26 Danish Violin Concertos - Vol.4
Niels Wilhelm GADE (1817–1890)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D minor (1880) [26:10]
Carl NIELSEN (1865–1931)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra Op.33 (1911) [34:21]
Otto MALLING (1848–1915)
Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra Op.20 (circa 1885) [13:35]
Axel GADE (1860–1921)
Concerto No.1 for Violin and Orchestra in D major (1889) [23:41]
Knudåge RIISAGER (1897–1974)
Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in A minor Op.54 (1950-51) [23:29]
Kai Laursen (violin)
South Jutland Symphony Orchestra/Ole Schmidt (Niels Gade) and Mariss Jansons (Nielsen);
Aarhus Symphony Orchestra/Aksel Wellejus (Axel Gade and Riisager) and Jorma Panula (Malling)
rec. Sønderjyllandshallen, Aabenraa Denmark 3 February 1966 (Niels Gade – MONO); 24 January 1978 (Nielsen – MONO); Aarhushallen, Aarhus Denmark 20 February 1975 (Malling); 13 March 1978 (Axel Gade); May 1973 (Riisager)
DANACORD DACOCD 467-468 [60:41 + 63:03]

This is the second pair of discs that I have reviewed as part of the extraordinary survey of Danish Violin Concertos performed by the indefatigable Kai Laursen over a period of many years (originally issued in a single Danacord box). An example of his enduring commitment to the cause of Danish music is evidenced by the fact that his first performance with orchestra was of the Carl Nielsen Concerto. He performed it throughout his career a total of nineteen times with the final time being the 1978 rendition captured here by a private amateur mono recording.

Technique is freedom. In any sphere the greater the technical resource the more that performer/artist/sports person can focus on what they wish to achieve and less on the effort of achieving the goal. Without doubt Laursen was a passionate and stylish player. Unfortunately this does not mean that he has the sheer technical resource of many of the finest soloists of his or any other time. Therefore, for all the archival and musical value of these performances none would lead the field in terms of their sheer brilliance as violin playing. Aside from the aforementioned Nielsen, which is a major composition, the other works here for all their easy appeal, are not undiscovered masterpieces and to make the best of their limited musical worth they require playing of the absolute first rank. Crudely put, there is a very clear technical line for Laursen which once crossed means that his performances focus on playing the notes and all too often he comes up short. Regretfully, I find myself wincing at too many passages where intonation and bow control comes very unstuck - the very end of the opening movement of the Gade Concerto (track 1) is a case in point. Yet the Romanza that follows immediately is transformed – a simple long-breathed lyrical line plays to all of Laursen’s strengths. I do not want to spend this review ticking off ‘problem-passages’ so suffice to say buyer beware; these are in effect archival/historical performances with all the compromises of limited recording and less than flawless performance that this might imply.

If on balance the repertoire tempts you more than the problems mentioned above this – with a single important exception – is a treasure trove of appealing music. Niels Gade is often thought of as a Danish Mendelssohn and neat generalisation though that is it is close to the truth. Given that he conducted the 1845 premiere of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto perhaps the emotional ties of his own concerto become even more understandable. His dates from 1880 which makes it one of his last major orchestral scores – a suite and a couple of cantatas post-date it. Once you embrace the essential conservatism of Gade’s idiom it is a beautifully crafted work; well proportioned and instantly easy on the ear. If it has been treated harshly – ignored – by history that is more to do with the ultimate lack of individuality but that is true of much of Gade’s output. The performance here is a mono recording of a 1966 concert performance conducted by the great Ole Schmidt. Actually in recording terms this is better than some of the engineering I encountered on the previous pair of discs and although the orchestra is recessed well behind the soloist the detail is less murky and the playing generally cleaner.

However, next to the Nielsen Concerto that follows it on the first disc the inherent modesty of the work is clear. Robert Simpson in his ground-breaking study of the Nielsen Symphonies was relatively dismissive of this Violin Concerto Op.33 which he considered the physically biggest but musically least important of the three concertos. In part that was due to the fact that it is exactly contemporaneous with the blazing masterpiece of the Symphony No.3 ‘Espansiva’ – it was premiered at the same concert - and with the best will in the world it is the moon to the symphony’s sun. Many reasons are promoted as to the relative unknown-ness of this work to this day. Some blame the form – well it is curious; two main movements which in turn sub-divide into two main sections each. However, I am sure that it is mainly down to a ferociously hard solo part allied to the fact that it lacks the melodic memorability of much of Nielsen’s work. Simply put there are not many soloists who will want to put themselves through the mill of learning such a complex work for the limited opportunities there will be to perform it. In that context the statistic quoted above of Laursen playing it nineteen times across the span of his entire career is all the more commendable. For a survey of Danish violin concertos as comprehensive as this there was going to have to be a performance of the Nielsen. However, and this is a big however, the performance here is lacking in every regard. The liner states that the disc “is based on a private amateur tape recording” which I can only assume means an off-air domestic recording of a radio broadcast. For 1978 this is at best adequate but does little to throw light on the subtleties of Nielsen’s scoring. Conductor Mariss Jansons is one of the great living conductors but even he can do nothing to lift the accompaniment out of the wan and weary let alone the fact that the orchestra sounds ragged and crude. But the main problem is Laursen’s difficulties with the solo part, too often the technical hurdles obscure the musical intent. The truth is that we have become so accustomed to phenomenal levels of technical accomplishment that effortful playing like this is hard to ignore. Unlike many of the other concertos in this survey there are several fine versions available at all prices and I would direct curious listeners to any of them before this performance

The second disc returns to the path of the unfamiliar with all three works accompanied by the Aarhus Symphony Orchestra in studio recordings from the mid-1970s. The writer of the liner dismisses Otto Malling by saying; “what he lacked in originality as a composer he amply made up for with his brilliant competence”. As they say, who needs enemies when you have friends like that …! Rightly though the debt to French composers such as Massenet and Saint-SaĆ«ns is pointed out; this is a lyrical multi-sectioned work very much in the spirit of the latter’s Morceaux de Concert. As both a performance and recording this is on much firmer ground than the Nielsen – the brief second movement Allegretto Scherzando would benefit from a lighter touch from all concerned, again the effortfulness of Laursen’s playing intrudes although generally this finds him on far better form. The Finale is better suited to that performing style and while lacking a really good memorable tune it has some interesting harmonic shifts and is never less than involving although the soloist’s ropey final octaves bring one back to earth with a bump.

Axel Gade was the son of Niels and studied with Joachim in Berlin – the liner says he developed into an outstanding pianist … can this be right? His compositional career was overshadowed by that of his father and on the evidence of the work recorded here that was a pity. This is clearly written as a virtuoso romantic concerto by someone who understands the violin from the inside. As a piece I enjoyed this the most of the four unknown works presented here and the one that most deserves revisiting in a modern performance. The combination of lyricism and virtuosity is the kind of thing that Aaron Rosand in his pomp would have relished. It has a four movement form that makes it feel more like a suite than a true concerto. The central pair of short movements are a song-like Romanza - which again would benefit from a lighter touch to the extended filigree violin passage-work as well as allowing quieter dynamics to register – and a gentle dance-like Intermezzo. Too often the solo lines are played with unrelenting intensity which sits uneasily with the lighter character of these movements. On the other hand Laursen’s ‘old-fashioned’ penchant for gentle portamenti between notes suits this style of music perfectly. The final movement is marked Allegro Scherzando and starts with a faux-country dance which reminded me in passing of parts of the Goldmark Rustic Wedding Symphony. Over a simple accompanying figure Gade gives the soloist some pretty brutal double-stopping passage-work with less than beautiful results. This strikes me as the weakest of the four movements being the least individual with the display element of the violin writing being overlaid onto some very basic orchestral writing. Unfortunately, once again the recording for 1978 is average at best being quite airless and unnaturally highlighted. Curiously the stereo field seems to have been reversed with the basses in the left-hand channel and the soloist and upper strings to the right.

This pair of discs closes with the Riisager Concerto – a composer completely unknown to me before this encounter. The liner provides me with the sum of my knowledge; which includes the fact that he was appointed Assistant Secretary at the Danish Ministry of Finance in 1939 having studied music with, amongst others, Roussel in Paris. Certainly this work inhabits a very different sound-world – the orchestral writing far more atmospheric and evocative than the simple accompanying vehicles of much of the rest. The gently questing first movement allows Laursen’s lyrical playing to shine for much of the time – the solo writing is far more linear with less display passage-work. It’s a shame the trumpets with their fragmentary fanfares were not able to achieve absolute unanimity. The recording here is one of the better ones in this set – the stereo channels back in their ‘proper’ places. Unfamiliarity with the work and no access to a score makes it hard to reach absolute firm conclusions but I do have a sense that it is stronger on atmosphere than form. The second movement in this bipartite concerto is marked Vivo. There is an element of Waltonian bitter-sweet lyricism at work here although it lacks the crackling rhythmic energy that Walton made his own. Certainly a work well worth hearing.

On reflection, none of these concertos – the Nielsen excepted – exhibits any musical traits that one could define as Danish or even Nordic. Perhaps it is their cultural anonymity that has ultimately counted against them on the world-stage. If that is the case then all the more credit to Kai Laursen and his prophet-in-the-wilderness role of promoting so much music that he clearly cared passionately about. I do find it hard though to recommend these discs with much enthusiasm; the domestic/private listening experience with the expectation of repeated playings would, in my opinion, limit the pleasure one could derive from these often flawed versions.

Nick Barnard

26 Danish Violin Concertos – The Kai Laursen series on Danacord

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 3 DACOCD 465-466
August Enna (1859-1939) Concerto for violin and orchestra in D major (1897)
Hakon Børresen (1876-1954) Concerto for violin and orchestra in G major, op 11 (1904)
P. E. Lange-Müller (1850-1926) Concerto for violin and orchestra in C major, op 69 (1904)
Siegfried Salomon (1885-1962) Concerto for violin and orchestra in G minor, op 26 ( 1916)
Gustav Helsted (1857-1924) Concerto for violin and orchestra in B minor, op 27 (1909)

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)