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Norwegian Violin Virtuoso at the Breakers


Eldbjørg Hemsing led a first-half tour of the Scandinavian arctic followed by a visit with French masterworks Friday night for Newport Classical. Hemsing and pianist Llewellyn Sanchez-Werner opened with Grieg’s Sonata for Violin and Piano No. 2 in G Major, Op. 13, a wondrous work flavored with the folksong and dance traditions of his native Norway. In an earlier review of this work, I wrote: “Grieg’s ebullient Sonata No. 2 in G Major, op. 13, sparkled and danced with the sounds of the Norwegian countryside, notably the springar (an uneven ¾ dance) and the sounds of the open fifths of the Hardanger fiddle, (which had under-strings for sympathetic resonance and a flatter bridge for easier playing of double and triple stops – the term for playing “chords” on the violin). While it contains the more traditional forms of sonata and, as well as unifying elements that bind the themes of all three movements together, one hears the work overall as a succession of folk-melodies, short laments followed by brisk dances.”

Because she grew up in the rural mountains of Valdres with her sister Ragnhild, also a renowned concert violinist, and where she is part of an annual “Hemsing Festival,” the folk music of her native land is a part of her, and this clearly came to the fore in her performance of this idiomatic work. Hemsing is a subtle and sensitive performer, who can pull sound out of silence creating a sense of magic through her warm and gentle tones, and then be able to build upon them to create a sweeping majestic sound panoply, reminiscent of the Arctic vistas she wished to paint. Short pieces by Scandanevian composers, all evocative of the icy north with its frozen landscapes closed the first half. With the exception of Grieg’s his Våren (“Last Spring”), a melody very well known in the Scandinavian countries, the works were all recent. Henning Sommero’s Vårsøg (“Breath of Spring”) is a popular song based on a poem which uses the return of spring as a metaphor for the liberation of Norway at the end of the Second World War). Since its original pop-version in 1971, he has arranged it in numerous classical settings, as this one for violin and piano. Under the Arctic Moon came from the pen of Frode Fjellheim , the writer of landscape music in the Disney film Frozen; he has won an honorary award this year from the Norwegian Music Publishers Association for his creative musical endeavors to uplift his native Sámi peoples, who inhabit the farthest northern regions of the Scandinavian countries and parts of the Russian tundra. The more familiar composer to Americans might be Ola Gjeilo. His tinsel-like New-Age sound in Dawn, from his collection Winter Songs, appeared in a special arrangement for Hemsing. American television and film composer Jacob Shea rounded the set with Sea Ice Melting from his Arctic Suite, the entirety of which can be heard on Hemsing’s latest album Arctic, with the Arctic Philharmonic. While Shea might not be a familiar, his music surely is, most notably for the television series “The Blue Planet.”

In Fauré’s Sonata for violin and piano No. 1, Op. 13, a youthful work, full of vim and vigor, Hemsing attacked with fierce energy, producing lustrous and powerful tone from the 1707 Antonio Stradivari ‘Rivaz, Baron Gutman’ violin on loan from the Dextra Musica Foundation. Sanchez-Werner, who appears throughout the Newport summer festival series, showed himself as both an outstanding and gifted pianist and a sensitive chamber music partner, executing even the most difficult passages with ease and always in perfect balance with the violin. In his hands the piano shimmered like tinsel and flowed like velvet, but also showed its great power and majestic strength of tone, as the music rose and fell, always expressive and evocative of the music and its programmatic ideals.

Ravel’s Tzigane for violin and piano works as well as the subsequent orchestral version. The minor hesitancies in the ensemble distracted little from a performance filled with flair and Romani passion. Hemsing gave the opening soliloquy for the violin a poignant and rhapsodic interpretation; the piano entered with its magical harp-like flourish (of course Ravel gave this to the harp in the orchestration). The subsequent variations built to an explosion of fireworks for a brilliant finale that truly roused the crowd. For an encore, the duo reprised Gjeilo’s Dawn, closing the night on a serene and peaceful note.

Stephen Martorella is Minister of Music at The First Baptist Church in America, Providence, Rhode Island, and teaches at Rhode Island College.

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