Ole Bull was, in the main, self taught as a virtuoso violinist
and as a composer. He attended a grammar school in Bergen and
subsequently studied theology at the University of Christiania
(now Oslo). He soon became conductor of a musical and dramatic
society in that town. Subsequently he went to Cassel to meet
Spohr and then moved to Göttingen where he became involved
in a duel. He then returned to Norway where he gave concerts
at Bergen and Trondheim as solo violinist. In 1831 he went to
Paris, but failed to gain admittance to the Conservatoire. He
heard Paganini, which he said, was the turning point in his
life. He threw himself into the pursuit of technical studies
to emulate the feats performed by the great Italian virtuoso.
He was also influenced by the works of Bellini and was befriended
by Chopin. As a virtuoso violinist, he performed his own works
in France, Italy, Spain, Britain and the USA; he made and lost,
a fortune in the USA, and married an American lady. Returning
to Norway, he established a theatre in Bergen and tried to found
a music academy in Oslo. He celebrated his 70th birthday in
the USA but died later the same year at home and was buried
in Bergen - his funeral surpassed anything that Norway had known
previously in terms of production and attendance.
Bull never learnt to compose in the classical sense. However
he had a gift for writing music where attractive melodies were
linked together to form an attractive whole. With his longer
compositions the listener never knew what to expect next and
was often titillated by some unexpected turn. It is no wonder
that he was admired by Berlioz, Schumann and Liszt amongst others.
As a virtuoso violinist he approached and in some ways perhaps
surpassed his hero Paganini. He used on his violin an almost
flat bridge which facilitated double-stopping and the playing
of four parts. His bow was of exceptional length and weight.
He is now little known outside Scandinavia and there the works
most played are arrangements of ‘The Herdgirl’s
Sunday’ and ‘La melancolie’, both of which
are included here as is ‘A Mountain Vision’ which
includes the former of the above works, together with other
Norwegian folksongs. Strangely, none of these works would indicate
that the composer was in his lifetime mainly known as a virtuoso
The other three works on this disc have only been rediscovered
recently and here receive world premiere recordings. The Concerto
in A was the basis of Bull’s early career as a virtuoso;
after a long dramatic orchestral introduction, the violin solo
comes in with an impressive demonstration of four part playing.
After this attention-gaining start, we are treated to a number
of memorable themes at various tempi, with contrasting virtuosic
passages which delight the ear. The middle movement is short
in comparison with the other two movements and starts with an
orchestral introduction followed by a slow singing episode on
the violin which then transforms into a dance-like theme. This
quickly fades out to the sound of a distant cattle call - a
beautiful effect. The third movement has two dance themes and
after a sequence of variations proceedings end with startling
The Concerto Fantastico is in three movements. Bull considered
it to be one of the hardest to play and the best of his compositions.
The first movement is called “La Notte”; however
it is far from being nocturnal, rather it gives an impression
of being a description of war and strife, illustrated with a
fiendishly difficult violin part. Second is a contrasting slower
movement which is described as “l’Aurora”
(sunrise). This is a beautifully descriptive piece which is
atmospheric and pleasing. The final movement is “Rondo
vivo Scherzo”. Like the first movement this starts with
trumpet fanfares and then a reply by the strings. After a short
crescendo the orchestra stops and a new theme emerges from the
solo violin which fantasizes to a climax then taken over by
the orchestra. The movement concludes with a new theme developed
by the violin into a very effective ending of violin virtuosity.
In 1846 Bull embarked upon a concert tour in Spain where he
became a friend of Queen Isabella; his Spanish rhapsody “La
Verbena de San Juan: Fantasie” is dedicated to the Queen.
This is typical of the composer, with a fascinating intermingling
of Spanish folk songs and violin virtuosity; Bull had become
friends with the Spanish composer Sebastián Yradier and
incorporated his dance “Jota Aragonesa”. This Spanish
Rhapsody has a lot in common with Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody
and there is no doubt that this is one of Bull’s most
Annar Follesø plays these immensely difficult works with
great élan and is well supported by the Norwegian Radio
Orchestra and their conductor Ole Kristian Ruud. The Orchestra
has about fifty musicians and plays and records a wide range
of musical styles including light music and jazz. Its playing
here is admirable and full blooded. In size it probably mirrors
the original orchestras which Bull would have had for his concerts.
From a recording point of view this issue is very interesting.
When the SACD disc is played on a normal stereo set-up the music
sounds fine and the separation between the solo violin and orchestra
is convincing. However, this is a Blu-ray recording, and the
reviewer then played the Blu-ray disc on a LG Blu-ray player
with the sound feeding into a Cambridge surround sound amplifier
connected with Tannoy surround speakers in a 5.1 DTS configuration.
The results were superb, with a very natural surround effect
and a sweeter tone for the solo violin. The TV Screen showed
only information on which track was playing.
The two discs were packed in the conventional Blu-ray plastic
case with exceptionally good notes about the composer and the
In summary this is an important issue of fine music from a composer
who is at present almost unknown outside his native Norway.
It includes world premiere recordings of three recently rediscovered,
interesting and attractive substantial works. This is presented
in Blu-ray audio format which will be new to most of us - together
with an SACD disc for people not possessing appropriate Blu-ray