Swedish violinist Nilla Pierrou has had a long and successful
international career as soloist, chamber musician and teacher.
Of special importance was her long relationship with André
Gertler. He was Hungarian by birth and a student of Zoltan Kodaly
and Jenö Hubay. He was also a friend and concert partner
with Béla Bartók and also, having settled in Brussels
in 1928, studied with Eugene Ysaÿe. There are threads back
to all these in this comprehensive box with - mostly - live
recordings across two decades.
Ms Pierrou retired from the concert stage a couple of years
ago and settled in the little town of Rättvik on Lake Siljan
in central Sweden, having lived for many years in Brussels.
Hearing one of her last performances I thought it was a shame
that we would no longer be able to hear her elegant phrasing,
her perfect intonation and her beautiful tone. This box, with
close to four hours of music, arrived as a gift from Heaven!
And it is not just another violin recital with all the expected
standard numbers. I believe that many a jaded violin addict
will also raise an eyebrow - or even both - when reading the
table of contents: ‘Hubay, when did I last see his name
on a record sleeve, Söderlundh, whoever is that (Swedish
readers will know), Kersters, never heard of, Legley, no idea,
Aulin, wasn’t he a friend of Wilhelm Stenhammar?
I know the other names, naturally, and Grieg’s third sonata
is a standard work but I wonder when I last heard Janáček’s
sonata, or the sonatina by Bartók - isn’t that
a piano piece?’ In other words, the table of contents
was mouth-watering, so I set to work with my Walkman and brand
new earphones during a coach ride across large tracts of central
The first thing I noted was the excellent sound: wide dynamic
range, well balanced and with a lot of detail in the orchestral
pieces. Pierrou’s tone is caught in all its beauty. Her
technical accomplishment was also well known to me and it came
as no surprise that everything sounds so easy, although I know
very well how much fastidious work and rehearsal lies behind
Hubay’s third concerto is late-romantic - four movements
played attacca. The opening is rather rhapsodic, the scherzo,
lively and virtuosic, the long adagio has a decided Hungarian
flavour in the opening tutti while the beautiful theme presented
by the solo violin might just as well emanate from Dvořák.
The concluding movement is dramatic and virtuosic. This is definitively
music to return to.
There follows an interview with journalist Seth Karlsson who
was a close friend of Lille Bror Söderlundh. In the interview
he recalls Lille Bror’s work on the violin concerto. The
telephone rang and he was told that his friend Stig Dagerman,
successful author, had died. Söderlundh interrupted his
work and when he resumed it he cut off the violin mid-phrase,
the life-nerve of the music and wrote a section for two flutes.
He used to point at this detail in the score and say: “Stig
died here!” Nilla Pierrou played this movement with piano
accompaniment but I would urge readers to try to get hold of
the only existing recording of the concerto, still available
on a Caprice CD, coupled with Hilding Rosenberg’s concerto.
The music is permeated by influences from Béla Bartók.
Seth Karlsson told me several times how he and Lille Bror could
sit all night long listening to Bartók’s music.
Let me add that Lille Bror Söderlundh was the one who discovered
Nilla’s exceptional talent when the family moved to Borlänge,
where Söderlundh was head of the municipal music school.
This year is the 100th since he was born and there will be celebrations
and memorial concerts in the region.
Nilla Pierrou and Willem Kersters were colleagues at the Conservatorium
Maastricht. One day when they were having dinner together Nilla
asked if he would write a concerto for her; which he did. The
solo part was however not excitingly difficult so Nilla asked
for help from André Gertler to improve it. Gertler was
by then blind but he sang his suggestions for improvements and
Nilla wrote it down and forwarded it to Kersters.
It is a long concerto, almost 40 minutes, but it is constantly
fascinating and stimulating. The outer movements are powerful,
energetic, and especially the concluding Allegro molto is rhythmically
thrilling and rather nervy. The central Andante is a kind of
elegy, the violin part very cantabile.
The second disc makes its take-off at around 1800 with Haydn’s
F Major sonata. This is in fact Haydn’s last completed
string quartet - minus the minuet. Whether the sonata is Haydn’s
own work or his publisher’s, Ignaz Pleyel, is a moot point,
but whoever made the transcription it works excellently in its
new disguise. Pleyel was a former pupil of Haydn and a prolific
composer in his own right with among other things 70 string
quartets to his credit. The strolling slow movement is charming
and the fast, whirling finale brings the composition to a riveting
Grieg’s C minor sonata, completed in 1887, lays claim
to be his best chamber work. The composer was then in his mid-40s
and had gone through a crisis in his marriage. This may be mirrored
in the dark and dramatic sonata. The slow movement is like a
Norwegian folk-song and in the finale at least this listener
hears Norwegian trolls dancing and capering. This is marvellous
music and it is marvellously played.
The four brief pieces Op. 7 by Anton Webern were written no
more than about three decades after the Grieg sonata but here
we are in a totally different musical landscape. Grieg, however
marked he was by the crisis, is firmly rooted in a rural national
romantic landscape, ebullient in a way. Webern is, by contrast,
an indoor character - the windows are closed and the blinds
down. One even feels that the ventilation is cut off. In the
slow movements the music breathes only laboriously, and the
fast movements are at best spasmodic. Webern’s asceticism
is captivating but elusive.
Janáček’s sonata is roughly contemporaneous
with the Webern. But the two are worlds apart. Janáček
is also, like Grieg, autobiographical in this sonata, but not
on a personal plane. Rather his writing is nationalistic - the
expectancy concerning the possible downfall of the Habsburg
Empire and the independence of the Czechs. The second movement,
Ballade, breathes peace and calm while the surrounding movements
are more or less agitated with jagged rhythms and dissonances
relieved by some lyric episodes. As usual Janáček
is rather unpredictable: the final Adagio is primarily a meditation
but it is punctuated now and then by sudden exclamations from
the violin. Bartók’s first sonata is contemporaneous
with the revised version of the Janáček. The Adagio
is played here very beautifully but with some restraint, which
I find wholly convincing.
Bartók’s Rhapsody No 1 is more earthbound, more
directly related to the Hungarian roots. The liner-notes mention
Liszt’s rhapsodies and while they are not siblings they
are at least first cousins. Bartók’s stew has more
Magyar seasoning - here is both paprika and garlic.
Ysaÿe’s Rêve d’enfant has a melodic
sweetness that in lesser violinist hands could be dangerously
diabetic. Pierrou keeps the sentimentality on rather strait
reins. There’s no exaggerated portamenti but deep commitment
in its stead. A noble reading. Legley, Belgian like Ysaÿe
and Kersters, was previously unknown to me. This little duo
is written in relatively modern idiom but melodically and harmonically
accessible. It has a striking final movement, the first half
of which is marked tutto pizzicato, followed by contrapuntal
second half. Entertaining and jazzy!
Ernest Bloch was, in his day, the foremost representative of
Jewish music. He often built his compositions around ancient
Hebrew themes. Nigun, the second movement from the suite
Baal Shem, was quite often heard in the good old days.
I remember a 78 rpm record on Columbia with a young Isaac Stern.
Nilla Pierrou plays it here with a glow that would make even
Stern envious, and Kreisler would have admired her double-stops.
Another star violinist from earlier times was Mischa Elman.
He was a child prodigy and appeared in Stockholm in 1905, aged
14. Tor Aulin, one of the central characters in Swedish music
life around the turn of the previous century wrote his Four
Pieces Op. 16 the following year for Elman, who often played
Aulin’s character pieces, at least the somewhat earlier
Lullaby. Aulin was a violinist himself. He ran his own
string quartet and championed new chamber music. His third violin
concerto must also count among the finest Swedish works in this
genre. The two pieces presented here are really lovely and my
only regret is that there wasn’t room for all of them
in this collection.
Back to Bartók and his Sonatina for piano from
1915. About ten years later the 17-year-old André Gertler
arranged the work for violin and piano. When they had played
through it Bartók seemed depressed and Gertler asked:
‘Was it that bad?’ ‘On the contrary,’
Bartok said, but I am a bit disappointed that I didn’t
write it this way from the beginning. This is so much better!’
He even used Gertler’s version when he orchestrated the
work a few years later. I have known the Sonatina in
its original version for ages but had never heard Gertler’s
arrangement, and I think I must agree with Bartók.
Zoltán Kodály was a versatile cultural personality
in Hungary as pedagogue, linguist, musicologist and composer.
His opera Háry János is something of a
national opera and Dances from Galánta one of
the most colourful orchestral works from the inter-war years.
In his youth he also wrote some chamber music and the two works
presented here are fine examples. The adagio is beautiful
but it is the duo that is a major composition. I heard it many
years ago in London but didn’t manage to find a recording
of it then. It is well crafted and deeply moving.
As a lovely little encore Pierrou rocks us to sleep with Aulin’s
Lullaby, music that feels like a mild and light Nordic
In the enclosed booklet she writes charmingly about her life
and career. There are excellent notes to the music and the artists
by Christer Eklund, who made the transfers, the editing and
the layout. He is also the producer of the box on his own label
Oak Grove, which is a literal translation of his family name.
Nilla Pierrou had a long and successful solo career and she
made a number of exquisite commercial recordings, not least
Wilhelm Peterson-Berger’s Violin Concerto, recorded when
she was only twenty. It is available on CD on Phono-Suecia PSCD95
- originally on Swedish EMI LP CSDS 1083. The present box adds
a lot to the picture of her and should be an obligatory purchase
for all those who have heard her in the flesh - but also those
who haven’t - for the playing as well as the repertoire.
CD 1 [74:50]
Jenö HUBAY (1858 - 1937)
Violin Concerto No. 3 G minor Op. 99 (1906 - 1907)
1. I. Introduction quasi Fantasia. Moderato. Allegro moderato
2. II. Scherzo .Presto [4:28]
3. III. Adagio [10:05]
4. IV. Finale. Allegro con fuoco [8:35]
5. Interview with Seth Karlsson (1985) [3:41]
Lille Bror SÖDERLUNDH (1912 - 1957)
from Concerto per violino ed orchestra (1954)
6. II. Intermedio a parte [2:45]
Willem KERSTERS (1929 - 1998)
Violin Concerto Op.86 (1989, dedicated to Nilla Pierrou)
7. I. Allegro [16:18]
8. II. Andante [11:49]
9. III. Allegro molto [10:21]
CD 2 [78:28]
Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)
Sonata F Major for violin and piano
1. I. Allegro moderato [7:09]
2. II. Andante [6:28]
3. III. Finale. Vivace assai [5:23]
Edvard GRIEG (1843 - 1907)
Sonata No. 3 for violin and piano, C Minor Op. 45 (1886 - 1887)
4. I. Allegro molto ed appassionato [8:45]
5. II. Allegro espressivo alla Romanza [7:17]
6. III. Allegro animato [6:44]
Anton WEBERN (1883 - 1945)
4 Pieces Op. 7 for violin and piano (1910/1914/1922)
7. I. Sehr langsam [1:08]
8. II. Rasch [1:47]
9. III. Sehr langsam [1:32]
10. IV. Bewegt [1:02]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854 - 1928)
Sonata for violin and piano (1914 - 1915, rev. 1915 - 1921)
11. I. Con moto [5:37]
12. II. Ballada; Con moto [5:33]
13. III. Allegretto [2:34]
14. IV. Adagio [5:25]
Béla BARTÓK (1881 - 1945)
from Sonata No. 1 for violin and piano, BB 84 (1921)
15. II. Adagio [11:24]
CD 3 [78:29]
Rhapsody No. 1 for violin and piano, BB 94 a (1928)
1. I. Lassú [4:42]
2. II. Friss [5:23]
Eugène YSAŸE (1858 - 1931)
3. Rêve d’enfant Op. 14 [4:52]
Victor LEGLEY (1915 - 1994)
Duo for violin and cello, Op. 101
4. I. Allegro commodo [2:45]
5. II. Andante doloroso [4:09]
6. III. Allegro (tutto pizzicato). Molto vivo [2:44]
Ernest BLOCH (1880 - 1959)
7. Nigun from Baal Shem-suite (1923) [6:57]
Tor AULIN (1866 - 1914)
8. Barcarole from Four Pieces Op. 16 (1906) [5:00]
Béla BARTÓK/André GERTLER (1907
Sonatin for violin & piano (1915/1924)BB 102 a
9. I. Bagpipe blower [1:31]
10. II. Bear Dance [1:00]
11. III. Finale [2:05]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882 - 1967)
12. Adagio for violin & piano (1905) [7:10]
Duo for violin & cello, Op. 7 (1914)
13. I. Allegro serioso, non troppo [8:51]
14. II. Adagio [8:05]
15. III. Maestoso e largamente, ma non troppo lento; Presto
16. Lullaby from Four Watercolours (1899) [3:43]