Stepping onto the main stage

Hadland's recording of Mozart's Concertos Nos 21 & 22 (released on January 28)Hadland's recording of Mozart's Concertos Nos 21 & 22 (released on January 28)

One summer evening in 2011 Christian Ihle Hadland and his agile fingers were negotiating their way around a sonata by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach in front of a sizeable audience at the Johanneskirken in Bergen. Norwegian audiences are notoriously quiet and attentive, so when two unrecognised men got up to try and get a better view, the pianist probably guessed they weren’t locals. When the same two men skulked at the back of the rehearsal room the next day as Hadland and friends prepared a Brahms piano quintet, he might have suspected something was afoot. 

And indeed it was. Hours later Adam Gatehouse and Gramophone’s own Lindsay Kemp – the aforementioned skulkers – were buying Hadland a cappuccino and inviting him to join the BBC's New Generation Artists scheme: two years of concerts, broadcasts and recordings around the UK including appearances with the BBC orchestras and at the Proms. ‘They just said it there and then, “we would very much like you to join”, and of course I was thrilled. And very surprised.’

Two years after that, when I join Hadland en route to Cardiff for two days’ work with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, the pianist is halfway through his 24-month term in the scheme that seeks out ‘the true stars of tomorrow’, offering them a network of contacts and a flabbergasting array of performing opportunities. In a single year he’s worked with all the BBC’s symphony orchestras, filmed a solo recital at Maida Vale and performed chamber music with fellow participants the Esher Quartet. They are the sort of activities it would take a young artist and their manager years to tentatively negotiate, but with his position on the scheme they were offered to Hadland automatically. All he had to do was propose the repertoire – which, according to some fellow musicians in Norway, he did in large volumes and with high levels of imagination and idiosyncrasy. 

‘I’ve been all over the UK and some places twice!’ Hadland says with boyish excitement. ‘I’ve always been a big fan of English football so I knew of these places and wanted to visit them. For some reason I’d wanted to go to Belfast for almost 15 years. When they asked me to go there I was absolutely thrilled!’ Enthusiasm pours from Hadland by the bucket-load, which might explain why he’s squeezed so much into his first year on the programme. ‘Christian has a large repertoire, he has time to work with us and he can do lots of stuff’, says Lindsay Kemp, Gramophone critic and Senior Producer of the NGA scheme at the time Hadland was signed. ‘He’s also a very likeably chap – people get on well with him. He’s fitted in perfectly. Some do, some don’t. But he has.’  

What Hadland has experienced is, to an extent, an inversion of that principle which sees talented young conductors travel to Scandinavia to learn their craft with high-quality orchestras in ideal, take-your-time conditions. ‘They [the BBC] just throw things at me – on purpose, I think. I was partly expecting it, but perhaps it was a small shock, yes’, he admits, surrounded by his luggage at Paddington station having traversed London from Gatwick and now eyeing the departure boards for the next train to Cardiff.  ‘The first time I went to Wales we had just one day to record the whole of the Dvořák Piano Concerto, which is 40 minutes. I was absolutely not used to that. In Scandinavia you get so much time – you arrive on Tuesday morning, rehearse for two days and then have a concert on Thursday evening. The BBC orchestras are so quick and their stamina is fantastic; I love these days or even hours of highly concentrated work, a meal, and then back home. It’s fabulous.’

The Dvořák Piano Concerto was the eyebrow-raising choice right at the top of Hadland’s first repertoire wish list; there’s a good chance the BBC NOW hadn’t played this sizeable rarity for a while, if at all. ‘It’s good that they wanted to take it up’ Hadland says. ‘I’m on my way back to Wales to do Prokofiev’s First Concerto and the Franck Symphonic Variations…not odd repertoire, but it’s certainly not mainstream. They [the BBC] say “yes, just bring the score and we will play”.’ Repertoire-wise, these are the sort of opportunities, with orchestra tie-in, that would be hard to come by in Norway. 

Not that Hadland’s work in Norway has suffered. If anything, it flourishes even more. He continues to co-direct the Stavanger International Chamber Music Festival and even suggests he’ll be inviting NGA colleagues to perform in it. Next month sees the release of his new recording of Mozart’s Piano Concertos K467 and K482 with the Oslo Philharmonic – his debut concerto disc. But his currency and prominence in Britain continue to rise. He makes his solo debut at the Wigmore Hall on Monday and joins the Bergen Philharmonic on a tour of the UK beginning next week, playing concertos by Grieg and Beethoven. 

He is likely to shine in the Grieg. Not because of shared fjord-land heritage so much as the concerto’s distilled, simplified qualities – those which give Hadland’s Mozart such appealing, natural shape and which pricked-up ears on his debut recording of Impromptus by Chopin. ‘We don’t choose people on the basis of a studio recording’ says Lindsay Kemp, ‘but we heard Christian’s Chopin recording and my immediate impression was of beautiful, refined and delicate playing. Obviously you hear a lot of young pianists and a lot of them can sound pretty much the same. But Christian stood out, I suppose for the beauty of his touch.’ 

Mozart is close to Hadland’s heart – and to his brain – and the NGA scheme has given him the opportunity to play two favourite (and relatively rare) concertos to which he intends to add more. ‘Mozart has everything, and he demands everything’, Hadland says. ‘In one way his music has the fantasy and the imagination of a child, and in other ways it has the work ethic of the mature man. It stuns me every time; you can feel five years old in one phrase, 60 in the next, and 25 in the next. I’ve tried for many years to find the words to describe it, but I simply can’t. Let me just say that when I sit down to play this music, I just feel so thankful for this man on behalf of all pianists.’ 

The concerto recording on Simax is notable for its technically impressive, clean but unfussy playing, and also for its hints of simmering drama initiated by the forthright Oslo Philharmonic. Perhaps in our crowded market – with Mozart concerto discs from Buchbinder, Brautigam and Uchida all arriving within the last two months – Norway’s odd but intriguing position on the periphery of First Viennese School interpretation has something important to bring to the table. Time, space, open air and the resonant purity of the prevalent tradition of folk fiddling have fuelled some standout Mozart recordings from Norway in recent years that have had a freshness sometimes lacking elsewhere. ‘When Norwegians began to compose we were already in the Romantic movement’, Hadland explains; ‘Brahms and Tchaikovsky came to Norway but there was never really a strong tradition with Mozart, Haydn and Schumann.’

Norway has been kind to Hadland. There’s a good argument he wouldn’t have been picked up by the BBC had it not been for his homeland’s equivalent scheme run and funded by the state-owned oil and gas company Statoil. In his hometown of Stavanger a breathtaking new concert hall gleams on the dockside, opened just 4 months ago and one of a string of brand-new auditoria in the country. ‘Norway is a wonderful place to play – you have time to do things, and in your first concert with an orchestra there won’t be 10 critics sitting in the audience waiting to slaughter you’, Hadland says. ‘But you have to get out. This counts for all Norwegian musicians. We’re on the periphery, just look at the map.’ 

Which is probably why Hadland has cherished the opportunities offered him by the BBC and snapped them up with such relish and such excitement. However well he talks about music – and he does so with piercing insight and intelligence – his personal manner has little of the authority of his performances. He is as excited about visiting Basingstoke (‘is there much to see there?’) with the Bergen Philharmonic as he is about making his debut on the hallowed stage of the Wigmore Hall. And in that is something of his appeal – in both a micro and macro sense. You might not experience superstardom from this pianist, but you will get diligent and different performances that are worth hearing for their musical intelligence, their unfailing delicacy and their moving honesty. And that we’re hearing him at all is thanks in part to the curious minds that operate the NGA programme, as Hadland would doubtless point out himself. ‘There is no equivalent scheme like this run by any broadcaster’, he says, ‘and I think the BBC should be really proud that they do it.’

Christian Ihle Hadland makes his debut at the Wigmore Hall on Monday 28 January, and tours the UK with the Bergen Philharmonic from January 31 – February 7

His new recording on Simax Classics is released on 28 January. Order from Amazon

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014