Ole BULL (1810 - 1880)
The Herdgirl’s Sunday (arr. Johan Svendsen) [2:58]
Violin Concerto in A major [22.25]
Concerto Fantastico [18.21]
I Ensomme Stunde (La Melancolie) (arr. Johan Halvorsen/Wolfgang Plagge) [2:46]
La Verbena de San Juan [13:51]
A Mountain Vision [8:55]
Annar Follesø (violin)
Norwegian Radio Orchestra/Ole Kristian Ruud
rec. June 2009, Jar Church, Norway. DDD
Blu-ray disc + SACD disc
2L 067SABD [69:23]
Ole Bull was, in the main, self taught as a virtuoso violinist and as a composer. He attended a grammar school in Bergen and subsequently studied theology at the University of Christiania (now Oslo). He soon became conductor of a musical and dramatic society in that town. Subsequently he went to Cassel to meet Spohr and then moved to Göttingen where he became involved in a duel. He then returned to Norway where he gave concerts at Bergen and Trondheim as solo violinist. In 1831 he went to Paris, but failed to gain admittance to the Conservatoire. He heard Paganini, which he said, was the turning point in his life. He threw himself into the pursuit of technical studies to emulate the feats performed by the great Italian virtuoso. He was also influenced by the works of Bellini and was befriended by Chopin. As a virtuoso violinist, he performed his own works in France, Italy, Spain, Britain and the USA; he made and lost, a fortune in the USA, and married an American lady. Returning to Norway, he established a theatre in Bergen and tried to found a music academy in Oslo. He celebrated his 70th birthday in the USA but died later the same year at home and was buried in Bergen - his funeral surpassed anything that Norway had known previously in terms of production and attendance. 

Bull never learnt to compose in the classical sense. However he had a gift for writing music where attractive melodies were linked together to form an attractive whole. With his longer compositions the listener never knew what to expect next and was often titillated by some unexpected turn. It is no wonder that he was admired by Berlioz, Schumann and Liszt amongst others. As a virtuoso violinist he approached and in some ways perhaps surpassed his hero Paganini. He used on his violin an almost flat bridge which facilitated double-stopping and the playing of four parts. His bow was of exceptional length and weight.
He is now little known outside Scandinavia and there the works most played are arrangements of ‘The Herdgirl’s Sunday’ and ‘La melancolie’, both of which are included here as is ‘A Mountain Vision’ which includes the former of the above works, together with other Norwegian folksongs. Strangely, none of these works would indicate that the composer was in his lifetime mainly known as a virtuoso player.
The other three works on this disc have only been rediscovered recently and here receive world premiere recordings. The Concerto in A was the basis of Bull’s early career as a virtuoso; after a long dramatic orchestral introduction, the violin solo comes in with an impressive demonstration of four part playing. After this attention-gaining start, we are treated to a number of memorable themes at various tempi, with contrasting virtuosic passages which delight the ear. The middle movement is short in comparison with the other two movements and starts with an orchestral introduction followed by a slow singing episode on the violin which then transforms into a dance-like theme. This quickly fades out to the sound of a distant cattle call - a beautiful effect. The third movement has two dance themes and after a sequence of variations proceedings end with startling violin virtuosity.
The Concerto Fantastico is in three movements. Bull considered it to be one of the hardest to play and the best of his compositions. The first movement is called “La Notte”; however it is far from being nocturnal, rather it gives an impression of being a description of war and strife, illustrated with a fiendishly difficult violin part. Second is a contrasting slower movement which is described as “l’Aurora” (sunrise). This is a beautifully descriptive piece which is atmospheric and pleasing. The final movement is “Rondo vivo Scherzo”. Like the first movement this starts with trumpet fanfares and then a reply by the strings. After a short crescendo the orchestra stops and a new theme emerges from the solo violin which fantasizes to a climax then taken over by the orchestra. The movement concludes with a new theme developed by the violin into a very effective ending of violin virtuosity.

In 1846 Bull embarked upon a concert tour in Spain where he became a friend of Queen Isabella; his Spanish rhapsody “La Verbena de San Juan: Fantasie” is dedicated to the Queen. This is typical of the composer, with a fascinating intermingling of Spanish folk songs and violin virtuosity; Bull had become friends with the Spanish composer Sebastián Yradier and incorporated his dance “Jota Aragonesa”. This Spanish Rhapsody has a lot in common with Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody and there is no doubt that this is one of Bull’s most enjoyable works.
Annar Follesø plays these immensely difficult works with great élan and is well supported by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and their conductor Ole Kristian Ruud. The Orchestra has about fifty musicians and plays and records a wide range of musical styles including light music and jazz. Its playing here is admirable and full blooded. In size it probably mirrors the original orchestras which Bull would have had for his concerts.
From a recording point of view this issue is very interesting. When the SACD disc is played on a normal stereo set-up the music sounds fine and the separation between the solo violin and orchestra is convincing. However, this is a Blu-ray recording, and the reviewer then played the Blu-ray disc on a LG Blu-ray player with the sound feeding into a Cambridge surround sound amplifier connected with Tannoy surround speakers in a 5.1 DTS configuration. The results were superb, with a very natural surround effect and a sweeter tone for the solo violin. The TV Screen showed only information on which track was playing.
The two discs were packed in the conventional Blu-ray plastic case with exceptionally good notes about the composer and the music.
In summary this is an important issue of fine music from a composer who is at present almost unknown outside his native Norway. It includes world premiere recordings of three recently rediscovered, interesting and attractive substantial works. This is presented in Blu-ray audio format which will be new to most of us - together with an SACD disc for people not possessing appropriate Blu-ray equipment.
Arthur Baker  

Recently rediscovered, interesting and attractive substantial works.