once a rarity. Boccherini prepared the atmosphere for guitar in chamber music, composing amongst other works several guitar quintets, but strangely enough there are very few guitar quintets composed before 1950. Nineteen fifty is in fact the year when Castelnuovo -Tedesco composed his Guitar Quintet during five weeks; to be more precise between 1 February and 5 March 1950.

For me it was obvious to record Tedescos´s Quintet and that it would make a perfect combination with another landmark from the fifties: Leo Brouwer´s Quintet, written in 1957.  I mentioned that this setting once was a rarity, but after Castelnuovo-Tedesco composed his Quintet, more than 300 works for guitar quintet have been composed.  But for this recording I thought it would be a good idea to combine pieces from the fifties with the brand new work by Hvoslef, hence the title of the record “The Fifties and NOW”. I later discovered that there certainly is a link between the quintets by Castelnuovo-Tedesco and Brouwer.  Leo Brouwer told me in a mail he sent me some weeks ago, after listening to my CD, that Castelnuovo-Tedesco´s Quintet was (besides the chamber music of Béla Bartók) in fact one of the main sources of inspiration for composing his quintet.. 

So, to come back to your question about how Castelnuovo-Tedesco fits into the mix.  In my mind there are many reasons: first,  it is by far one of the best pieces ever written for guitar quintet, truly a landmark. It was groundbreaking and further certainly an eye-opener and inspiration for other composers, and it still is a challenge to play. As a guitarist, it is a privilege to work with a successful composition by such a distinguished composer.

What stands out for you about Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Quintet? 

When I started to work with the score I had not listened to any recordings of the piece for a long time. The first thing that struck me was the polyphonic texture in all four movements.  Tedesco was an exceptional master of counterpoint and polyphony. I would also like to mention that although Tedesco did not play the guitar himself, his intuitive understanding of the instrument is remarkable. This can already be seen in his early works such as the Variations à Travers les siècles (op. 71 – 1932) and the Capriccio Diabolico (op. 85 – 1935). He was indeed a composer with a remarkable sense of the idiomatic.  Another feature is that Tedesco intuitively knew how the guitar would function in an ensemble. Not only when it comes to the dynamic aspects, but he also allows the guitar to alternate between being the solo instrument and occasionally part of the ensemble. The length of the piece is also remarkable; I can’t think of any guitar piece from this period with such substance.

I imagine that, as a leading guitarist, you were already very familiar with Mario’s music, but how about your collaborators? Was it their first experience performing one of his compositions?

The leader of the quartet, the violinist Ricardo Odriozola,  is Spanish, and he is familiar with the guitar and its repertoire.  He used to play the guitar before he took up the violin. Besides being the professor of the violin and chamber music at the Grieg Academy in Bergen, Norway, he is also active as a composer and has composed several pieces for the guitar, both solo and chamber music. It was he who made me aware of Mario’s quintet many years ago.

The other members in the quartet are active in different chamber music projects and ensembles and have played many times with guitarists. However, it was the first time they played Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s quintet. They were all thrilled by the musical quality of Mario’s quintet, the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm for the music was expressed by the producer Simon Kiln and sound engineer Arne Akselberg, both of whom have been awarded several Grammy Awards and have an international reputation, after working for nearly thirty years at the Abbey Road Studios.

While you were studying and recording this music, what emotions did you feel? What particularly touched you or surprised you? 

I prefer to have a lot of time available when I rehearse new works. I enjoy looking for and experimenting with different solutions when it comes to dynamics, articulation and phrasing, in addition to timbre.  The better the music is composed, the more the interpretive possibilities increase. This is absolutely the case with Castelnuovo-Tedesco´s quintet.  It is well composed and full of surprises.  It really invites you to dive deep into and enjoy all these important musical ingredients.

For me all four movements are masterfully composed. They all have a clear and distinct character. Each movement consists of various short or longer parts with different character, different tempi, and expression. This is a characteristic feature of Tedesco’s music. He was a brilliant composer; he links the various parts in a natural way.  For me as a performer, I have tried to use different ways to tie the various parts together in a way that does not inhibit the progress or the natural flow in the music.

I believe Tedesco requires the performer to use his entire sensory register.  The first movement is very classical; I think that Schubert must have been at the forefront of Tedesco’s mind when it was written. The second movement is more introspective, very Spanish, and nostalgic, truly a pearl of a movement. Third movement is a scherzo consisting of many musical elements, amongst them the tango; it’s a very exciting and fun movement to play. The last movement is for me a typical tarantelle, the Italian danse-form which I think Tedesco was very fond of.

What would you like the listener to take away from your recording?

For the last decade I have played and recorded chamber music for guitar. I have recorded several guitar concertos with superb orchestras such as St. Martin in the Fields and The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra and I have recorded different works for guitar in combination with other instruments. All the music I have recorded was composed after 1950. I think chamber music is very important for guitarists in general. It is essential for musical training and gives the guitarists more opportunities to play concerts.

In my opinion the quality and the quantity of composition for guitar with other instruments have increased enormously in recent years. I hope that this record might inspire guitarists to play more chamber music. For the general audience I hope the recording can show that the classical guitar works as a chamber music instrument. As the English composer Steve Goss clearly expresses in his line note in the CD’s booklet: “The guitar now stands on equal footing with other instruments in chamber music settings”.

Stein-Erik, thank you for sharing your fascinating insights with us! 

Photo of Stein-Erik Olsen by K.Breistein.