Danish Violin Concertos - Volume 3
August ENNA (1859 - 1939)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D major (1897) [22:57]
Hakon BØRRESEN (1876 - 1954)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in G major Op.11 (1904) [28:24]
Peter Erasmus LANGE-MÜLLER (1850 - 1926)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op.69 (1904) [21:21]
Siegfried SALOMON (1885 - 1962)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in G minor Op.26 (1916) [21:52]
Gustav HELSTED (1857 - 1924)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in B minor Op.27 (1909) [21:45]
Kai Laursen (violin)
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Carl von Garaguly (Enna, Børresen, Helsted) Peter Ernst Lassen (Lange-Müller) and Alf Sjøen (Salomon))
rec. Sønderjyllandshallen, Aabenraa, Denmark, 31 May 1966 (Lange-Müller - mono); 20 December 1966 (Enna - mono); 13 May 1970 (Salomon - mono); 13 June 1974 (Helsted); 20 August 1975 (Børresen)
DANACORD DACOCD 465-466 [51:30 + 65:13]
Before listening to a note of these discs whether to comment on the music or the recordings and performances one has to acknowledge the breathtaking herculean project of which this is a part. Danish violinist Kai Laursen took it upon himself, pretty much single-handedly, to create a recorded legacy of Danish Violin Concertos. This resulted in 5 double-CD sets (originally issued in a single Danacord box) covering an unbelievable 26 concertos. As both a violinist and someone interested in unusual repertoire I pride myself on knowing a fair amount of music, so being presented with five concertos where all of the music (and four of the composers) is completely unknown to me is quite a humbling experience. It should also be noted that Laursen was not booked by a recording company to make these discs; he persuaded Danish Radio to underwrite the venture and the whole project spanned more than a decade. Just to research and locate the performance material and then learn the often virtuosic and complex solo parts must have been a massive undertaking for which we are eternally in his debt. There were compromises that had to be made; the liner note explains that sessions using Danish Radio and regional orchestras were squeezed into already tight schedules and as if to underline this, performances were often made in a single take. So forewarned, let the voyage of discovery begin!
The orchestra used for all of the performances on this pair of discs is the South Jutland Symphony Orchestra - which Laursen led from 1965 to 1989. The thorniest issue one has to grasp when listening to these discs, regardless of the age is the ensemble and intonation. It ranges from adequate to far less than that. Also, the engineering quality is at times positively murky. I assume the masters used to create these discs come from Danish Radio themselves. If that is the case you get some idea of the technical limitations they were working under when you realise that a May 1970 session was recorded in mono sound. The spirit in which to approach these recordings is as historical/archival documents. Vital and valuable though they are it is hard not to assume that any modern recording would not supersede them.
Laursen is a stylish player of the old school. I enjoy very much indeed the naturally intuitive way he bends musical phrases and his playing abounds in little portamenti slides as he shifts position. This is quite different from the ultra-clean style preferred by the modern generation of players but in understanding hands such as here I think it quite delightful. But it would be foolish not to acknowledge that many passages find Laursen technically challenged. These corners might well have been cleaned up with the benefit of a second take but ultimately I can judge only on what we have not what might have been. I have no intention of pointlessly dissecting any work for any perceived shortcomings that would be both ungrateful and of limited worth. Essentially, there is a tendency for Laursen’s tone to harden during passages of extended double stopping - allied to some less than perfect bow control - and also the intonation at speed in alt to go awry.
To the concertos themselves: the one by August Enna which opens disc 1 is probably the least distinctive of any of the five offered here. Given very murky 1966 vintage mono sound and rather rough playing it would be easy to dismiss out of hand. But it has its own modest charm in the same way that the Godard violin concertos are having something of a renaissance - virtuosically written for the violin, adequate if not exceptional orchestral writing in a late-romantic style. However, as the liner-note tersely and accurately puts it: “One cannot hear any Nordic traits”. The Concerto by Hakon Børresen which completes disc 1 is a far more significant composition. Its 1904 date makes it exactly contemporaneous with the Sibelius and comparisons with that mighty work leave it floundering. The conductor Artur Nikisch took it into his repertoire and that alone should be recommendation enough. The performance here benefits greatly from being made in far better sound nine years after the Enna. Laursen’s tone is caught with much greater richness and warmth - the orchestra/soloist balance is still far from ideal with much of the orchestral detail lost by being set so far behind the very upfront soloist. The opening movement Introduction - allegro moderato is dramatic and full of demanding passage work for the soloist but the heart of the work in every sense lies in the central Adagio. The song-like simplicity of the writing plays to the strengths of all concerned and shows Laursen’s ability to weave long lyrical lines with beautiful, simple intensity. The soloist plays throughout and the movement has a simple arch shape from quiet opening though high impassioned climax to reflective close. Again, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that better engineering would have allowed the soloist to merge more effectively with the orchestral support but it’s a lovely Svendsen Romance-like interlude. The finale opens with a briefly dramatic orchestral passage. Thereafter the writing for both orchestra and soloist is by turns stormy and skittish although the latter light-hearted mood ultimately prevails. In what becomes almost a moto perpetuo for the soloist there is little rest except for a brief orchestral passage - which sadly shows up some ropey string playing - and the lead into the final climax stretches Laursen beyond what he can comfortably achieve. On its own terms this is an enjoyable and well-crafted work even if it is not a lost masterpiece. (It has also been recorded by Rebecca Hirsch for Dacapo as part of a brace of Børresen discs: 8.224059 (Violin Concerto and Symphony 1) and 8.224061 (Symphonies 2 and 3).
The second disc opens with a composer who is already represented in my collection: Lange-Müller. His two symphonies have been reviewed on this site. This concerto is another product of 1904 and bears the Op.69 which always gets a cheer from British orchestral players. Unfortunately, for this performance, we are plunged back into the murk of 1966 mono sound although it is better than that afforded the Enna concerto. The opening Moderato is in the lyrical flowing style that suits Laursen best. The first theme is one of those long sprawling melodies that keep going on as some kind of ‘stream-of-melodic-consciousness’ rather than being a contained melody per se. Allied to a perky second subject the whole movement is very appealing but sounds more like a suite for violin and orchestra rather than having the ‘rigour’ of true concerto form. This is because the material seems to repeat rather than develop - but it’s cheery pleasant stuff so no problem there. The Suite-like analogy continues with the absence of a central slow movement. Instead we are given an Allegretto sostenuto. Again, this has an appealing song-like simplicity which is varied and elaborated rather than developed. For the first time there is a Nordic tinge to the proceedings; you could imagine this being the melodic outline of a Grieg song. There is an abiding innocence that belies the 1904 composition date and the movement ends simply even abruptly - the song has been sung. The finale is marked Allegro giocoso and it is a light-hearted and good-natured dance. Laursen shoots off the end of an occasional scale and the strings are scrappy in the way the rest of the discs have warned us they might be. There is more of a sense of the music being developed than in previous movements but not necessarily to its benefit. This is the longest movement in the work and it sounds like it with a rather clumsy coda bolted on to what has come before. Overall, this has easy and immediate appeal without lingering long in the memory. (see review of alternative recording)
The latest work represented here is the concerto by Siegfried Salomon dating from 1916. The writer of the liner essay notes that it is in the same key as the famous Bruch Concerto and as with that composer Salomon resolutely turns a compositional blind eye to any kind of developments post-1880. Given that Salomon was a working cellist with the Royal Danish Orchestra from 1906 that kind of musical blinkering is all the more eyebrow raising. But once you get beyond that and listen to the music it is actually very appealing. You can hear that Salomon understands string writing in the widely spaced lyrical leaps he gives the solo line - giving the music that yearning romantic quality so beloved of Bruch and Elgar to name but two. This is the mono recording from 1970 but the actual orchestral sound is better caught than for the other mono performances here. Laursen is in sweeter form too. Stuck in its own little musical time-warp this is the concerto of the five here that would most likely be worthy of a modern re-make. Certainly the orchestration is the most assured; neat and avoiding the excessive doubling that blights other works. The opening of the slow movement features a beautiful oboe melody that is immediately passed to the soloist who muses on it lovingly. This is the stand-out movement of these two discs. Suddenly the music is transformed from the generic and predictable to something on a wholly higher plain. Simple lucidity is the key - Laursen playing at his considerable best. The closing Allegro is neat and effective but I can imagine this being better played - the return to slower material just before the close seems somehow fitting in this essentially nostalgic work. At just under 22 minutes it is compact - a CPO coupling it with the same composer’s Symphony would make an interesting disc for sure.
The discs are completed by Gustav Helsted’s concerto from 1909 - the same year and key as Elgar’s Violin Concerto but a fraction of the worth. This is the most harmonically questing of the five but nothing in the greater scheme when you think that Schoenberg had dallied with serial composition the year before in his String Quartet No.2. But the greater harmonic flux that this work encompasses gives it a questing ill-at-ease quality that eludes the other more comfortably tonal concertos here. His music is not as overtly romantic either - the orchestral part providing less of a lyrical bed for the soloist. The writing for the violin is angular and awkward sounding. Yet suddenly in the midst of this thorny music a long-breathed melody suddenly unwinds as the central Andante con moto starts without a break; it’s a neat trick well achieved. Unfortunately, Laursen’s playing is not always up to the additional filigree work with which Helsted decorates the solo line. What should sound effortless becomes quite the opposite with intonation and bow control sorely tested. The finale arrives attaca again. It has a rather perfunctory feel as though Helsted is not totally comfortable writing a easy-going vivacious movement. For sure it ‘works’ but is a relative let-down after two initially promising movements. This sense is compounded by a dramatic ‘big’ ending rather arbitrarily tacked onto the end. This is another compact work - give or take seven seconds the identical length of the Salomon but it feels like a weightier work. If I prefer the former that is simply because I enjoy that kind of long-limbed lyrical writing and the bulk of it is better presented here.
I feel rather unappreciative having to give a guarded welcome to these discs. They are undoubtedly part of a monumental achievement but are far from being obligatory purchases for any except those curious in all matters violinistic or Danish. As reference works they have their use but without uncovering any lost masterpieces and - to my ears - sadly compromised by poor recordings and by playing that is too uncomfortable for repeated listening.
Volume 1 DACOCD 461-462
Claus Schall (1757-1835) Concerto No. 4 for violin and orchestra in D major (1790)
Niels W. Gade (1817-1890) Capriccio for violin and orchestra in A minor (1878)
Launy Grøndahl (1886-1960) Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major, op. 6 (1917)
Johannes Frederick Frøhlich (1806-1860) Concertino for violin and orchestra in D major, op. 14 (1826)
Emil Hartmann (1836-1898) Concerto for violin and orchestra in G minor, op. 19 (before 1880)
Henning Wellejus (1919-2002) Concerto for violin and orchestra in A minor (1948, revised 1968)
Volume 2 DACOCD 463-464
Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) Concerto for violin and orchestra in A major, op. 6
Ludvig Holm (1858-1928) Concerto for violin and orchestra in G major (1916)
Axel Gade (1860-1921) Concerto No. 2 for violin and orchestra in F major, op 10 (1899)
Peder Gram (1881-1956) Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major, op 20 (1919)
Rued Langgaard (1893-1952) Concerto in one movement for violin and orchestra (1943)
Volume 4 DACOCD 467-468
Niels W. Gade (1817-1890) Concerto for violin and orchestra in D minor, op 56 (1880)
Carl Nielsen (1860-1931) Concerto for violin and orchestra, op 33 (1911)
Otto Malling (1848-1915) Fantasia for violin and orchestra in F major, op 20 (c. 1885)
Axel Gade (1860-1921) Concerto No. 1 for violin and orchestra in D major (1889)
Knudaage Riisager (1897-1974) Concerto for violin and orchestra in A minor, op 54 (1950-51)
Volume 5 DACOCD 469-470
Eyvin Andersen (1914-1968) Concerto for violin and orchestra (1964)
Niels Viggo Bentzon (1919-2000) Concerto No. 2 for violin and orchestra (1961)
Jens Laursen Emborg (1876-1957) Concerto for violin and orchestra, op 48 (1926)
Leif Thybo (1922-2001) Concerto for violin and orchestra (1969)
Vagn Holmboe (1909-1996) Concerto 9 per violino, viola e orchestra, op 39 (1968)