Time to bring Borgstöm’s Violin Concerto in from the cold

Violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing celebrates a forgotten – but intrinsically Nordic – concerto, 100 years on

Gramophone | 20 April 2018

When I was given the opportunity of a recording contract with BIS I quickly decided that I wanted to begin by championing one of Norway’s forgotten composers – Hjalmar Borgstöm. Even audiences in Norway ask ‘Hjalmar who?’ … and I asked the same question when I was introduced to his music a few years ago by a passionate family friend. I have to admit that the pile of music entrusted to me sat and gathered dust for quite some time but, when I eventually opened up the score of his Violin Concerto and started to play my way through, I immediately realised that the music was speaking to me. There was something about the quality and beauty which was so intriguing that I found myself on a mission to find out more about the composer and why history had – in my mind – undeservedly forgotten him.

Like many of his Norwegian colleagues and predecessors, Hjalmar Borgström left Norway for Germany in his early 20s to study, first in Leipzig and then in Berlin. However, in contrast to Grieg who returned home with the firm idea of carving out an authentic Norwegian voice, Borgström remained in Germany for several years and was clearly inspired by the German Romantic ideals – in particular the music of Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss. He eventually returned to Norway in 1903, a firm believer in the power of programme music to express the deepest universal truths of human existence. And it is this strong influence which might help us find the explanation as to why he was so quickly forgotten.

n his immediate return home, Borgström was highly respected and his compositions – mainly symphonic poems – seemed to impress the Norwegian public as progressive. But the attention was relatively shortlived. By 1914, the year in which his Violin Concerto was premiered, the whole country was caught up in patriotic celebrations for the 100th anniversary of Norwegian Independence and the country’s first constitution. Norway was still a relatively young nation and its freedom was a matter of pride, especially after a 400 year union with Denmark and an additional 100 year union with Sweden. So not unnaturally there was a frenzy of Norwegian sentiment around these celebrations of which the highlight was a 6 month Jubilee Exhibition in Kristiania (Oslo) visited by more than 1.5 million people – nearly 3/4 of the population of Norway at that time! Borgström’s Violin Concerto was premiered as a part of the Jubilee Exhibition celebrations and, although well received, it was Grieg’s music which stole the limelight through a rousing performance of Kongekvadet – incidental music for choir and orchestra inspired by a Nordic Saga.

It seems that through the combination of the anniversary and the outbreak of war, where anything with a German association was suddenly no longer well received, Hjalmar Borgström found himself on the wrong side of history and musical fashion. He went on composing and also became a leading writer for Norway’s leading newspaper, Aftenposten, until he died in 1925, following which his name was almost completely forgotten.

Hearing Borgström’s Violin Concerto 100 years after it was first written brings a new set of ears and, although you can definitely hear the Germanic influence in his writing, you can also strongly sense that intrinsic Nordic sound. What triggers the instinctively Norwegian quality in this work is the simple lyrical melodies and distinctive harmonies which conjure up the sound of the Hardanger fiddle. And for me that conjures up the image of the untouched, raw beauty of Norwegian nature – the deep fjords, wild coast line and in particular the beautiful mountain chain of Jotunheimen which is my home. For me it is privilege to perform this work because it is so linked to my identity of being Norwegian and because its a really good concerto! It’s not just a Norwegian piece that no-one plays. So maybe now is finally the time to bring Hjalmar Borgström’s concerto back to the life and give him the attention he deserves.

It would be impossible for me to write about my first album without making reference to Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto. I really wanted to mark the difference between these composers. The Shostakovich – with its extreme emotional struggle, pain and intensity – needed a counterpoint where I thought the lyrical, playful, romantic and Nordic Borgström would fit well. There is so much about the Russian mentality and ways of thinking at that specific period of time that comes through in Shostakovich’s music. He was under immense pressure and lived under such extreme conditions which can be so well heard and felt in his compositions. There is so much to gather and learn from how and what they wrote, the absurdity and duality of society combined with humour, melancholy and hope.

Eldbjørg Hemsing’s recording of Borgstöm and Shostakovich is released by BIS on April 27, and available now for pre-order. Gramophone reviews the album in our June issue.