About this Recording
8.573738 - HALVORSEN, J.: Violin Concerto / NIELSEN, C.: Violin Concerto / SVENDSEN: Romance (Kraggerud, Malmö Symphony, Engeset)
English  Norwegian 

John Halvorsen (1864–1935) • Carl Nielsen (1865–1931): Violin Concertos
Johan Svendsen (1840–1911): Romance


Johan Halvorsen—conductor, composer and violinist

For 36 years, beginning in 1893, Johan Halvorsen (1864–1935) was conductor and “composer-in-residence” at the theatres in Bergen and Kristiania (Oslo), where in the years 1899–1919 he directed Norway’s largest professional symphony orchestra, which numbered 43 musicians. Six evenings a week they performed entr’actes and incidental music at theatre performances as well as giving a total of around 300 symphony concerts, soloist concerts, popular concerts and matinées over a twenty-year period. The National Theatre was also Norway’s most important opera venue, and Halvorsen had sole responsibility for the preparation and conducting of all its opera and operetta performances. In his own time he was regarded as second only to Johan Svendsen among Norwegian conductors, and he also enjoyed great success conducting Norwegian music internationally.

In his youth Halvorsen was one of Norway’s most talented violinists. From the age of fifteen he earned his living as a violinist in the theatre orchestras of Kristiania and Stockholm, and in the years 1886–88 he was a pupil of the famous Russian violinist Adolf Brodsky in Leipzig. He frequently appeared as soloist in the violin concertos of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Paganini, Vieuxtemps, Wieniawski and Bruch. After his studies in Leipzig, Halvorsen worked both as a violinist and as a violin teacher, first for a year in Aberdeen (1888–89) and then for three years in Helsinki (1889–92).

Around 1890 Halvorsen started to compose in earnest, and he completed more than 170 works. Many of his early compositions include the violin, among them a Suite with piano (1890), the world-famous Passacaglia (with viola) on a theme by Handel (1893), the Danses norvégiennes (Norwegian Dances) (1896) and the suite Mosaique (1898). Later he primarily wrote music for the theatre, for example for the plays Vasantasena (1896), Gurre (1900) and Fossegrimen (1904–05).

The Violin Concerto in its time

In the spring of 1907 Halvorsen mentioned in several newspaper interviews that he was “at the moment… working on a violin concerto”. The world of Norwegian music anticipated the work’s arrival eagerly, but Halvorsen refused to perform it in the spring of 1908, allegedly because he was nervous about how it would be received by the critics. We may well suspect that in fact the work was not yet complete. Halvorsen, who was self-taught as a composer, could turn out theatre music, miniatures and arrangements at an almost incredible rate, but was tormented by self-doubt when faced with writing a more prestigious work in a larger format.

The Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow (1890–1963) made her Kristiania début in January 1908 at the age of seventeen, and people flocked to hear “the new marvel”. Halvorsen was highly impressed by Parlow’s playing, and regarded her as superior to almost all the other famous soloists who made guest appearances in the city. For her part, Parlow soon became an enthusiastic admirer of Halvorsen’s music, and she provided a significant impetus for him to complete the concerto in the autumn of 1908.

The first performance of Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto took place in the Netherlands on 14th August 1909. The seafront hotel Kurhaus in Scheveningen had a famous “Kurzaal”, where the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra—no less—gave two daily concerts every summer from 1885 until 1910. In 1909 the conductor was Ernst Kunwald, and the audience applauded Parlow’s performance wholeheartedly. Four weeks later, on 11th and 12th September 1909, Halvorsen conducted the concerto at home in Kristiania, again with Kathleen Parlow as soloist. Parlow told a Norwegian newspaper:

“I admire Grieg and Sinding and Halvorsen. I have come here for the sole purpose of playing Halvorsen’s new concerto. It’s very interesting to perform, and also tremendously beautiful. I think it will catch on, but it’s never possible to know that for sure in advance.”

Neither the soloist nor the composer had any reason to fear the audience’s reaction. “Both of them were called back 8–10 times, and Halvorsen thanked Miss Parlow with a gallant kiss on the hand.”

The structure of Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto

After the first performances of the concerto in 1909, the critics remarked that it was “an outstanding work”, but that the first movement was “formally a little unclear”. The opening movement does not conform to conventional sonata form, as the opening orchestral motif—following the example of Bruch’s First Violin Concerto—leads directly into the soloist’s first solo cadenza. After two solo cadenzas, a classically structured exposition “according to the rules” begins, with a striking main theme in G minor and a more lyrical subsidiary theme in B flat major. The remainder of the movement, however, is less formal, almost like a synthesis of development, recapitulation and coda, and the concluding solo cadenza leads straight into the second movement. Here the beautiful, songful theme is derived from the G minor theme in the first movement. One reviewer characterised the Andante fittingly as “delicate, warm-hearted and captivating music which, with its numerous episodes, is in itself strong enough to sustain the entire concerto”.

For a classically trained musician, Halvorsen had a thorough knowledge of the Norwegian folk music tradition and of the Norwegian “national instrument”, the Hardanger fiddle. It was Halvorsen who in 1901 had transcribed the folk tunes that Grieg had used as the basis for his Slåtter for piano, and in 1904—in his music for Fossegrimen—Halvorsen became the first composer in the world to use the Hardanger fiddle as a solo instrument with orchestra. Some years previously he had also composed a virtuoso rhapsody based on Norwegian folk tunes and dances, Air norvégien, for violin and orchestra. These were the experiences he drew upon in his Violin Concerto, as is apparent right from the very first note of the opening cadenza in the first movement. The augmented fourth, a familiar element in Norwegian folk music, begins a motto-motif that constantly recurs in the concerto’s first two movements.

In the finale we find even more local Norwegian colour: its bouncy dance rhythms are clearly inspired by the halling, a Norwegian folk dance. This dance is a showpiece for a solo male dancer’s acrobatic and athletic abilities. In Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto, the soloist can demonstrate mastery of comparable technical challenges such as breakneck runs, octaves, double stopping, harmonics and other virtuoso effects. These give the soloist the opportunity to show off both in the main part of the movement—in halling rhythm—and in the contrasting section, where a variant of the subsidiary theme from the first movement is transformed into a majestic march in 6/8 time.

The Violin Concerto after 1909

Parlow planned to perform Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto in England, the Netherlands and the United States, but only one of these concerts took place, in Utrecht on 28th February 1910. Despite receiving an enthusiastic reception on that occasion too, the concerto was not played again during Halvorsen’s lifetime. In 1923 he used the main theme of the concerto’s middle movement as the starting point for the slow movement of his First Symphony, which suggests that Halvorsen then regarded the Violin Concerto as being no longer in circulation, but also that—with good reason—he wanted to let this theme live on in another context.

When Halvorsen retired in 1929, he burned a number of manuscripts, and his widow later stated that the Violin Concerto was among them. And we have only Kathleen Parlow to thank for the preservation for posterity of this work, an exciting part of Norwegian musical history. In her surviving collection of sheet music, papers and cuttings—kept at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Music Library since 1963—the score and parts popped up like a jack-in-the-box in 2015. Before the end of the year, Henning Kraggerud had started to learn the work, which received its first modern performances at two concerts in Norway in July 2016. With this recording we hope to help Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto to have a chance to take its rightful place as one of the most important violin concertos from the Romantic period of Norwegian musical history.

Carl Nielsen’s Violin Concerto

Before he made his breakthrough as a composer, Carl Nielsen (1865–1931) worked for many years as a second violinist in the Royal Danish Orchestra in Copenhagen, of which the Norwegian Johan Svendsen was conductor from 1882 onwards. In 1908 Nielsen himself took over as conductor, and it was around this time that he started to gain more recognition as a composer. The third of his six symphonies was completed in early 1911, and that summer he visited Norway, where he started to compose his Violin Concerto. The first movement was actually written in Edvard Grieg’s composer’s hut at Troldhaugen, which was placed at Nielsen’s disposal by Grieg’s widow Nina.

Like Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto, Nielsen’s begins with a powerful chord from the orchestra, followed by a solo cadenza for the violin. The rest of the movement is formally more traditional, in accordance with sonata form principles, with another solo cadenza before the recapitulation. Like his recently completed Third Symphony, the musical language has a decidedly pastoral character. Nielsen achieves this to some extent by incorporating dance rhythms in a folk style and elements from modal scales, but even more by having the solo violin and the bright-toned wind instruments play motifs containing trills and ornaments reminiscent of the chirping of birds.

The rest of the work was composed in Denmark in the autumn of 1911, staring with an Adagio based on the chromatic sequence of notes B flat–A–C–B (the German musical cryptogram for the name Bach), played initially by the oboe. The Adagio does not constitute an independent movement as such, but is used as an introduction to the rondo finale. Here Nielsen—again like Halvorsen—uses a dance rhythm to underpin the music. But whereas Halvorsen chose to end his concerto with a virtuosic, extrovert movement with breakneck runs and figurations, Nielsen preferred to keep his distance from playing to the gallery and superficial virtuosity in a Scherzando of a more pastoral character.

Carl Nielsen himself conducted the first performances of his Violin Concerto and Third Symphony at the same concert in February 1912. On that occasion the soloist was the Danish violinist Peder Møller who, more than anybody, would make great efforts to make the piece better known. The concerto is, however, dedicated to another of the great violin virtuosos of the period, the Hungarian Emil Telmányi, who was also Nielsen’s son-in-law.

Johan Svendsen’s Romance for violin and orchestra

Johan Svendsen (1840–1911) wrote his Romance for violin in the autumn of 1881. The work was composed in his publisher Carl Warmuth’s back room, where Svendsen saw his violin and theory pupils. One day, when one of the pupils failed to turn up, he sat down and sketched this expressive and very melodic piece, and within just two days it was complete. The main part of the Romance is an idyll in G major, whilst the accompaniment to the middle section in G minor has a more agitated character and this forms an effective contrast.

The Romance immediately became one of Svendsen’s best-known and most loved works, both in Norway and internationally. Over the years many famous violinists have performed the piece—among them Johan Halvorsen, who played it with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw Orchestra at the great festival of Norwegian music in Bergen in 1898. On that occasion the conductor was Svendsen himself.

Øyvin Dybsand
English translation: Andrew Barnett

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