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Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Landkjenning, Op.31 (1872) [6.38]1
Sigurd Jorsalfar, Op.22 (1872): two choruses [10.06]2and other excerpts [7.13]3
Olav Trygvason, Op.50 (1873) [37.28]4
Edmund NEUPERT (1842-1888)
Resignation, Op.26/1 (orch. Grieg, 1895 version) [2.53]5
Yngve Solberg1 (baritone), Helge Rønning2 (tenor), Magne Fremmerlid4 (bass), Nina Gravrok4 (soprano), Marianne E Andersen4 (mezzo)
Malmö Chamber Choir12, Lund Student Singers12, Malmö Opera Chorus4,
Malmö Symphony Orchestra12, Malmö Opera Orchestra345/Bjarte Engeset
rec. Concert Hall of Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Sweden, 26 May 200912 and 7-9 June 2012345
NAXOS 8.573045 [64.19]

I have an affection for Grieg’s Landkjenning that is quite disproportionate to either its scale or indeed significance in the composer’s canon. Yet it is a piece which – together with the rest of this proudly nationalistic programme – knocks Debussy’s snide “its taste in the mouth, both strange and delightful, is of a pink bonbon filled with snow” into the proverbial cocked hat. For this is lusty, energetic, celebratory music written to celebrate Norway, its history and culture. To have the greatest impact, it strikes me that it needs to be performed in just that manner.

I must admit that I had not made the effort to hear the earlier releases in this series of recordings on Naxos overseen by Bjarte Engeset. Only recently, I had acquired the really excellent set of the same complete orchestral and choral works issued by BIS featuring the Bergen Philharmonic conducted by Kristian Ruud. That remains stunning, brilliantly and idiomatically played and presented, even by BIS’s high standard, in demonstration class sound. However, the excellence of one disc or set does not preclude there being another. I enjoyed this current disc hugely. Indeed I would go as far as saying this current version of Landkjenning has gone to the top of my list. If I focus on that one short work it is because the virtues displayed there apply to the whole disc. After a brief heroic call-to-arms on unison horns the male-voice choir sing; “And it was Olav Trygvason, Sailing o'er the North Sea wide, Towards his young kingdom, Expecting him not”. This represents the sailors on Trygvason’s galley returning home and it needs a sense of energy and excitement. Rather simple and obvious one would think but listening to just about all the other recent recordings; Per Dreier on Unicorn, Neeme Järvi on DG, or even Ruud on BIS are as successful as Engeset. Dreier phrases nicely and Ruud is good – Järvi is the most bonbon-esque; too urbane and suave. Engeset’s choir you imagine could be sailors. There is a quality here that reminds me of full-throated Welsh male-voice choirs which whether you love or loathe them sing with a commitment and identifying with the text that is very powerful.

The unifying element on this disc is that the texts were all provided by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910). He was instrumental in the Norwegian revival of the 1800s – seeking a free and democratic Norway. So no surprise that his texts resonate with nationalist pride and have the same kind of faux-folk/archaic cadence as the Finnish Kalevala or even Longfellow’s Hiawatha. Indeed, it is in this style of epic festive tableaux that Grieg’s music finds echoes in Smetana’s grand operas or Sibelius’ incidental music and cantatas. Grieg’s skill is not to try to make the characters here too subtle or ‘real’ – they are folklorish archetypes and need to be portrayed in confidently broad brush-strokes. This the composer achieves superbly and likewise the performances. Additionally, all of the soloists are native Norwegians who have the idiom – and the language – in their bones, and it shows. I’m not sure any could be said to have the most sheerly beautiful voices but there is a rightness and urgency about the delivery that disarms criticism. I particularly liked the tenor Helge Rønning in the two Choruses from Sigurd Jorsalfar; “The Northland folk have the urge to travel, Bringing power to other peoples. The spear of war throws a reflection Honour encourages the people in their task!” His slightly constricted tone cuts through the accompanying texture as a real call to arms. It does not concern me that the most famous orchestral sections of the play’s orchestral music are not included here. This disc can act neatly as an appendix for those who already have the orchestral suite in their collection and in any case its aim was to collect together the Bjørnson inspired works.

The Malmö Symphony Orchestra have impressed me in the past; their cycle of Schmidt Symphonies on Naxos are a special pleasure. The Malmö Opera Orchestra less so. I found their recording of the Tovey Symphony strangely unengaged. Given that it is the Opera Orchestra who carry the bulk of playing responsibilities here I am glad to say the far higher level of commitment is palpable. This is especially true in the extended fragments that form Grieg’s only attempt at opera, Olav Trygvason. Bjarte Engeset also contributes a really excellent liner-note in which he elaborates how Grieg and Bjørnson worked in an excited (‘feverish’ is Engeset’s word) state to create this work celebrating Norway’s early Christian history. ‘Feverish’ and ‘excited’ capture the mood of the music too. It builds from a wonderfully atmospherically brooding opening to a thrillingly muscular conclusion. This is no juvenile fragment – Grieg was at the very peak of his powers – work was initially interrupted to start the Peer Gynt incidental music. The problem was that Bjørnson and Grieg could not agree on a mutually acceptable working practice, then Bjørnson moved to Italy to write contemporary plays. By the time the work, as it stood, was premiered in 1889 to great acclaim, Grieg felt he had moved on both artistically and ideologically. He did not want to be compartmentalised as just Norway’s National Composer. The problem, if problem it is, with the work as it survives is that for all the brilliance of the orchestral writing and power of the vocal parts it is dramatically static. Over the forty minutes we get a series of very impressive tableaux but one could not say any of the characters have started any individual journey. Presumably, this was going to come later and this prologue would give it context. Much as I thoroughly enjoy this work my instinct is that Grieg was right. In passing – and not knowing one word of Norwegian – some of the English translation seems a little curious. “Gladly we join in gambols of joy!” is just one line of many which seems to be linguistically rather rickety.

Not surprisingly, programme-planners often link the opera excerpts to Landkjenning so all three of the other conductors mentioned earlier have recorded the excerpts. Interestingly, the exact same observations are true. Ruud is excellent – he drives the music forward just as Bjørnson wanted. Dreier sounds engaged but rather rough and ready in dated sound and Järvi is efficient. Artistically and at this price-point it is hard to look beyond Engeset and his Malmö team. Especially since they throw in a charming bonne bouche to close the disc in the form of a world premiere recording of a Grieg instrumental version of Edmund Nuppert’s Bjørnson setting. After the blood and thunder of Pagans versus Christians this is a charmer from an altogether gentler time.

The disc is marked by consistently fine engineering – a perfect blend of presence, detail and power. Engeset’s excellent liner-note is a model of insight and information and it matches the quality of his work on the podium. All in all a very fine disc indeed and one that makes me keen to hear the other discs in the series so far and those yet to come.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey


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