Hakon BØRRESEN (1876-1954)
Symphony No. 1 (1901) [32:38]
Violin Concerto (1904) [39:06]
Rebecca Hirsch (violin)
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. Aalborg, Denmark, 1996
DACAPO 8.224059 [71:48]

Hakon BØRRESEN (1876-1954)
Symphony No. 2 The Sea (1904) [41:16]
Symphony No. 3 (1927) [34:28]
Aalborg Symphony Orchestra/Owain Arwel Hughes
rec. Aalborg, Denmark, 1997
DACAPO 8.224061 [76:09]

Børresen, a Danish composer, sported a Norwegian name. This was down to his Norwegian grandfather who moved to Denmark in the early 1800s. Young Børresen was taught by Svendsen and travelled in Europe during the early 1900s. His violin concerto was given at one of Nikisch’s concerts. There are three symphonies to his name and all are here. His most famous work is probably the opera The Royal Guest although its reputation and Børresen's has been largely restricted to Denmark and perhaps Germany.

These two Dacapo discs are very well filled - important with rare repertoire. The sound quality is fine and natural with no excesses. Notes for both by Nils Dittmer and are suitably encyclopaedic. I was surprised that they were in English and German only. Where is the Danish? I know German is the second language in Denmark but still wondered why the first language was not here. As with the now defunct Franco/Belgian Patrimoine series (from the Naxos fold) these discs are issued in Danish only versions in Denmark but at budget price: Violin Concerto and Symphony 1 8.554950; Symphonies 2 and 3 8.554951.

I knew the symphonies 2 and 3 originally from radio broadcast tapes as well (in the case of the Second Symphony) the old Danacord LPs since transferred to CD. These last two symphonies are, perhaps, in spirit, a Danish counterpart of Dvořák’s earlier symphonies up to number six. His First Symphony is from a different world altogether.

The Violin Concerto (1904) dates from the same year as the Second Symphony. The first of the three movements is nearly a quarter of an hour long. In a striking theatrical gesture after the opening serious flourishes the violin begins a capricious theme out of a silence of several bars. At 9:27 a warm theme emerges from the accompanying strings and resurfaces at 12:25. The middle Adagio sings quietly without being wildly distinctive. The last movement has its fireworks but this is no empty Paganinian display. Shuddering strings and some drama mark out the movement. Overall this is a work of delicacy, warmth and charm. The Dvořák concerto is a counterpart. It radiates the same largely carefree character.

Make no mistake this work has some extremely attractive moments and is well worth hearing. It has quite a strong profile though written, I would imagine, under the thrall of the Tchaikovsky concerto. The soloist is clearly prepared to try out-of-the-way repertoire as she was also the soloist, a several decades ago, in a BBC revival of the Rawsthorne Second Violin Concerto which she has since recorded on Naxos with the First. The Børresen is the sort of work that belongs in Hyperion’s Romantic Violin Concerto series alongside the Schoeck, Ivanovs and Bortkiewicz concertos.

Børresen was only 24 when he wrote the Symphony No. 1 (1901). The first movement alternates darkness with a certain bright intensity usually allocated to the strings. According to the always excellent programme notes, Børresen had heard Svendsen conduct the famous three Tchaikovsky symphonies as well as the Sibelius First before he wrote this symphony. This is gorgeous music - heavily derivative maybe but evidently written with a driving young ambition and impulse which his two later symphonies lack. Listen to the glowering sunrise effect at 7:40 Track 4 - wonderfully sustained. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony can be heard in the second movement - allegretto. The third movement opens happily with chirping woodwind and a relaxed urbane demeanour. The last movement, while not consistently dramatic, has much drama about it and many stormy Tchaikovskian moments. This is the one movement which Nikisch agreed to present in Leipzig though Børresen refused wanting the whole symphony or nothing.

In 1953, the year before his death, Børresen added a note to the score saying that the second movement could still be played but ‘but hardly the symphony as a whole’. I am glad that we have heard this symphony and that we and future generations can enjoy it easily again. The music is sincere and the fact that it inhabits a sound-world borrowed very heavily from late Tchaikovsky and very occasionally early Sibelius should not in itself inhibit our enjoyment … and there is much to enjoy here (try 9:50 to the end of Track 8).

The Symphony No. 2 The Sea (1904) is written in a style not far away from Mendelssohn, Brahms and Schumann but with Tchaikovskian moments. Scandinavian marine symphonies are not uncommon. There are oceanic essays by Nystroem, Atterburg (West Coast Pictures) and Alfvén amongst others. Børresen was fascinated by the sea but vivid sea painting such as you find in Bax’s Tintagel and Nystroem’s Sinfonia del Mare are outside his grasp. This is more in the nature of Rubinstein’s Ocean Symphony.

The first movement (Surf) declares a work firmly rooted in German romantics with occasional glimpses towards the Slavs. The second (Summer) begins in chirpy Mendelssohnian spirits and has some fine romantic moments not least at Track 2 5:20. There is a lively balletic spirit here. The third movement (Tragedy) has a strong atmosphere leaning into the territory of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred. I get the impression that this could benefit from a fleeter approach to tempi; instead it leans towards steady intensity. The last movement (Cruising) has a gentle serenade nature to it at times but there is some more ‘sturm und drang’ with good work for both strings and horns. The onward coursing theme at 7:30 on track 4 is a fine inspiration. There are at least two other recordings including one on CPO and another on Danacord. The latter is a historic performance of great intensity. Perhaps a few more volts in the present recording would have helped.

The first of the four movements encompasses almost half the Symphony No. 3 (1927). It opens darkly and soon (04.00) passes through some Elgarian moments into a restful interlude. There is more complexity here but the colours and sounds seem more Børresen’s own. It is still perfectly tuneful with romantically aspiring horns at 6:40. At 7:36 a great black chasm opens up - one of the strongest moments in both discs. The movement ends with great nobility for horns and strings. Brass and strings conspire in a Schumann-like peroration. The two central movements are no longer than 8 minutes in total. The adagio is very attractive with a lovely fade by the violins to close. The third movement has the air of a graceful dance or an open-air coach-ride with Dvořákian woodland moments. The last movement has more snap and crackle about it and more dramatic depth though heaven-storming climaxes are not his style: colour, fine orchestral touches and detailing aplenty. The symphony ends in an atmosphere of joyously innocent celebration.

There is much to charm in the last two symphonies. After hearing these discs you can be forgiven for assuming that Børresen was more at home with songful serenading rather than high-tension romantics - more Gade than Sibelius. Definitely worth hearing - though not an edge-of-seat listening experience. Congratulations to the Børresen Estate, Dacapo, Marco Polo, the orchestra and Owain Arwel Hughes for making this available.

If you must go for one disc alone try the First Symphony and the Concerto. Now we must hope for a complete recording of Børresen’s Greenland opera Kaddara (1921). If it is anything like its most famous aria Ujarak’s Farewell it will be well worth hearing. If you are looking for an alternative recording of the last two symphonies then go for the CPO CD conducted by Ole Schmidt. His opera, The Royal Guest is also on Dacapo and has been reviewed here.

Rob Barnett