MusicWeb International

Three things make this new CD both fascinating and absorbing. Firstly, the violin played by Peter Sheppard Skærved is the ‘prized’ Niccolò Amati (1596-1684) instrument once owned by Norwegian composer and violinist, Ole Bull. Secondly, Skærved has recreated one of Bull’s historical recitals and presented it ‘as it would have been.’ And finally there is the music itself: mainly works that would not be found in many concert programmes today, but back in the mid-1800s it would have been an amazingly popular and innovative choice.

Ole Bull’s beloved violin was made by Niccolò Amati: he was the teacher of the great Antonio Stradivari. After the composer’s death it passed into the hands of his wife Sarah Bull (1830-1910). Following her passing, the instrument was stored in a bank vault in Boston, Massachusetts, before being purchased by a private collector. It was this latter person who offered Skærved the opportunity to borrow and play the instrument and to ultimately make this recording. The violin was temporarily taken back to Bull’s music room at the ‘Alhambra’ on the Norwegian island of Lysøen, near Bergen.

Peter Sheppard Skærved has spent much time researching Bull’s life, music and performances. Bull travelled extensively in Europe and in the United States. The present recital is based on his understanding on the great virtuosi’s playing in places as diverse as Henry Longfellow’s ‘Wayside Inn’, Sudbury, Massachusetts (famous for that author’s collection, Tales of a Wayside Inn ) the composer’s own music room at his Villa on the island of Lysøen, the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky and at the a newly-built dry-store in Minneapolis. The liner notes explain that Bull was never happier than when he was playing at ‘intimate musical evenings’ and exploring virtuoso works, violin miniatures, vocal music and traditional Norwegian folk music. All these kinds of works are featured in this programme (with the exception of vocal music).

It is not necessary to examine the programme in detail, save to point out that there is a preponderance of ‘miniatures’ by Bull himself. The major work is Mozart’s beautiful Violin Sonata in G major, K. 301 dating from 1778. Other composers include Gounod with the ever and over popular Meditation sur le premiere prélude’ of Bach’s 48 and incorporating the Ave Maria. ‘Crowd Pleasers’ or pot-boilers include the ‘American Fantasy’ which is a ‘lost work’ recreated by Skærved from details presented on a contemporary recital handbill and based on an deep understanding of Bull’s composition and playing styles. The Fantasy features ‘Pop goes the Weasel’, ‘Home Sweet Home’ and naturally ‘Yankee Doodle.’ Other works in the historical recital include folk-tunes collected by Bull and Edvard Grieg.

Peter Sheppard Skærved has produced highly readable liner notes, expanding considerably on my ‘three points’ noted above. The usual biographies of the soloists include a number of photographs both contemporary and historical including a detail of the violin maker’s label. Slightly larger and better defined font would have been helpful, as well as dates for all the pieces performed. I could not find any mention of Bull’s ‘Et Sæterbesøg’ in the programme notes.

I was impressed by the sound quality of this CD. Every note was clear: the tone of this historical violin is displayed and played to perfection and the piano (where used) is in ideal balance.

‘Volume 1′ of this series was issued in 2015 and featured an instrument made by Andrea Amati in 1570: Skærved played the 24 Fantasies by Telemann. Enthusiasts of historical violins will be eagerly awaiting succeeding volumes of this most worthy and enjoyable project.

—John France