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Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Violin Concerto, Op.33 (1911) [32:42]
Johan HALVORSEN (1864-1935)
Violin Concerto, Op.48 (1907-8) [21:43]
Johan SVENDSEN (1840-1911)
Romance (1881) [7:35]
Henning Kraggerud (violin)
Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Malmö Concert Hall, Malmö, Sweden, 29 August–1 September 2016
NAXOS 8.573738 [62:00]

With the notable exception of Grieg most of the leading Scandinavian composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries wrote one or more violin concertos. The magnificent, brooding concerto of Sibelius, dating from 1904-5, is the most original and memorable of all of them and it has completely overshadowed most of the others. Nielsen’s concerto of 1911 is one of the few that has just about stayed on the fringes of the standard repertoire.

Although Nielsen was at pains to renounce “everything that might dazzle or impress” the work is still technically extremely difficult. Unusually the concerto is cast in two movements – the opening movement famously commencing with an apparent disagreement about the home key. The solo violin’s opening chord is a fourth below the key of the confident orchestral chord that opens the concerto and it suggests determined resistance - which quickly triumphs as the soloist embarks upon an initial cadenza. In my experience the character of this opening exchange typically defines what we may expect of the performance that follows. In recent years several fine versions of this concerto have appeared, of which some of the most notable have been from Cho Liang Lin, Nicolaj Znaider, Vilde Frang and Baiba Skride. To summarise my broad impressions of these performances: if Lin is incisive and detailed, Frang is compellingly fastidious and, whilst less extrovert, she plays with great delicacy and a very colourful tonal palette. By comparison Znaider sounds more spontaneous and this pays its own dividends but, ultimately, it is Skride who makes me catch my breath with her beautiful Sibelian purity of tone. In any event these each seem to me to be very individual performances.

Henning Kraggerud is the soloist on the present disc and he is pretty good, too. I enjoyed his version (which is placed second on the disc) particularly in the more pastoral moments such as the passage where Nielsen mimics the chirruping of birds at the back end of the first movement. The comparative feature of Kraggerud’s playing that gradually suggests itself, however, is a kind of smooth reticence and this means that the performance as a whole comes across as slightly less individual and less strongly characterised than the others. This doesn’t matter much in the gentle Adagio introduction to the second movement (which effectively serves as the concerto’s slow movement) but the soloist’s themes elsewhere tend not to emerge as pungently or memorably as with some of the competing violinists.

Not quite a front-running recommendation for this work, then, but never mind. The feature of the present disc that makes it notable is the world premiere commercial recording of the violin concerto by the Norwegian composer, Johan Halvorsen, which dates from 1907-8. The manuscript of this was long thought to have been destroyed by the composer after his retirement in 1929 but the score and parts were discovered as recently as 2015 amongst the musical legacies of the original soloist, the Canadian violinist, Kathleen Parlow (1890-1963) in the Faculty of Music Library of the University of Toronto.

In his youth Halvorsen was a talented violinist, a pupil of Adolf Brodsky in Leipzig. Unlike Sibelius, also an aspiring violinist, he was sufficiently gifted to be a soloist - in which capacity he appeared in performances of the violin concertos of (amongst others) Beethoven, Paganini, Vieuxtemps and Wieniawski. Around 1890 he started to compose seriously and he was to complete in excess of 170 works, although few of these have come down to us. One work that has, of course, is the piece by which most people have come across his name – the famous Passacaglia on a theme of Handel for violin and viola (the “Handel-Halvorsen”). Halvorsen became conductor and “composer in residence” at the theatres in Bergen and Kristiana (Oslo) in 1893 and continued in these roles until his retirement. Here he directed Norway’s largest professional symphony orchestra and was regarded as second only to Johann Svendsen amongst the country’s conductors. Most of the necessary circumstances were in place for the composer to produce a large work and he revealed, in several newspaper interviews in 1907, that he was in the process of composing a violin concerto. Progress on the concerto was, however, slow. The self-taught composer could turn out chamber and incidental music at high speed but he seems to have been much less confident about producing works in larger forms. At any rate, when Parlow made her Kristiana debut in 1908, Halvorsen was highly impressed with her playing and this seems to have been the spur for him to complete the concerto. It was given a very well-received first performance a year later in August 1909.

The critics were mildly bemused by the unusual structure of the work (probably owing something to Halvorsen’s self-tutelage) and conventional sonata form is not followed. An opening orchestral motif directly precedes the first of two solo cadenzas. The soloist enters with a striking theme featuring an augmented fourth, apparently a standard element in Norwegian folk music - often to be heard played on the Hardanger Fiddle (the Norwegian “national instrument” with which Halvorsen was very familiar). This leads to an exposition and a (rather underwhelming) subsidiary theme “according to the rules” but the rest of the movement oddly seems to combine development, recapitulation and coda, with a concluding solo cadenza leading into the second movement. Here we get a basic song-like theme that is treated to a lot of what is, in my opinion, somewhat unnecessary and over-fiddly elaboration. The third movement is a bouncy jig, based on a Norwegian folk dance (the halling) that, once again, is given a lot of show-off elaboration although it is rather more to be expected here. The Hardanger Fiddle character is much in evidence.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to hear the piece and it is all pleasant stuff but I’m afraid this is no lost masterpiece. The fact that the composer went so far as to destroy the manuscript says a lot. It offers little that is particularly memorable (none of the affecting beauty of the concerto of Lange-Müller, for instance) and sits firmly amongst the overshadowed concertos of Sinding, Svendsen, Petersen-Berger, et al that are referred to above. I don’t expect to hear a better performance of this work any time soon and Kraggerud’s style is clean and distraction-free but, once again, his performance strikes me as just a little faceless and short of individuality. Svendsen’s deservedly famous Romance provides the fill-up and this is given a lovely performance - if one that doesn’t really manage to supplant that on my old LP of Arthur Grumiaux.

The recording is excellent, with the soloist suitably up-front but not over-spotlit. Booklet notes (in Norwegian and English) run to three pages and are very informative.
Bob Stevenson



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