Peter Sheppard Skærved is a classical version of Top Gear, except rather than jumping in a dream supercar for a jaunt across Europe, he jaunts the world finding and then playing superviolins. Like Top Gear, however, his presentation is populist, with readable sleeve notes and accessible music. The music itself is jaunty, in fact.
This CD is dedicated to a legendary figure of violin playing, the Norwegian Ole Bull. Rather disarmingly but somewhat disappointingly this is not a nickname — he was Ole Bornemann Bull, also known by the nickname of “Paganini of the North”.
At the age of four, Bull could play the songs he had heard his mother play on the violin. At nine, he was first violinist in the orchestra of Bergen’s theatre and was a soloist with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. He was later a composer, guitar maker and a merchant of musical instruments.
Says Wikipedia: “Bull became very famous and made a huge fortune. He is believed to have composed more than 70 works, but only about 10 are known today. He collected many beautiful violins and violas of Amati, Gasparo da Salò, Guarneri, Stradivari and others. He was the owner of one of the finest violins of the world, made by Gasparo da Salò about 1574 for Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria”.
He also bought a violin made by Niccolò Amati (the teacher of Antonio Stradivari) in 1647, which he called “My Pearl”. After Bull’s death it passed to his wife Sarah, who died in 1910, and was then stored in a bank vault in Boston, before being purchased by a private collector. It was this person who emailed Skærved and offered to let him play the instrument used in this recording.
Skærved says he was “thunderstruck”; we’d liked to have seen his face at that moment, that’s for sure.
It was so little played that it retains its original colour and the scribe lines used by Amati when he made it.
This CD is presented as a salon concert, and has the qualities one would expect of such a concert: a more intimate feel but also playing of the very highest standard. It opens with Bull’s own Siciliana, which featured in one of Bull’s last concerts and whose opening notes were the first Skærved played on “the pearl”. It’s lovely piece, with echoes of Spain (it has a connection with Seville).
Mozart’s two-movement Violin Sonata No18 in G Major, (K301) follows and it’s a joy.
After pieces by Torgeir Augundsson and Charles Gounod, there’s a run of pieces of Bull himself, with only three other composers appearing, including Grieg. Overall, the CD is a delight — playful, accessible and entertaining — with Skærved joined by Roderick Chadwick on piano. At the end of the day: nice music, played well. Out on Athene (ath 23205).