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Bull was a relative by marriage of Grieg and offered generous support to the schoolboy composer: but even if he hadn’t, there’s no way that any musician growing up in Bergen in the 1850s could have ignored him.
Which goes some way to explaining why—despite his natural leaning towards solo piano music and song—Grieg couldn’t ignore Bull’s instrument, the violin. Grieg’s three violin sonatas punctuate his career. The first and second (1865 and 1867) are amongst his earliest attempts to make sizeable musical statements in large-scale classical forms. The third, completed twenty years later in 1887 at Troldhaugen, the villa he’d built for his family on a pine-clad promontory above Nordåsvannet bay south of Bergen, would be his last.
But he was proud of all three. In January 1900 he wrote to his old friend, the playwright Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, that:
'… these three works are among my very best and represent different stages in my development: the first, naïve and rich in ideals; the second, nationalistic; and the third with a wider outlook'
And yet the qualities that most strike a foreign listener about the Third Sonata are perhaps exactly those that we think of as the most distinctive—most 'Norwegian'—aspects of Grieg’s musical personality: the bracing freshness, the lyrical melodies, the limpid colours, and the rough-cut folk-dance rhythms. (Grieg may or may not have had the young Italian violinist Teresina Tua in mind. He referred to her, jokingly, as 'the little fiddle-fairy on my troll hill': it probably sounds better in Norwegian).
Which is not to say that the Sonata lacks grandeur—it has a breadth and a symphonic sweep that explain Grieg’s reference to 'a wider outlook'. (It’s surely no coincidence that Grieg’s only symphony was also in C minor). The first movement opens with a terse little whirlwind of a motif, before the violin introduces a yearning second theme over piano writing of a glistening, icicle-like beauty. That’s more than enough material for a perfect storm of a sonata-form movement.
The piano introduces the Allegretto (very much espressivo): part slow movement, part lilting intermezzo, with a skittish dance as a bittersweet central section. And then, in the finale, the piano and violin call to each other before driving into a vigorous march with the spring and the kick of a Norwegian halling. A soaring second theme prepares the way for a glittering and triumphant homecoming. Grieg premiered the sonata in Leipzig on 10 December 1887, with Adolf Brodsky on violin.
Ralph Vaughan Williams The Lark Ascending
On the eve of the First World War, Ralph Vaughan Williams read George Meredith’s poem The Lark Ascending and heard, in his mind’s ear, this 'Romance for violin and orchestra'. Then, like thousands of others, he laid music aside to serve in France. Vaughan Williams served as an ambulance driver, and unlike so many—including two great friends, the composers George Butterworth and Cecil Coles—he made it back alive. 'I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps' he commented, as the war drew to its close.
As if in reaction to the horrors of the Western Front, he returned again to the quiet beauties of the countryside. His music—particularly his Pastoral Symphony of 1922—found new depths of quiet strength. And while staying at the Somerset country house of Kings Weston, in the summer of 1919, he finally completed The Lark Ascending, initially for violin and piano. The orchestral version was premiered in 1921 at Queen’s Hall, London, by the violinist Marie Hall and the conductor Adrian Boult.
The Lark Ascending is something unique—a supremely difficult violin showpiece without a trace of superficial display. Poetry, purity and expressive beauty of tone are all. Against a serene landscape, the solo violin becomes both the lark, its song, and the spirit of Meredith’s poem:
He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake …
For singing till his heaven fills,
’Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
To lift us with him as he goes…
It all sounds so simple—in those first chords you can almost see the 'coloured counties' drowsing under a summer haze. It’s the rapt stillness of this miniature masterpiece that has made it so beloved. Yet even those who deride Vaughan Williams’ pastoral style (“cowpat music” was the once-fashionable insult) are unable to fault The Lark Ascending. As the 1920s wore on, he’d get back to grittier business. But for now, Vaughan Williams—like his whole generation—had earned the right to his dream of timeless beauty on a perfect summer day.
Witold Lutosławski Subito
As a boy in Warsaw, Witold Lutosławski studied the violin with Lidia Kmitova, a teacher who had herself studied with the great Joseph Joachim, Brahms’s friend. It stood him in good stead. Throughout his life he had an instinctive feeling for what makes string instruments glow. His Chain 2 (1985) and Partita (1984) became instant classics of the solo violin repertoire; heartbreakingly, only fragmentary sketches of a planned Violin Concerto were found after his his death.
So Lutosławski’s final completed work for his 'own' instrument was this four-minute firework, composed in 1992 to a commission from Joseph Gingold as a test piece for the September 1994 Indianapolis International Violin Competition. From flashing opening to mysterious close, its four quickly-shifting sections combine into a sort of potted history of violin virtuosity, central European-style: the fast-slow contrasts of Brahms and Bartók, the glitter of Wieniawski and the elusive, ecstatic poetry of Szymanowski. And yet all, somehow, sounding as if it could have been written by no-one but Lutosławski.
Henryk Wieniawski Fantaisie brillante sur des motifs de l'opéra Faust de Gounod, Op 20
Ole Bull wasn’t the only 19th century violin virtuoso to lead a colourful lifestyle: Henryk Wieniawski ran him close. Born in Lublin, Poland (then part of the Russian Empire), he was admitted to the violin class of the Paris Conservatoire at the age of eight. By the age of 13 he was touring Europe and his later career took him from St Petersburg to California. With his brooding expression and goatee, he cut a dashing figure. But success started to take its toll. His weight ballooned—the student Tchaikovsky, borrowing Wieniawski’s tailcoat for a concert, found it so big as to be unwearable. He collapsed and died of heart failure at the St Petersburg home of Tchaikovsky’s patroness Nadezhda von Meck in April 1880, aged only 44.
Violinists still adore his original compositions (his Légende Op 17 is surely the ultimate vehicle for players with a lush tone and a smouldering gaze) but busy international virtuosi didn’t always have the time to think up their own melodies. Hit operas provided them ready-made: Wieniawski’s Fantaisie brillante of 1865 belongs to the same tradition as Sarasate’s (1883) and Liszt’s operatic paraphrases. Gounod’s Faust had premiered in Paris in 1859, and for much of the next century would rank amongst the world’s favourite operas. Wieniawski takes a series of themes from Faust—culminating in the famous Act 2 waltz—and creates from them an extensive, five-section violin showpiece, replete with double stops, harmonics and high-speed string-crossing: the full arsenal of 19th century virtuosity. But this is an opera, after all. He never forgets to sing.
Richard Bratby © 2016
On her debut disc, Julia Hwang has taken that idea—of virtuosity as communication—and embraced it from four very different directions. Grieg blends virtuosity with traditions both local and international, to say something unambiguously personal. Vaughan Williams refines violin technique into expression as pure as the song of a skylark. Lutosławski creates a brief, dazzling moment whose very brilliance is its own meaning; and Henryk Wieniawski, entertainer par excellence, spins fantasy from another man’s tunes—enriching them in the process.
Any debut may come subito: as a wonderful surprise. Artistry lies in taking that moment of contact and creating something that continues to speak long after the final notes have died away.
Richard Bratby © 2016