Johan Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto In A Worthy Revival

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Henning Kraggerud performs the Halvorsen and Nielsen violin concertos in a new Naxos CD. (BBC Newsnight)

HALVORSEN: Violin Concerto (World Premiere commercial recording). Nielsen: Violin Concerto. Svendsen: Romance. Henning Kraggerud, violin. Malmö Symphony Orchestra/Bjarte Engeset. Naxos 8.573738. Total Time: 62:00.

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW – Johan Halvorsen, husband of composer Edvard Grieg’s niece, is perhaps best known to music-lovers and record collectors as the lesser half of Handel-Halvorsen, the eras-apart team that composed a much-performed Passacaglia for violin and viola, often heard in a version for violin and cello. Actually, Handel wrote the original piece for harpsichord and Halvorsen transformed it into a virtuoso piece for two string players. In his own time (1864-1935), “triple threat” Halvorsen –violinist, conductor, and composer – was one of Norway’s leading musicians. Early in his career, he played violin in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra; later, he became chief conductor of the National Theater Orchestra in Oslo, a position he held from 1899 to 1919.

Kathleen Parlow at age seventeen

Halvorsen wrote his Violin Concerto in 1909 for Canadian violinist Kathleen Parlow (1890-1963), whom he had heard in performance – she was seventeen at the time – at a concert in Oslo (then called Kristiania). Parlow played Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto in Oslo and elsewhere, and the piece was well received, but after these initial concerts it was never again performed in his lifetime. Halvorsen withdrew the Violin Concerto from circulation; his widow claimed that he had burned the score, along with other manuscripts he didn’t care to preserve for posterity.

In her later years, Parlow was a teacher at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music and at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. She was an outstanding violinist well into her 60s; I had the pleasure of hearing her perform as the leader of the Parlow String Quartet on many occasions. Fortunately, Parlow had retained a copy of the score of Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto, as well as a set of parts, which she ultimately bequeathed to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music library.

Forty-three-year-old Henning Kraggerud, a Norwegian violinist and International Chair in Violin at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, is working hard to record and promote mostly neglected violin works by Scandinavian composers. He deserves enormous credit for bringing the Halvorsen concerto to our attention. It is a stellar piece I hope Kraggerud plays everywhere and encourages other leading soloists to include in their repertoire.

A vehicle for a virtuoso violinist in the tradition of the Wieniawski and Glazunov concertos, Halvorsen’s Violin Concerto would have been seen as somewhat old-fashioned in its own time; that said, it is certainly an interesting composition, even today.

Opening with two cadenzas for the soloist separated by just a few bars for the orchestra, Halvorsen allows the soloist to establish his of her sound from the outset. Next comes a technically complex main theme with the soloist again at the forefront, followed by a lyrical and often soaring second subject. After some development of these ideas, the music dies down and leads without a break into the second movement, Andante sostenuto. In the main section of this movement, which has some of the most beautiful music in the concerto, Halvorsen skillfully weaves together the orchestral accompaniment and the solo part. The finale of the concerto is based on a Norwegian folk dance with plenty of virtuoso opportunities for the soloist. The coda is an exciting dash to the finish line.

Carl Nielsen

Kraggerud makes an excellent case for the revival of this neglected concerto. The Malmö Symphony Orchestra plays with enthusiasm, but without much precision or finesse. My general impression is that the orchestra sound is unfocused, which could be a result of the recording quality rather than of the playing.

Carl Nielsen’s (1865-1931) Violin Concerto was composed just a few years after Halvorsen’s, and while it has always been available to anyone interested in performing it, this piece has never entered the basic repertoire. Although Kraggerud plays it very well here, there are much better recordings available, including those featuring violinists Nikolaj Znaider (Dacapo 6220556) and Cho-Liang Lin (CBS 44548).

Johan Svendsen

Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) was a Norwegian violinist-composer-conductor from the generation preceding Halvorsen’s. His Romance (1881) is in ABA form with romantic and lyrical sections bookending a faster-moving middle section reminiscent of Grieg. A very attractive piece, it should be played more often. Kraggerud gives it a lovely performance on this CD.

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.myscena.org.

Date posted: April 6, 2017

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