As Quarantine time is a perfect time to expand your repertoire, Quarantine Classics provides a series of musicians sharing their favorite Nordic gems. Violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing is on something of a mission in bringing Borgström’s music back to life.
A few years ago, I was introduced to the music of Hjalmar Borgström, a name I was not previously familiar with, and I was very surprised to learn that he had been famous as both a composer and critic in Norway at the beginning of the 20th century.
Born in Kristiania in 1864, Hjalmar Borgström played both piano and violin from an early age. He studied composition with Johan Svendsen (1881-83) and with Ludvig M. Lindeman (1883-87). After that, like many Nordic composers in preceding generations, Borgström went to Germany to study and spent some years at the Leipzig conservatory. However, in contrast to Grieg who returned from Germany firmly resolved to carve out an authentic, Norwegian idiom, Borgström came back a staunch proponent of new German symphonic music. His Violin Concerto in G major was first performed in 1914 as part of a celebration of the centenary of the Norwegian constitution.
When opening the score of his first violin concerto for the first time I was immediately intrigued. This concerto is incredibly beautiful, full of Norwegian Nationalist sentiment so typical of its time but also worthy of international attention. It reminds me of where I come from – the rugged landscape of Valdres and Jotunheimen, where the surrounding mountains rise dramatically over the valleys – and the music makes me yearn for my roots. At the same time, the concerto is very technically demanding and Borgström clearly knew how to compose for a virtuoso violinist. The first movement has a bit of an unusual form, there are many fragments and hints of Norwegian roots without going too deep into it. A bit into the movement comes the theme which has one of the most beautiful moment; completely pure in harmony and expression, making the dialogue between the cellos and solo part shimmer. The second movement is as if taken out of a Wagner-opera; the violin sounds like a soprano and is given a big palate of colors to paint with. The third movement is the most Norwegian-sounding with a bit of a “Halling”-feel in rhythm. It is the most virtuoso part of the whole concerto and gives the violinist a big challenge to make it sound effortless. The ending of the concerto is as unusual as the format; it ends in peaceful quietness and gives the audience a chance to breathe out after 32 mins of music.
After many years of composing, Borgström became a music critic and was very respected and feared for his sharp pen. It is said about him he was a humble servant of the art and always listening within to music. But there was a lot of fire and passion in his music, a constant fight of unsolved thoughts and questions as well as a bitterness and soreness. His compositions calls upon reflection and a quest to look into the deepest of ones´s soul. The music´s ability to express thoughts was something Borgstöm firmly believed in.
After Borgström’s death in 1925 the concerto was completely forgotten and today I am on something of a mission to help do my part in bringing this composer’s music back to life. Being able to record it with the Wiener Symphoniker / Vienna Symphony Orchestra was a fantastic opportunity I am so grateful for. My big wish is that many people will play this concerto and continue to bring life to Borgström´s music.