The Grieg Violin Sonatas – Eldbjørg Hemsing, Simon Trpceski – BIS 

by | Apr 29, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews | 0 comments

GRIEG: Violin Sonata No. 1 in F Major, Op. 8; Violin Sonata No. 2 in G Major, Op. 13; Violin Sonata No. 3 in C minor, Op. 45/ HEMSING: Homecoming for Solo Violin – Eldbjørg Hemsing,violin/ Simon Trpceski, piano – BIS Hybrid SACD 2456, 72:30 (3/6/20)****:

In a now-famous 1900 letter to Bjoernson, Edvard Grieg spoke of his three violin sonatas as representing – somewhat in the manner of Beethoven – three distinct periods of his stylistic development: “the first is naïve, rich in role models; the second is national; and the third has a broader horizon.” The sense of a graduated maturity might correspond – given the bucolic or even pantheistic aspects of the composer’s persona – to three seasons of the year: spring, summer, and a vibrant autumn.

Grieg completed the 1865 F Major Sonata at the age of 22, while still trying to emancipate himself from the German influences that had marked his training at the Leipzig conservatory. The work still bears the stamp of German romanticism, but it also includes references to Norwegian folk dances and Hardanger fiddle techniques, features that were perceived as a breath of fresh air when the work was premièred. The opening movement, Allegro con brio, enjoys a propulsion not particularly “nationalistic,” with excursions into A Major and E minor that indicate the range of harmonic experiment in the composer’s expressive arsenal. The counter theme, however, projects an “archaic” intimacy that will later inhabit the composer’s many Lyric Pieces. The national element comes forth in the Allegretto quasi andantino second movement, written in the springar dance form. The trio section projects the Hardanger fiddle sound that we find in Peer Gynt. The Danish composer Niels Gade found great promise in this movement, as an indication that Grieg had begun to move toward “his true voice.” That voice takes the form of a musical trademark, A – G-sharp – E set in A minor and answered in the major as A-G-E, a kernel that would inform much of his work.The last movement, Allegro molto vivace, provides a showpiece for both instruments, and pianist Trpceski emerges in full flight. More virtuosic than the prior sections, the music still finds its way to a serenity of spirit that violinist Hemsing sings with resolute ardor.

Two years later, in 1867, Grieg had become deeply involved in the project of constructing a national culture, as part of the movement for an independent Norway. In his Sonata No. 2 in G Major, composed in Oslo, he exploited national characteristics far more consistently than before, and his Norwegian audience reacted with great enthusiasm. Even the music critic Eduard Hanslick would baptize Grieg as “the Northern Mendelssohn clad in sealskin.” Grieg had moved to Copenhagen, conscious of his role as a musical spokesman for Norwegian sensibilities. The first movement, Largo doloroso – Allegro vivace conveys a personal, improvisatory melancholy quite capable of bursting into energetic flights of fancy. Recall that Grieg had only recently married his beloved cousin, Nina Hagerup, and he spoke of this sonata as “the euphoria of my honeymoon.” A blend of lyric rhapsody characterizes this movement, ardent and occasionally explosive in the mood of festive folk music. The sense of dramatic tension in the late pages reaches a kind of dizzying plateau, controlled but no less glistening with exuberant passion.

The middle movement, Allegretto tranquillo, became a favorite of Johannes Brahms, who “borrowed” elements for his own Second Sonata in A Major, Op. 100. This movement proves even more “nationalistic” than the first, to the point that composer Ole Bull – a mentor and good counsel to Grieg – criticized its rural sensibility. The music alternates major and minor modes, never losing its reflective, meditative power. The music comes to a full rest before the solo piano reasserts the lyric wistfulness that often defines the Grieg style. Once more, explosive gestures move the music to a renewed fervor in the folk style. Near the coda, the Hardangar fiddle sonority has the last word. Marked Allegro animato, the last movement does resemble the fluent deftness of Mendelssohn or youthful Schumann. A sonata-rondo form, the music no less involves a waltzing episode that reveals a disarming delicacy. The tensions of major and minor modes will yield to a dervish coda as virtuosic as anything in Liszt, who, by the way, had become a champion for Grieg’s compositions.

Grieg ironically referred to his C Minor Sonata (1886) as the “final crime for the violin.” His last concerted chamber work, the Sonata meant to honor violinist Teresina Tua, who had decided to visit Grieg at Troldhaugen. The first movement, Allegro molto ed appassionato, Grieg conceives as “a wild Allegro” whose potent melodies must rise up from the G string with unabashed intensity. A key triadic group informs all four of the movement’s themes. Grieg would perform the Sonata with his favorite violinist, Russian artist Adolf Brodsky, whose “masculine schwung delighted Grieg. That same virtuosic force characterizes Hemsing’s playing here, though for some reason, Greig used to deride “feminine” schwung. The coda presents us an onslaught of emotional intensity, a bold resolve as dark as it is swirling.

Quite a contrast awaits us in the E Major Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza, among Grieg’s most appealing melodies as set by the keyboard, almost a loving call back to the A minor Piano Concerto. The middle section becomes more agitated and restless in a folk manner, here in the passionate minor mode, only to cede its authority to the luminous mood that prevails in our musical memory. We recall that the second movement of Grieg’s String Quartet likewise shares the name Romanze.  The last movement, Allegro animato, takes its cue from Beethoven gravitates into C Major. Grieg eschews any kind of development section and proceeds to a virile march shared between the two matched instruments. The counter theme has a haunted sensibility, a nostalgia that Grieg and Brahms have the power to project over a wide vista. The march soon returns, over scintillating ripples from the piano, the force of expression now unleashed and flamboyantly triumphant as any wedding at Troldhaugen.

For her finale, violinist Hemsing gives us her piece Homecoming (2019), Variations on a folk tune from Valdres, for solo violin. The tune derives from Hemsing’s own, home valley, where Greig had met Hemsing’s ancestor, Anders Nielsen Pelesteinbakken, who presented a lyric that Grieg utilized in his large Ballade in G minor, Op. 24 for piano. The striking piece has a savage and yet mesmeric flavor, Grieg cross-fertilized by Bartok and Paganini.  Kudos to Sound Engineer Ingo Petry for a disc well done.

—Gary Lemco


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