Edvard GRIEG (1843-1907)
Incidental Music to Peer Gynt, Op 23 (1874-5, revised 1885, 1891-92 and 1902) [54:39]
Piano Concerto in A minor, Op 16 (1868, revised 1907) [28:21]
Lise Davidsen, Ann-Helen Moen, Victoria Nava (sopranos), Johannes Weisser (baritone),
Håkon Høgemo (Hardanger Fiddle),
Jean-Efflam Bavouzet (piano)
Bergen Pikekor; Bergen Guttekor; Edvard Grieg Ungdomskor; Edvard Grieg Kor;
Bergen Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Edward Gardner
rec. 2016 (Peer Gynt), 2017 (Piano Concerto), Grieghallen, Bergen
Full texts and translations included
Reviewed in Stereo and SACD multi-channel
CHANDOS CHSA5190 SACD [83:12]
The Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra have inevitably recorded the music of their best-known hometown son many times before, most comprehensively in an acclaimed series of recordings on BIS under the baton of Ole Kristian Ruud. A decade ago these discs were collected together in an 8CD box (BIS CD 1740/42 - Dominy Clements’ very positive review of this can be read here) which included the Piano Concerto with Noriko Ogawa and a two-hour redacted version of Ibsen’s play Peer Gynt (in Norwegian) interspersed with Grieg’s incidental music. The individual discs of both these works are still available and, like this Chandos newcomer, offer the option of SACD sound. The BIS issues set a high bar; the question is whether these new accounts offer any fresh insights in this repertoire. To be fair, the comparison is not exactly like-for-like. This single (83-minute!) disc offers the complete incidental music to Peer Gynt without the benefit (or some might argue disadvantage) of spoken dialogue, while the Piano Concerto gains from the advocacy of Jean-Efflam Bavouzet, a pianist who can do little wrong these days, if the critics are to be believed.
Turning first to the Piano Concerto (which actually follows Peer Gynt),
the problem that any critic has is that we all know, or think we know, how the
thing goes: and frankly, to my ears it’s not one of those works that can be
conjured up afresh in every new recording. I am very fond of it, but I feel
the same way about the Schumann concerto, arguably the piece with which it is
most often paired. Now this isn’t an observation I would ordinarily make about
a work simply because it’s regarded as a ‘warhorse’. To give four examples and
‘revelatory’ soloists - Tchaikovsky No 1 (the late Terence Judd, Matsuev);
Rachmaninov No 3 (Hough); Beethoven Nos 4 and 5 (Andsnes) show it is possible
for over-familiar piano concertos to be convincingly re-invented. Each of
these examples provided a wake-up call for me and permitted their
re-assessment. I would argue that Bavouzet’s two recent Mozart concerto discs
on Chandos (review
review) have done something similar but, while this is an excellent account of the Grieg, I do not feel he has quite repeated the trick.
However I am a staunch admirer of his work, and his playing here is typically virtuosic, natural and above all tasteful. Perhaps in its very compactness, Grieg’s work itself doesn’t really offer much latitude for any soloist to truly gamble and go beyond the tried and tested. Gardner doesn’t exactly rush the accompaniment in the outer movements, but they dart by pleasingly. The Bergen players obviously know the work backwards but there is never the hint of a run-through: they are clearly attentive to Gardner’s cajolings throughout, especially with regard to dynamics. Bavouzet finds a hint of freedom in the Adagio which is yearningly beautiful here, projecting a more nostalgic essence than usual perhaps – it’s certainly the highlight of this reading and it ends all too soon (admittedly I usually feel that way about the slow movement). The Concerto sounds well in its SACD guise too without revealing much more in the way of detail. The performance is likeable rather than sensational, one to which I will certainly return and which may yet yield as yet untold secrets on more intimate acquaintance.
If I seem a little restrained in my fervour for the Concerto, it is of course possible that I shouldn’t have listened to it straight after the splendid account of Peer Gynt, by which time I have to admit I was ‘Grieged out’. This is a brilliantly conceived, performed and recorded reading which is certainly to my mind much more digestible than the BIS epic. Its local colours and flavours are considerably enhanced by three terrific Norwegian sopranos, five local choirs (who at times make a tumultuous and fabulous din, notably during In the hall of the Mountain King – which impacts like some Nordic Polovtsian Dance, although I felt that the choirs were somewhat overwhelmed by the orchestra in the disc’s multi-channel guise) and most tellingly from its outset by Håkon Høgemo, an outstanding Hardanger fiddler (this is the native Norwegian fiddle with the four main strings supported by four or five ‘understrings’ – it has a very particular piquant and rustic twang). The orchestral opening has a lovely bloom. The emergence of the fiddler is wonderfully managed and Høgemo presents two brief but tangy solos.
The slow movements are particularly successful in this account of Peer Gynt. They occasionally get overlooked compared to the more obvious ‘lollipops’. Ingrid’s Lament receives a truly expressive, heartfelt rendition from the Bergensers, the sound-picture beautifully lit. Similarly, the touching string threnody of The Death of Åse at the beginning of Act 3 is superbly crafted, successive phrases presented with real care and conducted by Gardner with great skill. Ann-Helen Moen’s contributions as Solveig are an especial delight. Her vocalise in Solveig’s Song is airborne and affecting, Gardner’s accompaniment measured and sympathetic.
The three numbers from Act 5 vividly illustrate the attractions of the multi-channel layer. The drama and atmosphere of the storm in the Prelude is thrillingly caught, while the combined choirs in the brief but gorgeous Whitsun Hymn sing with both purity and power, with the SACD certainly enhancing their impact. Solveig’s Cradle Song, which closes the work epitomises Gardner’s way with this varied score, offering carefully considered dynamic contrasts which illuminate the clarity of the scoring without ever distracting from the flow of this gentle denouement. Ann-Helen Moen’s singing here is unforgettably poignant.
A word about the other two main soloists. Lise Davidsen’s turn as Anitra is appropriately earthy and assertive, while Johannes Weisser as the eponymous hero presents a rather light, airy baritone. Although he convincingly projects the Jack-the-Lad aspects of Peer’s character in the Peer Gynt and the Herd Girls scene in Act 1, his little Serenade in Act 4 could perhaps be a little more rugged. To be fair, all the soloists contribute little more than cameos, but in the context of the whole thing they add a delightful variety while Gardner’s attention to detail throughout the course of the 54 minute score ensures that the whole is an extremely enjoyable listening experience and well exceeds the sum of its parts.
Notwithstanding my minor reservations about the Piano Concerto, this is a luxuriously produced Grieg disc and one which deserves every success. One quibble about the presentation though – while the texts and translations are all present and correct, Erling Dahl’s accompanying notes read like a collection of interesting ‘factoids’ about the two pieces. With the best will in the world, they are insufficient in themselves. Why is there not even a synopsis for Peer Gynt? That, at least, is most un-Chandos-like.