Bruch & Tveitt Violin Concertos Berlin Classics

Bruch + Tveitt
Max Bruch (1838 – 1920)
Violin Concerto No.1 in G minor Op.26 (1868)
Johan Svendsen (1840 – 1911)
Romance for Violin & Orchestra Op.26 (1881)
Sigurd Lie (1871 – 1904)
Konsertstykke Huldra aa’n Elland (1896)
Geirr Tveitt (1908 – 1981)
Concerto No.2 for Hardanger Fiddle and Orchestra Op.252 “Three Fjords” (1965)
Ragnhild Hemsing (violin, Hardanger fiddle)
Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra/Eivind Aadland
rec. 2022 Grieghall, Bergen, Norway
Berlin Classics 0302757BC [63]

Perhaps the programme on this disc was designed for the digital age allowing prospective listeners to buy or stream only those tracks that interest them.  For those who still prefer the physical medium of a CD or the collector only interested in the ever-popular Bruch concerto are likely not interested or even off-put by three “unknowns” while someone intrigued by the Scandinavian works might well not need another version of that Bruch.  Perhaps the repertoire planners at Berlin Classics believe they will tap into both collector demographics – which I doubt – or perhaps they believe that this range of repertoire is a good showcase for violinist Ragnhild Hemsing in her “symphonic debut” as the CD cover puts it.  For me the intriguing part of this programme is that Hemsing plays both a standard violin in three of the works and the Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle in Tveitt’s Concerto No.2 Op.252 “Three Fjords”, which is placed last on the disc.

The programme opens with the ubiquitous Bruch Violin Concerto in G minor Op.26.  As I wrote in 2022 when reviewing Bruch’s complete works for violin and orchestra it is very easy to dismiss this work because it is so well-known and so often played and recorded.  But the truth remains that it is a tremendous piece with a remarkable melodic richness backed up by a strong formal structure, effective orchestration and concise scale.  In isolation this performance here by Hemsing with the excellent Bergen Philharmonic under Eivind Aadlund is good – certainly one you would be very happy to have heard in concert.  Throughout the disc Berlin Classics have placed Hemsing slightly further forward in the mix than I would like – intakes of breath are frequently audible – but she is technically very secure and this is a perfectly sane and centrist performance.  Of course therein lies the rub, with literally hundreds of versions to choose from, this performance does not stand out – for good or bad.  A little bit of over-phrasing in the very opening initially suggested an interventionist approach but that did not occur.  The close recording rather diminishes Hemsing’s attractively intimate playing in the central Adagio but it does emphasise her athletic energy in the closing Allegro energico.  In recent years the stature and profile of the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra has been raised by numerous excellent discs primarily on Chandos and BIS which have exploited the world-class acoustics of the Grieghall in Bergen.  Indeed it was on volume 3 of the former label’s Halvorsen cycle with Jarvi in Bergen that I previously encountered Ragnhild Hemsing in a fine performance of the Hardanger-influenced Fossegrimen Op.21.  The Berlin Classics engineers do not achieve such demonstration-class results – the listener is aware of the resonance of the hall without it somehow achieving the rich warmth notable on the other label’s recordings there.

A further frustration is the booklet.  There are three different full page photographs of a smiling Hemsing holding both her ‘standard’ and hardanger violins.  But not a single biographical word about her (you would need to go to her website for this), not any explanation of what a hardanger fiddle is or how a player moves from one to the other, not a word on how the differences in such a fiddle impacts on the music that can be written for it.  If the USP of this recording is the juxtaposition of the music and the instruments some explanation/information is vital to one’s appreciation of both the music and the player/playing.  There have been a couple of other recordings of the Tveitt concerto – neither of which I have heard.  Typically the BIS recording included an excellent liner note with a lot of very valuable detail about both the work and the hardanger fiddle.  This booklet can be read on the BIS website here.  Listening to the rest of the programme underlines the imbalance that inclusion of the Bruch concerto brings.  Not only are the other three composers Norwegian, they approach writing music for solo violin and orchestra in quite different but very attractive ways with all three works reflecting their home country’s heritage.  Additionally Hemsing plays all three works with great skill and stylistic empathy resulting in a level of engagement and involvement that the good but ultimately indistinctive Bruch lacks.

Johan Svendsen’s Romance remains his best-known work outside of Scandanavia.  I am not a great listener to commercial Classical Music Radio so I do not know if this work features regularly or ever on such stations.  But given its compact 8:00 length and range of moods as well as a truly memorable main theme it deserves to be.  Certainly it has been recorded many times by many fine players so again competition for Hemsing is fierce but here her combination of sweet lyricism and Romantic expressiveness works extremely well.  As a work Svendsen does not make use – as far as I know – of any authentic Norwegian melodies but the music has the wistful melancholy that Grieg co-opted as representing the musical essence of the country.  

The liner tells us that Sigurd Lie was considered “the new Grieg” in his home country until his life was cruelly cut short at the age of thirty three by tuberculosis.  Like Svendsen, and indeed Grieg, Lie trod a path to Leipzig and later Berlin for his training on violin and composition.  The liner describes the work given here as “Lie’s sole work for violin and orchestra” but curiously Wikipedia references Konsertstykke (Concert Pieces), for violin and orchestra without the specific name this work is given.  What is clear from his fairly small body of work is an enthusiastic immersion in the musical culture and heritage of Norway.  IMSLP has scores for a pair of Norwegian Dances for violin and piano and elsewhere is listed various songs and piano pieces with Nationalist traits.  The work here is the 9:04 Huldra aa’n Elland (The Huldra and Elland).  The origin is a folktale where a young man Elland encounters The Huldra – an alluring supernatural woman – who is a familiar character in Scandinavian myth and legend.  The work has no specific narrative as such but simply allows the solo violin to act as the enticing seductress.  Perhaps most tellingly in the context of this programme, this is music which is far more explicitly Norwegian than the Svendsen.  The themes have a distinctly Norwegian flavour and then at one passage in the work [track 5 3:25] Lie seeks to briefly mimic a Hardanger violin.  But within this – again – brief work Lie packs a great deal of musical incident and wide technical and expressive range.  This really does show Hemsing at her considerable best from sinuously lyrical playing via virtuosic passage work and passionately intense musical drama.  I had not heard any of Lie’s music before and certainly this encourages me to seek out what little else there is.

In recent years BIS and Naxos in particular have proved to be enthusiastic promoters of the music of Geirr Tveitt.  He too studied in Leipzig although more than fifty years after Svendsen.  Where other Nationalist composers from many countries can be considered “influenced” by the folk traditions of their homelands, few can have immersed themselves quite so completely in them as Tveitt.  He collected over 1000 original folk-melodies in Hardanger and incorporated them and other tunes into his concert scores.  Perhaps the most explicit examples of this are his two concertos for Hardanger Violin and Orchestra.  Because of his immersion in Norwegian folk culture Tveitt was uniquely suited to finding a way to fuse the authentic voice of the Hardanger fiddle with the requirements of a symphony orchestra and traditional concerto form.  Again I would refer readers to the BIS liner mentioned above for detailing technical and musical issues arising from this fusion.  For the listener the basic sound and style of playing of the fiddle is quite different from the concert violin.  The presence of the four additional strings which sympathetically resonate give all of the fiddle’s musical lines a rather magical halo of accompanying drones.  There is none of the virtuoso passage work that we associate with violin concert works, the actual sound is lighter and more plaintive, lines are often ornamented and vibrato is not used at all.  For the composer there is the challenge that the four drone string pitches are fixed and unchangeable which by definition limits the use of modulation and remote keys.  Tveitt’s answer is to exploit the sense of anchored musical centres to create powerful and impressive landscapes in sound.  This is particularly apt in this work which has the subtitle “Three Fjords”.  The work does follow traditional fast(ish)-slow-fast format but each movement seeks to evoke a specific fjord; Hardangerfjord, Sognefjord and finally Nordfjord.  From the very opening bars this is quite a different and very beautiful soundworld from the other works on the disc.  I assume the solo part is fully notated but certainly Hemsing plays with that sense of semi-improvisatory freedom that seems absolutely right for this work. The central movement – marked Mesto maestoso – is a wonderfully brooding and melancholic portrait – it is very easy to imagine a fjord shrouded in mist with the sun lost and the mood sombre.  The thinner less luxurious tone of the hardanger fiddle is so evocative here with Tveitt’s skilful orchestration atmospheric and austerely beautiful.  The closing movement is a dancing giocoso with the mood transformed and the concerto brought to an exuberant close. The whole work lasts just shy of twenty minutes but again is packed with incident and appeal.  There have been at least two other recordings but I imagine the number of fiddle players able to read music/learn a concerto score like this must limit the opportunities for this very attractive work to be performed.  I have no prior knowledge of this score and I certainly cannot make any technical judgements on the playing here by Hemsing but it sounds wonderfully right, sympathetic and engaged.

So in many ways a frustrating programme.  All well played for sure but the presence of a good but hardly unique Bruch does compromise the rest of the disc which contains beautiful, unusual and impressive music brilliantly played.  Better documentation would have helped a lot too.  I would strongly recommend curious listeners to hear the Svendsen, Lie and Tveitt so perhaps this is a case for selective downloading or streaming.

Nick Barnard

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