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.