Truls Mørk is a joy not only to hear but to see. He caresses his cello like a lover. The chemistry between them is reminiscent of a couple, deeply in love, whose only desire is to dissolve in each other’s arms. You can see the music in his fingers, arms, shoulders and face. The movements of his bow give birth not only to music but to all manner of senses, emotions and moods. The instrument becomes his voice, body and soul, and it is not easy to tell who is invading whom, where one begins and the other ends – it really is possible to listen with your eyes.
His instrument is a Domenico Montagnana made in Venice in 1723. It was bought by a bank in his home town of Stavanger from a retired first cellist who used to play in the Boston Symphony Orchestra and wanted to buy his dream house. The cello is a dark, opaque chocolate brown. In the light, it glows in all possible shades of brown and the varnish is cracked like an old painting or the lines around a lover’s smiling eyes. Since it has a Stradivarius scroll, it is even more valuable. One is tempted to be naively sentimental and ascribe to it almost human qualities because it is Mørk’s natural partner. When he is travelling by air, it has to have its own seat, by the window of course, and arguments with airline staff are a recurrent feature of Mørk’s life. The quality of the instrument allows Mørk to explore the extreme limits of the cello’s register.
Truls Mørk made his début playing his father’s cello in the Oslo University Aula in 1983, at the age of eighteen. In the same year, while he was still studying at the Swedish Radio Music Institute, he became the first Scandinavian prizewinner in the Tchaikovsky competition in Moscow. Subsequent victories included the Cassados competition in Florence and the UNESCO prize in Bratislava. His New York début took place in 1986, in the same place as Isaac Stern, Andres Segovia and Joan Sutherland had made their débuts, the New York Town Hall. A surprisingly large audience rewarded him with bravos and demands for encores. It was not to be the last time this happened.
At that point in time, the young master cellist was in an almost schizophrenic situation. He was one of the best, most successful musicians of his generation, but his career was at a standstill. Without bitterness, he experienced the age-old dilemma: on the way up, everyone gives you well-meant advice but when you are at the top the silence is deafening.
He discovered that coming from Norway, on the periphery of Europe, was a disadvantage on the major markets, i.e. the USA, Germany, France and the UK. Just after a prestigious victory or a successful concert there would be a natural demand for his services, and then it slowly died away. Mørk was thinking of giving up his entire solo career because he lacked a marketing apparatus. As a musician, he was constantly setting himself new goals, but what was the use if he wasn’t heard by a discerning audience? He calmly determined that he was misusing his talent. He was playing anything anywhere.
At this level you have to have an agent to be responsible for the practical details and long-term planning, so Mørk acquired one. An international solo career was tempting, not so much because of the career itself but because of the possibilities it opened up. The better the orchestras and conductors he played with, the more he could improve, the further he could stretch himself. His real international breakthrough finally came with his London début in 1988.
Today, Truls Mørk already has an impressive discography behind him, both as a soloist and as a chamber musician, and the people he works with are undoubtedly also impressive. He is fully booked until 2001 and his contracts include playing with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle and with pianist Martha Argerich. In this year’s recording (with the BSO under young Paavo Järvi) he plays his examination piece; Sergey Prokofiev’s incredibly difficult Sinfonia concertante, opus 125, which requires about 29 fingers. He plays the world premiere of the composer’s alternative finale, where one minute fifty seconds in the middle is different from the original. The recording also contains Nikolay Myaskovsky’s Cello concerto, opus 66. With this CD, he regards himself as having finished recording Russian composers, after being a shining ambassador for them for many years.
With the German pianist Lars Vogt, he has recorded Dmitry Shostakovich’s Sonata opus 40 no. 2, Igor Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne and Sergey Prokofiev’s Sonata opus 119. Typical for this repertoire is the demanding combination of technical difficulty and emotional depth. They are also among this century’s core cello material, already brought to life by first class performers, not least Mstislav Rostropovich. Critics at home and abroad agreed that Truls Mørk did more than justice to the repertoire, revitalising it for contemporary audiences who demand contemplative depth.
Mørk’s recordings of Dmitry Shostakovich’s two cello concertos are also exemplary. With the London Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons, the CD was nominated for a Grammy award in 1995. The concertos were written for Rostropovich in 1959 and 1966 and differ greatly; the first is extrovert and intensely rhythmical while the second is far more symphonic and deeply complex. They are two of Mørk’s favourite pieces and he believes them to be among the best works the composer wrote.
Truls Mørk is totally devoted to delving ever deeper into his music. His repertoire also requires moral strength. He has been faced with criticisms that he, a western, privileged musician, cannot possibly understand the composer’s situation under the communist regime. To Mørk, who has had Russian teachers, the “white man plays the blues” criticism appears ignorant and intolerant. You don’t have to be insane to appreciate Robert Schumann’s cello concerto.
The duality of Schumann’s music and his tragic life are another of Mørk’s passions. He has recorded the A minor cello concerto with the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra under Hans Vonk. The concerto is characterised by poetic-romantic expression interrupted by neurotic impulses which create enormous tension and depth. The score itself shows how Schumann converts an intricate composition into “simple” tonal language. He works happily with 3, 5 and 7 beats to the bar, where Brahms, for instance, works with 4 and 8. The flow is constantly interrupted by contrasting ideas which create a nervous presence in the music. At the same time, you can hear that Schumann was familiar with the cello. He admitted that his wife, Clara, was a far better pianist and started playing the cello instead. With the best of intentions, she burned all his later works. Clara believed he had lost the ability to write good music when his mental condition deteriorated and wanted to protect his reputation. Five cello sonatas were consumed by fire...
Compared with violinists and pianists, cellists have very few original works to choose between. Only about thirty concertos are performed with any frequency, and the flow of newly-composed material is not exactly overwhelming. On his daring début CD in 1987, Truls Mørk played works from this century, such as Arne Nordheim’s Clamavi (1980), sonatas by George Crumb (1955) and Zoltan Kodaly (1915) and Ingvar Lidholm’s Fantasia supra laudi (1977). American composer Charles Rouse is writing a new concerto for Mørk, to be first performed with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra. Of Norwegian works, Harald Sæverud’s Cello concerto from the 1930s is currently being “restored” because the orchestration was incomplete, and Alfred Janson is developing one of his original one-movement works into a full lenght concerto. Truls Mørk is now unavoidably moving towards Elgar and Britten and believes strongly that what the world does not need now is yet another recording of Bach’s cello sonatas.
Being a soloist is a lonely occupation. You come to an orchestra as a foreign element, remain for a few days, perform and move on. Although he gives numerous concerts, he is just as nervous and restless each time. He is unable to relax the day before a concert. The nerves are partly because Mørk knows what it means to be on the other side, to be part of an orchestra which may sometimes think: “OK, here’s yet another soloist we have to accompany..” That is why he has to play so well at the first rehearsal that the orchestra wants to communicate. If contact is established, the result is good, if not the accompanist ghost emerges.
Of course the father of two dislikes travelling. Of course he dislikes hotel rooms, where he does most of his practising. The advantage is that he practises at times of day when the other guests are seldom in their rooms, otherwise there might have been more complaints. He wakes up two-and-a-half hours before a concert. If he sleeps one minute more or less, he suffers pangs of anxiety. It usually turns out well; it should turn out well for a disciplined perfectionist who is willing to pay the price for playing what he most wants to play. This is his reward when the feeling of belonging nowhere, either socially or artistically, comes creeping up on him. Truls Mørk has an effective miracle cure for that kind of problem; chamber music.
With oboist Gregor Zubicky, since 1991 Mørk has been artistic director of the International Chamber Music Festival in Stavanger. The festival has proved to be a veritable horn of plenty, with 25-30 concerts and up to 60 different performers transforming the town and attracting thousands of listeners. The otherwise so Nordic, unflappable Mørk can become very passionate about chamber music and festivals. In 1995 he berated sleepy politicians who allowed lobbyists to decide which festivals would receive financial support.
Lobbyists are a breed for which Truls Mørk has neither time nor patience, the music is always his first priority and his festival has become one of the leading lights in the Norwegian chamber music renaissance in recent years. The format is personal and close; many composers are more personal in their chamber music than in their orchestral works. For a while, it seemed that audiences were turning their backs on the smaller musical form. But if you arrange it properly, put it in an appetising setting and call it a festival, the audiences come pouring in! The festival audience feels closer to the performers. Normally, an artist will arrive, play and leave again. At a festival, the performer stays for a week and plays in different contexts. The audience is allowed to hear the same musician several times and develops a relationship with him or her. The same applies to a resident composer, who is there for a whole week, has several of his works performed, talks about his music and helps to bring it alive. Resident composers so far have included Frenchman Henri Dutilleux and Finnish Juha Kaipanen.
The festival programme is carefully planned and based on a desire to educate the audience. Sandwich programmes, featuring composers as different as Beethoven, Crumb and Brahms, put the respective works into relief. The audience learns to listen in a new way. When they hear a late Beethoven work, they discover how innovative he was in comparison with a Mozart piece played earlier in the programme. In this way, they receive an auditive musical “lecture”.
For the performers, the intimacy of chamber music is a source of inspiration for the coming season. They enjoy playing a repertoire that is otherwise unavailable to them. Moreover, chamber music is demanding and challenging. Musicians who have never met before create new constellations and tensions. They come from very different traditions and play together, the Russian, the German, the Britain, the Norwegian, and thereby discover new depths in their own and other people’s styles. They learn to compromise when necessary, and at other times take centre stage.
This year’s festival will be taking place from 7th to 16th August and Krzysztof Penderecki will be resident composer. He will be present throughout the festival and will be conducting the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra in his Symphony no. 2, Adagio and Viola concerto, which has been transcribed for cello with Truls Mørk as soloist. For the first time, Mørk will be holding master classes at the festival’s traditional International Summer Academy. Once again, the festival will be juggling with the genres and offer fiery aria evenings, jam sessions and children’s hours for everyone who still has the ability to be curious.
Truls Mørk understands his cello. He conjures life from centuries-old wood and craftsmanship. He curiously tests the limits of the possible and calculates the probabilities of clinical facts that are transformed into what we call music. That is how he tolerates the travelling, the hotel rooms and the demands of his career. Moreover, Truls Mørk loves his cello. The love seems to be requited, and love is certainly not the worst thing in the world.