Violinist Eldbjørg Hemsing: ‘in the moments when magic happens, you think, that’s why we do this’
On a Norwegian rediscovery, communication and twentysomething enterprise
In a classical recording industry seemingly obsessed with marketing beautiful young female violinists, but very often presenting them in repertoire to which most of them seem to have little individual to add, how do you make your mark? Norwegian Eldbjørg Hemsing came up with a bright idea typical of a thoughtful approach in which the music always comes first: to twin a 1914 concerto she genuinely admires by a compatriot very few people will know, Hjalmar Borgstrøm (1864-1925), with what is perhaps the ultimate 20th century challenge to violinists, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto.
Is the Borgstrøm concerto a neglected masterpiece? No. Is it worth hearing? Absolutely, not only for its authenticity and sincerity of utterance, but also because Hemsing uses it to showcase the lyrical soul of the violin (it’s rich in melodies, some more distinctive than others). Graham Rickson expands in this week’s classical CDs roundup. I admired the new BIS disc enough to make the trip to Bodø above the Arctic Circle in Norway to hear a live performance, not least because I was interested to see how it withstood the “live” test in this much-redeveloped town’s jewel, the concert hall designed in conjunction with the library on the harbour by London-based practice DRDH (architects Daniel Rosbottom and David Howarth).
It held the attention throughout, not least because Hemsing was as much the guiding force behind the work as Eivind Gullberg Jensen, conducting the combined NOSO (North Norwegian Opera and Symphony Orchestra) and Arctic Philharmonic (the performance pictured below by Synne M Tommersberg for Stormen Konserthus). Hemsing was vivacious company at supper afterwards, and the next morning we sat down to talk not only about the work but also about her focused philosophy of music-making.
DAVID NICE Can we start where everybody will, with the debut disc and this very clever idea of twinning a concerto which most of us don’t know with the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto, which we do. Was that your idea or in conjunction with Robert von Bahr of BIS?
ELDBJØRG HEMSING No that was my idea, actually, and first I really wanted to record the Shostakovich, which is a piece I’ve had inside me since I was young, and I was studying with Boris Kushnir, who knew David Oistrakh [the dedicatee of the concerto], had the direct link, and was brought up in this whole environment, this political difficulty and the pain and the sorrow and the distress, and I felt fairly safe just knowing that there had been this contact, also that I played it quite a lot, I thought, OK, what do I play Shostakovich with? And I really wanted the biggest contrast possible, not only in having something unknown but also something that would give the biggest change in sound. For me Shostakovich, to put it simply, is really dark and heavy and you’re pushed as far as you can go as a human being.
And the audience is too…
Yes, it’s really that you are on the edge of your seat, hopefully, and Borgstrøm to me was the complete opposite, there were the beautiful, lyrical Nordic sounds, and I thought, that can be an interesting pairing.
It’s very daunting to be in a market with so many great recordings of the Shostakovich. You say it was the link back with the Oistrakh – did you know any of his recordings of the concerto?
Of course. By the way, this was actually recorded some time ago, and already I’m thinking, did I really do it like that?
You do it differently now?
I do, definitely. But that’s a whole part of why I waited so long for the recording. Because I was a bit afraid of this idea, that when you do something in a four-day recording sequence, that’s put on CD for ever, because music develops all the time, and that was a little bit limited to that time, OK, that’s how it sounded then, and maybe later it will sound different.
Then you can do the Second Concerto, which is astonishing.
It’s beautiful, so dark, too, but in a different way.
The Borgstrøm – my impression was that it’s a wonderful gift for a violinist, and it is your lyricism that carries it. It’s full of great ideas but it could sound a bit loose, you could think, where is this going? You’ve lived with it for quite some time. Do you feel that you’ve become more bound to it the more you’ve played it, and that there’s something deep underneath?
I think so, and there’ something about the piece that from the first moment I opened the score really spoke to me. It is as you say especially in the first movement quite fragmented, so it is a challenge which I think is quite fun to make sense of it, that it leads somewhere, that it has a long line hopefully, because it is very broken down, and the second movement luckily is more like an aria –
The way it opens up towards the end with the pizzicato accompaniment is a “wow’” moment, because you get a lot of breadth…
Exactly. It reminds me of something, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but it’s a really beautiful moment, I think, and then the third movement is more like a folk dance, but it’s very hard to play, very up and down. It is definitely the challenge to try to keep the orchestra involved, not necessarily to make all one line, but to make it cohesive, and it’s fairly long – 35 to 36 minutes.
And the first movement feels big. That fantastic cadenza makes you really sit up, it’s a big event. Is it all written out?
Yes, and it’s quite a funny cadenza, because everything else is virtuosic, but not to that extent, and suddenly comes this up and down, here and there moment, but Borgstrøm obviously knew how the violin works, because it’s quite well written, actually.
You say you hear Norwegian intonations, we hear a few but to me it’s much more the lingua franca of late romanticism. What strikes you as particularly Norwegian?
There is a particular moment in the first movement when after a few of the runs I have a few trills and then I go on to the A string – it’s just very pure, not many layers, it’s only with the orchestral strings, then the wind come in shortly afterwards, it’s something about the chords and the purity, it’s not overly romantic, which I think is also the Nordic sound in a way, that it’s quite pure.
The orchestration some would call plain, but I think it’s very candid and one feels it comes from somewhere, it’s not “I’m writing a virtuoso concerto,” there’s real feeling. Yet he likes playing with what at the time would have been fairly forward-looking harmonies.
That’s true. He was quite an interesting composer, I think, and it was unfortunately for him just a case of bad timing. He really fell between two chairs, as we say.
Do you think he didn’t seem nationalistic enough to the Norwegians?
I think it’s a mix of different things. It’s a bit like you said because we had the union with Denmark and Sweden altogether for 500 years, at that point everyone was searching for national identity, for what is Norwegian, it was really a big search, and Grieg of course came in there, went round the country gathering folk tunes for his inspiration, and even to this day people identify that with what is Norwegian. Borgstrøm was more focused on Germanic and romantic ideals, and this is the school he wrote in, he spent at least 16 years in Berlin and Leipzig, his development took place there. Also when he wrote the concerto, that was 1914 and there were already new sounds around, it was just a bit old-fashioned in a way. With the two world wars, especially in Norway, it was not the most popular thing to continue with the old German ideas. I think it was a mix of all those things that kept him away from the centre.
It’s very refreshing to come back to a violin concerto that is entirely grateful to the player, because you must find this with a lot of new works, you’ve worked with Tan Dun quite a bit, but many contemporary composers work against the idea that the violin sings…
And I really hope they will come back to that, because I think it’s the purpose of the violin, it has to sing, it’s like a soprano, I really love playing something where you can find the right colours in the sounds, and if it’s too much effect then I feel there’s not really that much you can do with it as a performer.
It often seems to be the idea to make every sound but the legato.
Which is a bit weird, isn’t it? I think so.
I agree. But I think that time has probably passed, you’ve got people like John Adams writing fantastic works.
That’s true. No, I think the lyricism and the melodies have to be there, and I hope people will start writing like that again. Which may be a rather dangerous thing to say, but something more in that direction would be so refreshing it that point.
You may want to say something about Tan Dun, but do other contemporary composers stand out for you for writing gratefully for the violin, that you can think of?
There are many great ones, for sure, I haven’t worked so much on contemporary music other than with Tan Dun and some new Norwegian pieces, I have done a few of those. What I really love about Tan Dun is how rewarding it is to work with a living composer, who takes part in the whole process, and you can actually ask, what do you think of this piece, what is your inspiration, what character do you want at this point? Tan Dun also plays the violin himself so he knows how to write for it, and it’s really inspiring, and fun, too.
With Borgstrøm, you get a sense of his personality, and we were talking a bit last night about how this very dark music almost takes over the finale before the jolly melody comes back. Do you sense the melancholy figure underneath the freshness?
I think when you play the concerto and look at the picture of Borgstrøm, it’s two very conflicting images. Because he seems to have been very conservative and strict, he was also a music critic towards the end of his life, and famous for having a really sharp pen, he didn’t have any inhibitions about saying exactly what he meant, then you have this concerto which is so innocent and somehow a bit naive, it’s fun and playful and it’s bizarre to see that this piece came out of that picture.
As a critic, was he against certain modern tendencies?
Yes, he said that what he really loved and thought people should be more focused on, is programme music. And the late romantic era was his cup of tea.
But I suppose these composers who lived through times of great change had to be true to their roots, or what they heard when they were developing.
Exactly. And that’s him, that’s how he was.
You got to know Borgstrøm’s music through an enthusiast?
That was a family friend, the conductor and bassoonist Terje Boye Hansen. He has been very passionate about Norwegian music and especially about Borgstrøm as a really good composer who deserves to be heard, so he gave me a pile of Borgstrøm’s music, and I took it home to my village, about three years ago, and the Violin Concerto leapt out at me. He told me it had only been performed twice, with a 50 year gap in between. It was a strange and fantastic discovery, and especially now that I’m able to show people. I had pretty much similar reactions both when I was recording with the Vienna Symphony and also with this orchestra, from the first rehearsal – in Vienna we had two days on the Shostakovich, as you know it’s extremely demanding physically, so to come in on the third day and be asked, what is this Borgstrøm? Is it modern, what is it? I said, you won’t know until you actually start playing and they were sitting relaxed and casual, and the minute we started playing the whole atmosphere changed, everyone just had this moment of discovery all together, which was really fantastic. And to be able to see that is really worthwhile, when people become aware of great music.
The conductor was there alongside you last night, but you also seemed to be leading in a sense, they were taking as much from you as from him.
It is a very intertwined work in certain parts, and they overlap a bit and then take over…
I think it’s very cleverly orchestrated, actually, and also not to have to fight as a violinist to be heard, that sometimes happened. But I find it’s really well balanced. And most concertos should ideally feel like chamber music.
All music should – it was Abbado’s dictum, that everyone should listen to each other. But this is quite rare in a concerto partnership, because the soloists are jetting around and there isn’t a lot of time to work together. And I don’t know if you find this, but for me there are not that many conductors who are very soloist-sensitive.
No, definitely. And I think what is the most disturbing thing I know is when there is someone who is overly active…
Who tries to impose…
What I rely on is the sound, because that’s what matters, but it’s disturbing in the eyesight to see someone who is over-active, and that stresses me. But I thought Eivind did a really fantastic job last night, and he’s also very easy and just does what he wants to do.
The orchestra sounded like it was inscaping – there was no forcing.
What struck me is that you too have this wonderful inwardness, and you can go from ppp to fff in a couple of seconds, but the audience has to come in to hear you – there’s no forcing out but rather bringing in. Do you have a philosophy about that?
Actually I do, and one of the most important things is to make people really listen. There’s always noise around in daily life, and I think it’s extremely important to try at least to create these moments when magic can happen, and I personally like to listen in a concert to someone who has you on the edge of your seat, when you think, what’s happening, what’s going on, and you need these moments of something different. Those are the moments when you think, that’s why we do this.
The older I get the more I think it’s entirely about communication. You can be a wonderful musician but if you don’t give out, it’s pointless. You could see the music in you when you weren’t playing, and that doesn’t happen a lot with soloists. There was never a moment when one lost concentration, and when I listened to the CD I thought there might be, but it’s a matter of approach.
And I think now that I’ve played it more it is definitely one of those pieces which is better to play live, because it is very interactive, and if it gets too square then it will lose people. Because the piece is a bit fragmented and goes somewhere or takes off…
Which is one of its charms. You were playing in public at a young age. Have you found that the ideals of communication have come more over time, or with certain teachers? Have you learned more about that?
I think from quite a young age it was always important to show what a joy music can be. It’s quite simplistic when you’re young, but there’s so much fun and you want to show that. But I must say that the person who taught me most about that was Boris Kushnir – I studied with him for years, but he told me so much about how the importance of what you have to communicate comes through and even if you feel it and think it, it has to come through the violin, you have to carry the sound, to have this voice as nerve, something that makes people listen, and also to make the colours as if you were speaking to someone.
Oistrakh always said about the first movement of the Shostakovich First Violin Concerto that it’s like a soliloquy in Hamlet – you are the great actor, the monologuist, and people have to be listening to every word. The Norwegian side of it – there’s been a remarkable upsurge of superb players. Is it partly to do with the Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo?
I think so. I went to that school for 11 years. And what they do so well is that they have this crazy environment of just friendship and musical freedom, which I personally think is a great thing in Norway, because we don’t usually have these long traditions like Austria or Germany. It’s quite free in that you can try out different styles and play as you like, there’s no “this is how it should be”.
That’s the essence of good teaching, isn’t it, to bring out the player’s personality rather than impose?
Oh yes, yes.
But there is also the folk tradition. Did you grow up with that?
Yes, I grew up playing the Hardanger fiddle. I still play it, I make sure I have several projects a year, because it’s important to keep the style. It’s equally important to the classical violin here. Especially the valley that I’m from, Valdres, each valley or place has its own tradition. So with the tonality and the rhythms, I grew up with that and it’s a huge part of my heritage.
Have you given encores where you’ve changed to the Hardanger fiddle?
Sometimes, I will make sure I bring it our more often. But a little challenge with it is that it’s quite tricky to tune. You should take at least 10 minutes to warm it up. And you have to have one you really trust, because gut strings move around quite a lot. But it’s a beautiful instrument.
Do you have one that is special for you?
No, at home I have quite a few of them, my mum and sister also play them. They’re beautiful and well decorated.
So do you and your sister play duos together?
We used to. Nowadays we tend to play in a festival together. We both do artistic work for it. She’s a great violinist, she lives in Valdres.
You’ve led chamber orchestras as a leader-conductor?
Not so much now, but when I was young I was the concert-master of a chamber orchestra, and we always played without a conductor, and without scores also. It’s really good training, because then you have a much greater understanding of what is happening rather than just playing your part, and you see what’s happening too.
This is a great move now – the Aurora Orchestra too, and the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra do it a lot. Was that your idea?
No, it was from the school, that they wanted us to learn in such a way. I love it with chamber orchestras, when they have this core of really great players who just love to play together.
I was impressed with the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra – but they need money to do it, because it costs to take your time.
And this is something I always find a bit confusing in London especially, how musicians are having to rush from one project to another, I have friends there who say, sometimes we don’t even have time to rehearse everything before the concert. What is the point of playing if you don’t prepare for it?
London orchestras are famous for being brilliant sightreaders.
It’s impressive that they can pick up a new score and play it immediately. It’s a very different mentality, though.
Festivals are a good place to develop, and your generation is much more enterprising in gathering together friends and working over a week or two, developing work in the community and so on.
I think many people in my generation and even the generation above have been a lot more aware of how much more you can do yourself, not only in terms of audiences but also your own platform, because there are so many opportunities to do that on social media. It’s like one part has gone out and another has come in. Some people don’t even have agents any more, they have their own YouTube channels. But also now because there have been a lot of chamber music series that have closed down. I also noticed it for myself, that I play probably most of the time with orchestras and very few recitals.
Why is that? Lack of money?
Mostly, yes, because the audiences are there, it’s more like giving a different platform. The reason why we wanted to start a festival in my home village of Aurdal, it’s small, there are 700 people living there, and the whole community has always been very supportive and in the last few years especially, I’ve been travelling a lot and living in Berlin, and I wanted to give something back.
Does it happen in the summer?
No, actually, it’s a winter festival. Because this area is also about skiing. So we wanted to combine that with music and nature. One of the concerts was up in a mountain church, and you can have a guided ski trip before you come to the church, then you hang your skis up on the wall, get a coffee and a cinnamon bun perhaps and then go in and listen to the music for one hour, and then head back on skis. This year we had 30 international artists coming, a great group of people. We did Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht [for string sextet], we left the quartets to the regular team [pictured below: Hemsing and colleagues after a concert earlier this year].
Does that feed into your work generally?
Definitely. And there’s so much buried repertoire I wish I had more time for, and just getting some friends together and playing the quartet repertoire would be good, because it’s such a huge part of music history. Being in a quartet takes a lot of time and commitment, but just to know the repertoire…
This idea of leader-conducting, does that interest you as something to develop further?
I would love to do that, and it was interesting yesterday when someone asked Eivind, does the orchestra need a conductor? And in theory with the top-grade orchestras, they could play perfectly on their own, if they have a really good concert-master and they all function together, but the conductor or leader should give the musical input and shaping. And I love that part, actually, just to have the full picture. I’d love to do that. Have to look into it.
Are there any concertos you really want to champion in the next few years?
Definitely. I don’t have a next project like the Borgstrøm, because that was quite special, but I would love to also play more things that haven’t had the spotlight on them, if a work is really good quality, it’s just a question of having the right feeling for it, that also requires that the piece has something in it. But I’d really love to do the Elgar Concerto.