A splendid combination of purity and sweeping, Heifetz-like intensity
The Strad | By Julian Haylock, 16. November 2018
Dvořák’s sole Violin Concerto is not among his most free-flowingly spontaneous scores. It took him four years (on and off) to complete, by which time the intended dedicatee Joseph Joachim had grown tired of the project and, despite having already advised on several changes, was still unhappy about what he considered the terse bridge between the first and second movements and over-repetitious finale.
Only comparatively recently has it become virtually standard repertoire, yet is remains a problematic work requiring sensitive and impassioned advocacy to sound its best. This it receives in spades from Eldbjørg Hemsing, who sustains high standards of intonational purity and beguiling tonal lustre throughout even most awkward of passages. She also shapes phrases with a chamber-scale dynamic suppleness, in contrast to the majority of recorded players, whose tendency towards special pleading often leads to over-projection.
However, the star turn here is the Suk Fantasy, which sounds (no bad thing) like an evacuee soundtrack from the Golden Age of Hollywood, with Hemsing hurling herself into the fray with an almost Heifetz-like intensity and swashbuckling bravado. Alan Buribayev and the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra provide sterling support and the commendably natural recording opens out seductively when the SACD-surround track is activated.
“…mit der 28 Jahre alten Eldbjørg Hemsing begeistert nun wieder eine junge Geigerin aus Norwegen. Hemsing ist nicht nur eine feinsinnige und kluge Interpretin, sie entlockt ihrer Guadagnini auch einen sehr persönlichen, unverwechselbaren Geigenton. Zart, intim und filigran wirkt er im Kern, dabei aber selbst im gehauchten Piano noch sinnlich und klangvoll.”
Julia Spinola | 2. Oktober 2018 | Süddeutsche Zeitung
Es muss etwas Verzauberndes in den nordischen Fjorden und Berglandschaften liegen. Nachdem die bereits mehrfach preisgekrönte Vilde Frang die internationalen Podien erobert hat, begeistert mit der 28 Jahre alten Eldbjørg Hemsing nun wieder eine junge Geigerin aus Norwegen. Mit Musik des weitgehend unbekannten norwegischen Komponisten Hjalmar Borgström hatte sie im April ihr Debüt gegeben. Auch auf ihrer zweiten CD meidet sie jetzt die ausgetretenen Pfade und spielt neben Antonín Dvořáks Violinkonzert die selten zu hörende Fantasie in g-Moll für Violine und Orchester von Dvořáks Schwiegersohn Josef Suk. Hemsing ist nicht nur eine feinsinnige und kluge Interpretin, sie entlockt ihrer Guadagnini auch einen sehr persönlichen, unverwechselbaren Geigenton. Zart, intim und filigran wirkt er im Kern, dabei aber selbst im gehauchten Piano noch sinnlich und klangvoll. Im leidenschaftlichen Forte, etwa im Eröffnungsthema des Dvořák-Konzerts, beginnt dieser eindringlich singende Ton irisierend zu leuchten. Mit ein wenig Fantasie hört man hier den großen David Oistrach heraus, dessen Schüler Boris Kuschnir Hemsings Lehrer war.
Fanfare Review of Eldbjørg Hemsing’s second solo album release
“…flawless intonation, a lovely tone, and, in the bargain, magical phrasing. The finest musicians possess both a keen, unique musical insight, and the technical ability to communicate those insights to their audiences. Hemsing is such an artist. And throughout, Hemsing plays with a true sense of joy that is irresistible… If you are looking for a superb version of the Dvořák Violin Concerto in first-rate sound, the new Hemsing BIS issue gets my unqualified recommendation… This new BIS recording by Eldbørg Hemsing documents the work of a major artist.”
Ken Meltzer | Fanfare | 2 August 2018
Earlier this year (Issue 41:6, July/August 2018), my Fanfare colleagues Colin Clarke and Jerry Dubins offered the highest praise for a debut disc on the BIS label, featuring Norwegian violinist Eldbørg Hemsing performing the Shostakovich Concerto No. 1, and the Concerto in G, op. 25 by Hjalmar Borgström. Now it is my turn to do the same for Ms. Hemsing’s subsequent release, a pairing of the Dvořák Violin Concerto with two works by his pupil and son-in-law, Czech composer Josef Suk, the Fantasy in G minor, and Liebeslied, op. 7, no. 1.
To be sure, the recorded competition in the Dvořák Concerto is strong. My favorites are a 1950s EMI version with Nathan Milstein, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and William Steinberg, and an early-1960s Supraphon disc with Josef Suk (the composer’s namesake and grandson) as soloist, and Karel Ančerlleading the Czech Philharmonic. Hemsing’s new version belongs in that august company. After appearing as soloist in the January 1, 1879 world premiere of the Brahms Violin Concerto, Joseph Joachim requested Dvořák to write a similar work for him. Joachim did not ultimately perform the premiere of the Dvořák Violin Concerto (that honor went to the distinguished Czech violinist František Ondříček). Nevertheless, Joachim worked closely with Dvořák in the creation of the Violin Concerto, with the expectation that it would serve as a showcase for his talents. Of course, Joachim was one of the greatest violinists of the 19thcentury, and the Dvořák Concerto demands a virtuoso of the highest order. Hemsing is more than equal to all of the challenges. Throughout, the soloist is often called upon to play mercilessly exposed passages in the highest reaches of the instrument. Hemsing dispatches these episodes with flawless intonation, a lovely tone, and, in the bargain, magical phrasing. Much the same may be said about all of the virtuoso sections of the work. I don’t think the adjective “breathtaking” to describe Hemsing’s playing is at all hyperbolic. But focusing upon isolated passages in Hemsing’s interpretation risks not doing it justice. To me, the most compelling aspect of Hemsing’s account of the Dvořák Concerto may be found in her grasp of the work’s overall architecture. Throughout, I had the distinct impression that the soloist was approaching each portion with the intent of seamlessly connecting it to what follows. The finest musicians possess both a keen, unique musical insight, and the technical ability to communicate those insights to their audiences. Hemsing is such an artist. And throughout, Hemsing plays with a true sense of joy that is irresistible. While I don’t think that the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Alan Buribayev, equals the tonal richness and vibrant playing of Pittsburgh/Steinberg and Czech Philharmonic/Ančerl, their contribution is of a high level. And the gorgeous recorded sound on the new BIS release offers a far more realistic and thrilling sonic picture than that offered by the prior recordings I mentioned, each well more than a half-century old. If you are looking for a superb version of the Dvořák Violin Concerto in first-rate sound, the new Hemsing BIS issue gets my unqualified recommendation.
In her first BIS recording, Eldbørg Hemsing made a conscious decision to pair a highly-familiar work (Shostakovich 1) with one that has languished in obscurity (Borgström G Major). Hemsing follows a similar approach in the new release, although both Josef Suk and his Fantasia in G minor are both far better known than the Borgström Concerto. Indeed, the Suk Fantasia has frequently appeared as a disc companion to the Dvořák Concerto. Suk was a highly accomplished composer (and for that matter, violinist), who was capable of individual, expressive, and emotionally powerful music (his Asrael Symphony, for example). The Suk Fantasy strikes me as a rather episodic work, but one containing many attractive episodes that certainly afford the soloist the opportunity to display both technical and interpretive prowess. It’s not surprising that Hemsing plays this work superbly as well. But here, I think that the intensity Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic bring to their 1965 recording with the wonderful Suk (the younger) make a better overall case for the piece.
The BIS recording concludes with Stephan Koncz’s transcription for violin and orchestra of Suk’s Liebeslied, from his Six Piano Pieces, op. 7. It’s a lovely, romantic work that Hemsing plays with great affection.
The booklet includes brief commentary from Hemsing, an essay on the works by Philip Borg-Wheeler, and artist bios (in English, German, and French). Thisnew BIS recording by Eldbørg Hemsing documents the work of a major artist. If you are at all interested in hearing her, and/or are in the market for recordings of the featured works, please do not hesitate. Very highly recommended.
For her debut solo recording (out now on BIS), the Norwegian violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing pairs Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1 with a very different (and far less familiar) work: the lush 1914 Violin Concerto by composer and music-journalist Hjalmar Borgstrøm, who initially studied in Oslo with his compatriot Johan Svendsen but went on to pursue a consciously Germanic style after spending time in Leipzig and Berlin.
I spoke to her recently about why this attractively lyrical work has fallen off the radar, where it sits in relation to other early twentieth-century concertos, and her immediate plans for further recordings…
The Borgstrøm concerto is a real curiosity – how did you come across it in the first place?
It was a bit of a chance encounter, really: a family friend sent a pile of sheet-music to my home in London which included the score, and I set it to one side for a while but when I started to go through it in detail I was really intrigued because it’s just so beautiful. It had only ever been performed twice (in Norway), so essentially it was completely forgotten: no-one knew about this piece, and I think it’s a great discovery!
Do you have any theories as to why his music never really entered the repertoire?
There are several factors, I think. First of all it’s because Borgstrøm was a little bit behind the curve in many ways: his timing was not the best! He was composing in this late Romantic style at a time when people were already branching out and moving away from that; of course there had been Grieg, who spent a lot of time travelling around and using folk-music in a very different way from Borgstrøm, who was much more interested in Romantic ideals. He spent a total of fifteen years in Germany, initially studying in Leipzig and then living in Berlin for many years – but by the time this concerto was premiered in 1914, World War One had broken out and in Norway it was considered almost improper to continue in this very German musical tradition. He also composed quite a few symphonic poems, an opera and some piano music, but I haven’t been able to find out very much about them because there aren’t that many studies in print!
You pair the Borgstrøm with Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto – what was the thought-process behind the coupling?
When the offer came to make my first recording I knew I wanted to include the Shostakovich – I studied the piece from a very young age and have performed it a great deal. It’s painfully emotional and really dark: you’re really pushed to the limit of what you can express as a human being, and I thought that with a piece like that you need something that’s very much a contrast. I wanted something that was the complete opposite, something much more lyrical and ‘white’ in sound, something Romantic…and the Borgstrøm seemed to fit the bill perfectly, particularly because people don’t know it!
Are there any other Norwegian concertos that you’d like to bring back to life – Sinding, for instance?
I used to believe that if something wasn’t performed very often there was probably a reason for it (ie that that quality wasn’t good enough!) but I have to say that since discovering Borgstrøm I’ve actually become very curious about what there is out there, so I definitely would like to go on a journey to see what else I might find…!
Given that many listeners will be new to this work, could you point us in the direction of one or two personal highlights in the piece?
I think there’s a particularly special moment in the first movement: there’s quite a long introduction before you come to the first melody, which initially comes in the strings, and it’s very pure and lyrical and tender. And the second movement is my favourite in many ways – it’s like an operatic aria, and it reminds me of something but I can’t quite put my finger on what…It’s very familiar in a sense, but at the same time it has its own very individual sound.
Do you see any parallels with other violin concertos which were written at around the same time? I hear echoes of the Sibelius concerto here and there…
Yes, there’s definitely something similar about both the melodies and the chords – the Sibelius concerto was written 10 years prior to this, so it’s not unlikely that Borgstrøm knew it! But there’s also an operatic quality to the work that reminds me of Wagner in places…
What are your immediate plans on the recording front?
I’m about to start recording with the Oslo Philharmonic and Tan Dun, whom I first met eight years ago. We’ve done a lot of projects together, and this one includes one brand-new concerto and some other smaller pieces.
And the two of you share a passionate interest in the folk music of your respective countries…
Indeed. I started playing the violin when I was very young and I also studied the Hardanger fiddle alongside it, because the area where I come from is very rich in folk-music; I’ve continued to play both instruments and I try to make sure that every year I do some projects which include folk music because I think it’s very important to keep it fresh and alive.
She takes her concert public by storm all over the world with her 265-year old violin. The lauded musician Eldbjørg Hemsing from Valdres often expresses the sounds of the raw and beautiful Norwegian nature.
Eldbjørg Hemsing brings the sound of Norway to the world
“Eldbjørg is famous in China. We call her ‘The Princess of Norway’.”
The bold words belong to Tan Dun, who is among the world’s leading composers. The Chinese has collaborated with the Norwegian violinist for years and has even dedicated a specially written musical work to her.
Eldbjørg Hemsing started playing the violin when she was a four-year-old growing up in a picturesque village in Valdres in Eastern Norway. Now, people sit quiet and listen every time Eldbjørg lets the bow hit the strings on her G. B. Guadagnini from 1754.
236 years separate Eldbjørg and her musical tool, but you’ll be hard pressed to find a more close-knit duo.
She plays all over the world, in cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Valencia, Frankfurt, Koblenz, Leipzig, Berlin, Cologne, Abu Dhabi, Oslo – and in her home town of Aurdal. In March 2018, she released a record with music written by Norwegian composer Hjalmar Borgstrøm.
“When I hear Borgstrøm’s compositions, I think of fjords and mountains and the feeling of moving through nature.”
What sounds did you grow up with in Valdres? “I remember that the silence intensified all sounds, like the trickling of the water in a mountain stream, the summer breeze through the valley, or the gust of the wind in the tree branches. My mother was a music educationalist and my father worked as a mountain supervisor, so I grew up in a harmonious mixture of music and nature. I often went with my father to work in the mountains to check out the danger of an avalanche or measure fish stocks and water depths. I learned things like building a campfire for preparing meals”, Eldbjørg says.
Valdres is known for traditional folk music that is often mixed with new genres, and it was important to Eldbjørg’s mother that rehearsing should be fun. She could even get 15 minutes of rehearsal in before the children’s television programme started in the evenings.
And now you have played on the rare instrument you have on loan from a foundation for nearly ten years? “The violin is very personal to me. The sound coming out of its body feels like my own voice. It has a heartfelt depth and warmth, and a wide array of colours. The first Hardanger fiddles are said to be from the 1600s. It’s incredible to think about how much my instrument has been through.”
Growing up, Eldbjørg took time off from the school in Valdres every Friday to travel about three hours to Oslo and the Barratt Due Institute of Music. Her first trip abroad went to the Czech Republic when she was eight. Later, she took lessons in the USA, and from then on concerts all over the world have filled up her calendar.
In March 2018, Eldbjørg released her debut album, including her discovery of the forgotten Violin Concerto in G major signed by Norwegian composer Hjalmar Borgstrøm (1864–1925), who was inspired by German Romanticism. She wanted to share her own enthusiasm about the work with her audience.
You draw a connection between Borgstrøm’s work and Norwegian nature experiences? “Yes, I perceive his music as a very physical piece – complex and craftsmanlike. When I hear Borgstrøm’s compositions, I think of fjords and mountains and the feeling of moving through nature. The tones can resemble a smell or bring out memories of other encounters with nature.”
Chefs, like the one at Maaemo in Oslo, also say that they serve memories from Norwegian nature? “Yes, and that is what is so strong about music – it can call forth a personal, but very distinct feeling.”
What is the most enjoyable thing about being a violinist? “To resurrect a several hundred years old violin, and to breathe new life into old compositions so that both new and traditional audiences get to appreciate how great they are. I am not that interested in interpreting and renewing historical pieces of music, but rather in emphasizing their original strengths.”
Was classical music the rock ’n’ roll of that time? “You might say that, and classical music is just as cool and relevant still. My line of work has much in common with elite sports. When I perform, I have one chance to deliver my absolute best. I set off with maximum tempo and concentration and don’t stop until I’m finished.”
In 2013, Eldbjørg and her sister Ragnhild started a yearly chamber music festival in their home town of Aurdal in Valdres. The sisters invite top-level musicians, many of whom have become their good friends. And even though the Hemsing Festival has grown bigger every year – in 2018, about 30 international artists performed for 12,000 people, and the festival was broadcasted on national television – the sisters want to keep the intimate feeling the acclaimed musicians get at this stunning place in Eastern Norway.
“International artist friends praise the clear light and clean air in Valdres. They say that it sharpens their senses. They get to taste local food like moose and wild fish, and we take them on skiing trips and other activities,” Eldbjørg says.
How much money is your violin from 1754 worth? “I honestly don’t know, and that is fine with me. If I’d known, I would probably get the jitters.”
How do you preserve such an old instrument? “It has to be looked after and cared for, because the wood is still alive even though it’s so old. The case has a humidifier and a hygrometer, and I go to a ‘violin doctor’ twice a year.”
Do you keep the violin as hand luggage when you fly, or do you check it? “Always as hand luggage. No exceptions. I’d never let something that personal out of my sight.”
Are you ever longing back to Valdres? “I know that I can always take a break there and find peace of mind. But it is important to emphasize that even though you come from a small and beautiful place, you can still travel and work wherever you want in the world.”
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