Håvard Gimse: A timbre of his own.

In this interview the pianist Håvard Gimse relates on his background as a performing musician, his musical ideals and his conception of the future. –The different pedagogues I went to all worked in disparate directions, and in retrospect it is very entertaining to acknowledge how many different vantage points they have represented. At the end of the day it is of course one’s own instinct that decides which vantage point one embraces; the longer I keep doing this the more faith I get in this instinct, he says.

Håvard Gimse_piano (Foto: John Andresen)

By Ida Habbestad /Translated and abridged by Christian Lysvåg

-First and foremost I am a conveyer trying to be faithful to the ideas of the composer. Still, a central aspect for me as a performer is to have a voice and timbre of my own. For this reason the context of conveying contains a lot of psychology; one enters into a world of imagination, says Gimse.

Before we started discussing what aspects he puts emphasis on as a performer –the occasion for the interview is Gimse’s participation at the Chamber Music festival in Stavanger- Gimse tried to give a sketch of the path that has taken him to his current position.

-I was given many opportunities as a child; I was e.g. allowed to play for radio on several occasions. One day, when I was eleven, I had played one such radio broadcast and I was on my way to a lesson, and then it struck me that this might actually become a vocation. From that point on there has been a certain direction, says Gimse.

It is impossible to pin point exactly the time of the big decision to become a pianist, but this memory is at least one of several possible junctures. Gimse stresses that there never was much ado around him; his parents didn’t have too high expectations, no-one pushed him –except himself.

-At the age of twelve I started travelling to Oslo for lessons with Jens Harald Bratlie. He was very active at the time, so at first we would meet only once a month, which was a good thing for me; I was given long-term home work and had to practice being independent.

By and by the frequency of their meetings increased and Gimse also retained Bratlie as his tutor when he enrolled at the Norwegian Academy of Music at seventeen. His pace there was great –Gimse left high school after the first year and completed the two remaining years in two semesters, as a non-regular student. He completed the four-year program at the academy in three years.

-I let myself believe that I was so pressed for time, Gimse explains, and tells of how he moved on to Salzburg to study with professor Leygraf; one of Europe’s leading pedagogues at the time. Leaving the country was a sound thing for me to do, he concedes.

-It was a different experience. I got to meet a lot of really talented pianists, which made things more competitive and tougher. At the same time it is a wake up call to be outside of Norway, to see that we are, in fact, on the periphery of most things.

A more tranquil existence

During his time in Salzburg Gimse met Leif Ove Andsnes for the first time. He convinced Gimse to settle in Bergen in order to study with Jiri Hlinka. In a transitional period –from 1990 to 1995- Gimse commuted between Berlin, where Leygraf had settled, and Hlinka in Bergen, the latter being perhaps the greatest influence on Gimse at the time:

-Jiri was enormously important to me, and occasionally I still see him for lessons. It was actually a coincidence that he ended up in Norway; he was set to leave the Czech Republic and his alternative destinations were Tokyo and Norway. We are very fortunate that he ended up here, for he has been a tremendous resource for Norwegian music says Gimse who personally found in Bergen a more tranquil existence compared to his preceding restlessness.

-Due to Bergen’s wet climate I imagined I would only stay there for a couple of years, but I ended up staying for five or six. I experienced having more time; I wasn’t rushing to finish my studies, and I thrived in being able to combine studying and playing professionally.

On second thoughts Gimse adds that he has in fact always made his living from the piano. He has never had other work, only an infinite number of “gigs”, across the country, with numerous other musicians.

-I’ve been very in fortunate in having been pushed forward by other musicians such as Arve Tellefsen and Truls Mørk. I’m very fond of touring; not just the prestigious venues but also in small places where the concerts are less formal and I’m able to let my self go in a different manner.

The importance of touch

Gimse has done more than thirty CD recordings. Naxos has released his recording of the collected piano works of both Sibelius and Tveitt and he has undertaken several recordings of Grieg’s music. He has also released a CD with Carl Nielsen’s violin sonatas and with Stig Nilsson he has released “Music in a Nordic Summer Night”.

When asked about this apparent Nordic focus Gimse is doubtful whether it is a truthful description of his work.

-For me it’s a question of phases, he relates. –I played a lot of Tveitt in the nineties when I went through most of his oeuvre with Jiri. Tveitt’s pieces were a fun thing to indulge in at the time, for they had not been played very much, some of them not since Tveitt was alive himself.

-But really, my choice of repertoire has been a matter of coincidence. I grant that there is a Nordic focus on my recorded work, but on a daily basis I’m involved in other material; during the Salzburg days it was Vienna classicism and with Jiri I also did a lot of east European music.

So what is your ideal?

-That is not a question to be answered unequivocally. In terms of concerts my ideal has been something akin to “troubadourism”; playing what people want me to play. The lack of strategy has been my strategy.

-However, as a pianist one must incorporate several different ideals in order to come across as exciting. But if I were to single out one aspect it would have to be the use of timbre. I’ve wanted to portray aspects the piano timbre that are not percussive and I’ve been concerning myself with the nuances from mezzo piano and downwards. Touch is important. There will always be sound when you hit a key, but one has to mould this tone, says Gimse.

-Then how do you go about shaping tones and phrases?

-There has to be a vision of some kind; an imagined timbre. And one has to focus on the sensitivity of the finger and work towards its tactility with the keys.

Incentives and reprisals

Our conversations shifts focus to Gimse’s pedagogical activities. This fall he takes up a fifty percent position at the Academy, partially in cooperation with Leif Ove Andsnes.
-It is fun but also very challenging to verbalize what one does, both musically and technically, relates Gimse.
-There are also other, interpersonal challenges, like knowing where and when one should make a “pedagogical thrust”. So far I’ve focused on incentives, but I realize that some form of punishment should also be a factor.


-Yes, many work hard, but due to the fact that most things come easy in Norway, I think Norwegian youth could have worked harder. When I studied myself, the prevalent feeling was that I hadn’t a moment to lose. There are more really talented 20-25-year-olds now than when I was that age, but the general level hasn’t necessarily improved.

-In times of ever-increasing competition, what is your best piece of advice to your students?

-Initiative. I think that today one must really be active in creating interest around one’s person. It is no longer a matter of course that people attend concerts. Those now being educated must be conscious of this development, and in the lack of a sense of security –in terms of career and making a living- it is all the more important that one’s musicianship is founded on a true love of what one is doing.

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